During a question/answer session at a recent conference, I was asked, “What are the three things most important to having an effective and open ‘front door’ to the church?”
I was a little surprised. The question seemed to tip its hat to a very old book of mine – my first, actually – titled Opening the Front Door: Worship and Church Growth that came out way back in 1992. It detailed how weekend services had become the “front door” of the church for the unchurched, and that we should open that door with great intentionality.
I know … duh … but it was news over 20 years ago in relation to the emphasis put on things such as Sunday School.
It was actually a bit scandalous for its time. The foreword was written by a largely unknown pastor named Rick Warren, with a blurb on the back by an upstart Chicagoan named Bill Hybels. Some Southern Baptist guy named Thom Rainer wrote for it, too.
What a rat pack we were.
I found out later that the person asking the question had read the book, and was interested in how my thinking had changed about how best to “open” it 20-plus years later.
I was surprised at how quickly the answer formed in my mind. Now that I’ve had a while to reflect on that answer, I stand by it even more.
Here were the three:
1. An Atmosphere of Acceptance.
There are two words that are key here: atmosphere, and then acceptance.
Churches have cultures. A DNA, if you will. You want one that is accepting. If you are going to reach the unchurched, they are going to come unchurched.
That means they will come as couples living together, gay couples, pregnant outside of marriage, addicted, skeptical ... is that going to raise an eyebrow? Or is it met in stride in a way that makes the person feel instantly at ease?
At Meck, it’s just another day of normal.
But then there is the acceptance itself.
Acceptance is not affirmation, but it is an embrace. It involves starting where someone actually is, warts and all, and then loving them, caring for them, and enveloping them into the community.
This is more key than you might think.
It is one thing to create a welcoming atmosphere; it is another to actually wrap your arm around someone who is sin-stained and sin-soaked in an effort to lead them to the cross.
This is ministry in the trenches.
It means talking about marriage to those who are living together; it means helping teenagers with their addiction; it means working with a Christian wife who has a non-Christian husband who wants them to enter the “swinger” lifestyle; it means going as pastors to a house that seems to be demonically influenced; it means…
Do you really need me to go on?
An atmosphere of acceptance is also a culture of involvement and investment.
2. Cultural Translation.
The second dynamic needed is cultural translation. Let’s retire such words as “relevant” and “contemporary,” shall we? The heart of it all is a missionary enterprise: learn the language of the people, the music, the dress, the customs … and then translating the gospel for them.
Chase this with me for a moment...
If we were dropped into the deepest reaches of the Amazon basin as missionaries of the gospel to reach a specific tribe of people, we would attempt to learn the language, dress in a way that is appropriate, craft a worship experience that used indigenous instruments and styles, and work tirelessly to translate the Scriptures into their language.
Okay … our mission field is the West.
Are you doing the work of a missionary?
3. Truth and Grace.
Finally, we must convey both truth and grace in our proclamation.
Jesus accepted people, but didn’t affirm the life they lived in rebellion against Him. Jesus didn’t condemn them for what they did, but He didn’t condone what they did, either.
Grace and truth went together.
This is very, very important.
If you have truth without grace, you are left with nothing but condemnation.
If you have grace without truth, you are left with licentiousness.
Both are needed.
As John noted, “[Jesus] came...full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NIV).
Grace and truth; raw and unfiltered, powerful and vibrant, flowing and free. If you are the “woman at the well,” it would mean sitting down at the well and being radically accepted, but then getting asked about your sex life.
If you are the woman “caught in adultery,” it would mean having Him come to your defense when you are about to get stoned, but then hearing Him tell you that you really need to stop sleeping around.
Here’s our goal: talk and act like Jesus. Somehow, some way, He spoke prophetically against sin, but was still invited to keggers.
That’s what Jesus was about.
And what we should be about.
An atmosphere of acceptance, cultural translation, all served with truth and grace.
And yes, every weekend.
James Emery White
James Emery White, Opening the Front Door.
James Emery White, Rethinking the Church.
James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.