Building a Front Porch

This blog first appeared on the Faith and Leadership website.

It won’t be news to most church leaders that the consumerism that has become a part of the cultural ethos of North America has infiltrated our congregations.

Lay leaders who are making stewardship calls may field complaints that the church “isn’t meeting my needs.”

Clergy may find themselves trying to figure out how to talk about a wedding as a service of worship when it is pretty clear that the couple see it as a celebration of themselves.

Educators and church school teachers may find themselves pressed by parents whose main criterion is finding a church where their children “have fun.”

Researcher George Barna recently observed: “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs — our clothing, our food, our education. Now it’s our religion.”
Both mainline and evangelical leaders are expressing concern about consumerization of religion and church, and leaders find themselves trying to walk a narrow edge.

How can church be relevant and engaging but also avoid turning the priesthood of all believers into the company of all consumers, in which a small number of staff and lay leaders produce something called “ministry” that others consume?

My own reflection on this is that in a society that has a growing number of un- and de-churched people, we do need to meet people where they are. But meeting them there doesn’t mean leaving them there.

Instead, it seems to me that the task of the church is, in the words of Alban consultant Dan Hotchkiss, “to teach people to want things that they don’t want.” People may come our way looking for a great youth program for their teens or for a “spiritual experience” that is satisfying to them. It’s a place to start.

But from that starting point, a healthy church, one that takes the gospel and Christ’s call to discipleship seriously, will teach people to want things that they don’t — or didn’t know to — want.
What might those things be? Well, worship, for one. Over time, our task is to reframe the expectation that worship will be an entertainment experience, to teach people the particular nature of worship, of encounter with God, of going deeper. Through this deeper experience, people who didn’t know to want such worship may discover that they cannot live without it — indeed, that they cannot live without the God they encounter in worship.

But what about those so turned off by traditional worship that even this isn’t possible? I like the metaphor of the front porch, an intermediate space between street and interior, a place for casual interaction that might grow.

How can churches build the front porch, creating a space where people can develop relationships before coming inside?

For some churches this has been through a seeker service, but there are other options. Quest Church in Seattle meets people through its coffee shop; Phinney Ridge Lutheran in Seattle, through its 21st-century catechumenate ministry, “The Way.” Other churches have built a figurative front porch by putting on an annual community fair, with activities for kids and families — but as a gift to the community, not a fundraiser.

Still others connect with people through community projects that welcome and invite participation by members and nonmembers alike. Denominational leaders can help by encouraging churches to build and experiment with such “front porches.”

Service ministries are another place where church leaders can bring people along. Initially, the impulse for participation might be no more than to be good citizens or even to burnish a college application.

But on a mission trip or a Habitat for Humanity build, people might discover something more, something they never expected. They might learn from those they serve, not only giving gifts but receiving them as well. They might even find themselves being served in mysterious ways as they serve others. They might learn to want to see the world through the eyes of the poor, the marginal, the recovering.

In a society as heavily soaked in consumerism and entitlement as ours, Christian faith and formation are, in some measure, detox operations. We start with people where they are, but we don’t leave them there. We teach people to want things they don’t want, things they didn’t know to want: the living God, the call of Christ to “follow me,” and the encounter with God and others that occurs outside our comfort zones.

We may, over time, help people to see that one of our most basic needs is to get over our needs, to get over ourselves — indeed, to “lose ourselves.”

But first we can welcome them onto the porch.