“So how have you enjoyed our church?” asked Pastor Fred. He was the evangelism pastor for First Community Church, and he was out following up with recent visitors.
“It was interesting,” said Ed noncommittally. Ed had taken his family to First Community Church two out of the last four weeks, and had said that any Saturday afternoon would do for a visit when he filled out the visitor form.
“We were delighted that you chose to come back and visit us a second time,” said Fred.
“I like to get acquainted when I’m considering any major purchase, whether it’s a new car, a club, or in this case a church.”
There was an pause as Fred tried to absorb this. He knew people shopped for churches. He just wasn’t used to having anyone put it quite that bluntly. Just as the pause was becoming awkward, the doorbell rang. Ed got up and soon returned with Pastor George, the associate minister at First Fellowship Church. Fred and George were friendly rivals. Both churches were large and growing. This was the first time they’d ended up visiting a prospective member at the same time.
“I didn’t mean to intrude,” said George. “I can come back another time when you’re not occupied.”
“I don’t see why I can’t talk to both of you at once.” Ed looked puzzled that anyone could see a problem with this. “I’ve visited each of your churches twice. I didn’t plan to get you here at the same time, though I suppose it was always possible considering I put Saturday afternoon as the best time to visit.”
Fred and George looked at one another and then shrugged. “I guess it’s OK,” said Fred with a slightly forced smile. In fact, he was thinking that he would have to watch some of the things he usually said about First Fellowship. George might take exception!
“Where’s the rest of your family?” asked George.
“It’s hard to get this family in one place. My son’s at a school fundraising project, and my wife and daughter are at swimming class. Don’t worry, they’ll have their input. I’ll tell them what you had to say.”
Fred saw his opening. “One of the reasons I felt that your family would fit well at First Community is his community involvement. His Sunday School teacher mentioned to me that he knew many of our young people from various activities.”
“Yes,” said Ed, “he did mention how many of the young people he knew. My wife and I knew many people in our class as well. We would certainly see plenty of people we already know if we join First Community.”
“We like to encourage networking through the church. Many of our people make the church the center of their social and business life. We like to think we’re a church for all your family’s needs.”
George thought he saw an opening. It was his chief objection to his friendly rival’s church. What about spiritual needs? In fact, since both churches claimed to be Christian, what about Christ? He was about to open his mouth to say this, despite how confrontational it sounded, when Ed spoke again.
“But what about our spiritual needs? Our Sunday School class discussed building a house for Habitat. That’s a good thing, but I’m already involved. My son’s class talked about toleration and how to get along with others at school and at work. Your senior pastor’s sermon had to do with facing life’s problems, but I heard something like it at a sales motivational meeting I attended recently.”
George was feeling pretty good. It was what he wanted to say, but much more direct and complete with details.
“We definitely believe in Jesus as our Savior at First Community,” said Fred, “but we think it’s important to be active in living out God’s kingdom in the world. We’re about action and the way that real people live their lives. We try to have messages that will help you make it through the next week.”
George couldn’t leave this alone. “At First Fellowship,” he said passionately, “We are interested in messages that will help you live for eternity. We think that if you make Jesus Christ first in your life, these other things will come along quite well.”
“But they don’t happen by themselves,” said Fred. “You have to be active. Just saying that Jesus died for our sins over and over every week doesn’t tell people how they’re going to deal with being laid off, finding a new job, raising their kids, or helping their neighbors.” He knew he should keep calm and be gracious, but he felt that he was under attack, and quite unfair attack.
“Actually I’m quite satisfied that both your churches are very involved in the community. I did my research before I took my family to visit. I know you’re both involved in missions. You both do local service projects. Members of both churches are very much involved in the community.” He paused a moment.
“But what good is all of this if we don’t preach Christ?” George regretted this as soon as he had said it. He’d say something like this to Fred over lunch, where he’d joke about Christianity Lite, but this was not a debate to have with a prospective member, especially one who didn’t seem to have any solid theological commitment.
“That’s my question about your church,” said Ed, looking at George. There was stunned silence. Nobody questioned that Christ was preached at First Fellowship. They might complain about a certain doctrinal narrowness, and perhaps even a bit of evangelistic shrillness, but they wouldn’t say Christ wasn’t preached.
“I don’t understand,” said George.
“Well, the first time we visited was just before the ruling on the Affordable Care Act was announced. Our Sunday School class was supposed to be studying Romans 6, but instead we discussed the health care bill.” Fred was happy to note that Ed called it the Affordable Care Act. George was worried that he hadn’t called it Obamacare. “We didn’t really get around to discussing Romans 6 at all.”
“The second time we visited,” he continued, “we were supposed to be on Romans 8. I can only imagine they just continued moving through the book even though we hadn’t discussed it. But now the Supreme Court had ruled, and we discussed the ruling. I had done my reading and I wanted someone to explain how Romans 8 related to Romans 7. Instead I got a critique of Justice Roberts’ logic in the decision. I didn’t say anything, because I gathered that someone who thought the ACA was a good idea wouldn’t really be welcome.
“In the youth class they talked about homosexuality and how wrong it was. It was not done too badly. They spoke out against bullying and told the youth to treat their gay friends well, pray for them, and hope to save them. I’m not sure what was up in my daughter’s class. They did an art project relating to the name ‘Jesus’, but she couldn’t tell me what she had learned.
“Then there was the sermon, which was supposed to be from John 15, but quickly go derailed onto politics. I quit counting the number of times the pastor said he wasn’t telling us who to vote for, but he clearly didn’t mean it, because we could definitely tell we were not to vote for President Obama’s re-election.”
“I’ve frequently pointed out that First Fellowship tends to be politically narrow,” said Fred. “If you don’t accept the politics of the church you won’t be welcome, even if you agree with the theology.”
George wanted to be angry, but he realized it was no more pointed than what he had said about First Community.
But Ed wasn’t nearly as kind, apparently. “I wouldn’t put it that way,” he said. “Even though we didn’t discuss the ACA in class, someone brought it up in the hall and when I mentioned a question I had about the constitutionality of the individual mandate, several people turned away and didn’t want to talk to me any more. At my work place we debate this kind of thing all the time and we stay friends. Couldn’t we do the same thing at church?”
“We really should,” said Fred. “But people are people.”
“But why are they more tense at church then they are in the workplace?” asked Ed.
“I don’t know,” said George. “But you do have a point.”
“My problem,” said Ed, “is that I’d like a place where my children could learn about what Christianity is about without either having it rammed down their throats or having it ignored. I’d like a Sunday School class where I could find out just what Paul was up to moving from Romans 6 to 7 to 8. It doesn’t quite make sense, and I’d like to figure it out. Romans 8 sounds exciting!
“I’d like to find a church that was involved in the community, but that didn’t expect my whole life to center around what the church was doing. My whole family gets involved in community service. The church doesn’t have to own everything. I’d like to be able to talk about ethics and spiritual things and how they would impact my vote without having people condemn me if I end up voting differently than they do.
“Can either of you recommend a church to me that will meet those needs?”