What would people say if we weren’t here anymore? Would they miss us? Would they even notice?
I’ve asked these questions with parish vestries in conversations about what difference our church is making in our community, what kind of visibility we have, and whether our perception of who we are and what we do matches what others who are not a part of our church think of us.
What would the neighbors say? What do they say?
In South Africa, in conversations and in news reports, we have heard a lot of concern over “pop-up” churches, churches that spring up seemingly out of nowhere, very often not connected with any well-established church (I mean in terms of length of time in a community not in terms of relationship to the state or government). They’re often led by people without the credentials usually required by familiar denominations. Sometimes they’re led by people whose aim has not been faithful, who have taken advantage of or abused people who come to them. In South Africa, some of these churches have been led by charlatans who have come from outside South Africa so, we’ve heard, the country is limiting the number of, or perhaps will do away with altogether, charitable volunteer visas (the kind we are here on). It seems a clear example of some people misusing authority and office and making things harder for faithful people who are trying to serve others and faithfully follow their religious beliefs.
When we were in Zambia recently, we saw an article in the newspaper indicating that similar problems exist there:
This is the first time I’ve read about an appeal to government officials to stop the growth of churches because they are compromising morals (well, outside of early church history where people in Rome complained that Christians were atheists who engaged in cannibalism and incest).
Anyway, this caught my attention.
And, as happens often when I’m confronted with a different take on something, it makes me consider old ideas afresh. So, today I’m thinking again about the questions, What do the neighbors think? Would they miss us (the church, or any particular church) if we weren’t where we are, doing what we are doing? Would their lives get harder or easier, better or worse?
There are churches where their presence in the neighborhood is what makes it harder for some people to harm others or get away with it. There are churches where just the building or the cross on it, visible to the neighborhood, is a sign of hope and a reminder of love. And there are plenty of neighbors who don’t understand what church is.
A few years ago I received a letter from an angry neighbor. She and her husband lived near the church. They had retired in the community and, as she described it, had purchased their home, excited that it was near a church because it would be quiet, since churches only do things on Sunday mornings.
Well, she wrote, it is not quiet! People are at the church seven days a week! Some evenings, people are there until 10 PM (that would be AA and NA groups), and just about every day people arrive before 8 AM (those would be preschool teachers, staff, people coming to morning services on weekdays and weekends). Children play! Teenagers congregate! People drop things off and pick things up! (that would be food for hungry people) No! It is not quiet!
I invited her to talk in person, to come and find out what all the excitement was about. She had been sitting on this complaint for several years and I did feel badly that I didn’t know this neighbor and hadn’t had any meaningful conversation with her before.
I don’t want to make light of the problems with “mushrooming small churches” and people who can’t sleep because of not only bars and noisy prayer meetings (I would complain too), and I certainly don’t have sympathy for anyone “masquerading as pastors.”
But it makes me wonder for those of us who are trying to be faithful, to be the church, What do the neighbors say, and how might we who are church people do a better job of letting them know who we are, what we’re really up to, and why it’s a good thing that the church is here seven days a week?
A young woman came to the door of the church. It was evident she had been crying. I just need to talk with someone, she said. I don’t go to this church, but I need someone to talk with. I invited her in. I don’t go here, she repeated, but there’s one thing I know, you can always go to a church. They may not be able to fix things, but they have to care. That’s why they’re there.