“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Luke 17:33).

My small congregation has received four new members this year, from three different generations, and in the past month, I’ve baptized three children. So I’ve been thinking a good bit about how churches welcome new people.

That’s why a brief article in this week’s The Christian Century caught my eye and pointed me to the blog of the online journal Ministry Matters. In the August 13 post, Matt Rosine noted that churches are still trying to answer questions visitors aren’t asking:

  1. So how soon can I get involved with your committees?
  2. Can I get a longer bulletin—maybe something with more detail?
  3. Will you please single me out in front of all the people during worship this morning?
  4. Will you please send some "callers" by my house later and interrupt me while I fix dinner?
  5. Can you please seat us in those uncomfortable pews with our fidgety kids and aging parents?
  6. How quickly can I fill out a pledge card?
  7. Does this church have weekly meetings, rehearsals and other activities that will consume most of our family’s free time?
  8. I need more paperwork! Can you give me a folder filled with glossy pamphlets, old newsletters and denominational statements of belief?
  9. During the worship service, can someone with a monotone voice speak (at length) about all the insider church happenings and people’s private health matters? I find this so inspiring.

Of course, these are all the wrong questions, arising out of the congregation’s need to perpetuate itself as an institution through the accumulation of “nickels and noses” as a minister colleague of mine quipped recently. The questions I have discovered over my 35+ years of ministry that people are actually asking, no matter what their age, are all about finding a place to belong, a community that cares for them, a sense of continuity with what they have known in other places, hospitality to their spoken needs,  discernment about their unspoken ones, and a safe place to express their fears and doubts. They don’t want to be descended on, singled out or deluged with paper. They simply want to be cared for, valued for who they are (not as replacements for those who have died or departed to other churches), and welcomed with all their gifts and questions and ideas.

Jesus may have been talking about individuals in the Luke text cited at the beginning of this post, but his gracious warning and promise also applies to institutions. It is only when churches are willing to lose their lives for the sake of hospitality and mission that they will truly find them.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Source: http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/blog/entry/3151/nine-questions-church-visitors-arent-asking-but-churches-are-still-trying-to-answer


When I served as Associate Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Mobile, AL back in the day, I didn’t like it when I discovered that the policy of the Evangelism Committee was to show up on some unsuspecting newcomer’s doorstep on a Thursday evening and ask to come in to talk about the church. I said so to Mr. Corn, the chair of the committee, and suggested that it would be better to call first. But in his blustery, dismissive way, Corn just shot the idea down, drawing from his secular business experience in some kind of sales, saying that we would lose people if we tried to make appointments. Never mind the resentment we caused against well-meaning Christians who wanted to barge in and disturb somebody’s quiet evening!

The Jehovah’s Witness who showed up unannounced on our cabin porch on Lookout Mountain last weekend in Mentone, AL was of Mr. Corn’s ilk. When I opened the door a crack, she said “I know you’re on vacation, but I thought you might like something to read,” and handed me a tract. (In fact, I had plenty to read already, materials of my own choosing.) She left, heading out on her mission to bother all the other cabins on our road.

How in the world do people get such FUBAR notions about evangelism in their heads and hearts? Who is teaching them this stuff?! They certainly don’t get their methodology from the Bible, and especially not from Jesus. Do they really think invading someone’s space, violating their privacy, will create on opening for their viewpoints? How would anyone expect that another will regard as “good news” a message brought by a messenger who clearly has no respect for feelings or the need to be left alone, free of the assault of a zealous religionist?

Evangelism of the sort practiced by our Lord and his disciples has some key features that need to be followed by everyone, especially those whose method of preaching or “sharing” is to hit a stranger over the head with their big black Bible.

First, build a relationship and earn the right to be heard. I don’t have in mind a particular incident from our Lord’s ministry, but rather the whole character of his presence among us. The Gospel of John says he “dwelt” among us. And the same gospel emphasizes over and over the joy of staying (“abiding”) with Jesus. He’s constantly asking questions; engaging people of all sorts, whether haughty or humble; and on his final night, honors his disciples by calling them his friends.  He had become particularly close to three of them.

Spiritual life is about trust, first and foremost. Trust in God, made known in Christ, yes. But also trust in those who are your guides on the journey, those who will sit with you and talk about the things that matter most. You don’t do that by showing up on a doorstep or cold-calling on the phone or accosting somebody on the street or the campus with a tract. Instead, you tell your story, make yourself vulnerable and open to the gaze of someone else into your soul. Those who witness and run don’t do that.

Second, be honest and open. At his trial, Jesus said: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said” (John 18:20-21). Both the gift and demand of his message were clear. There’s even his encounter with the Canaanite woman in Matthew in which Jesus, with his honesty about his mission, risks alienating the one asking him for help.

By contrast, how many “evangelists” are deceptive? The JW at our door certainly was. Her tract did not even include a statement about which religious body produced it, except the very small print on the back about the “Watch Tower Society.” Hidden agendas abound with those who lure folks in with a free meal or a movie or a T-shirt. Or what I did in college with Campus Crusade for Christ (as it was then called): call up a student and ask to come by to take a survey. Trouble was, the “survey” was a ruse; results would actually never be published. The real goal was at the end of the survey to share the “Four Spiritual Laws” and try to get a convert. Instead of resorting to such tactics, just be up front about your intent, and those who are interested will respond. How honoring to Jesus, the Truth, is it to try to fool people?

Third, make sure what you share is really good news and not a way to promote some institutional agenda. Every now and again with cold-calling evangelism or the “Just As I Am,” “I-See-That-Hand” altar call, you might get a name on the roll of a church. But will you get a disciple, someone who is growing into a mature follower of Jesus? If you’re trying to build up the membership roll of an institution so you can boast about your attendance or your budget, you deserve to fail, and I trust God will not give success for such an unworthy goal. But if you are sharing a truly life-altering message of faith, hope, and love, justice and peace, serenity and fruitfulness, leading people into following Jesus on the way, then God will bless. Folks long to hear good news in these days when almost everything we hear on TV or see online is bad, and then it’s worse. Evangelism needs to proclaim the amazing new thing God is doing in Christ, that he will and can do in someone’s life. Then it’s an honorable endeavor.

Mr. Corn believed in evangelism by ambush. The JW at our door probably just thought she was doing good, offering something worth interrupting two people trying to get away from it all. Both would-be witnesses were misguided. Evangelism that’s worth the name and honors the Name has to be informed by how Jesus did it.  After all, the good news is about him. If he’s the one with all the answers, maybe we should listen to and learn from him as we set about to tell his story.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

Like most people these days, I want to get good value for my dollar. The best value, of course, is free. So I love Amazon.com for books, CDs, whatever, with their low minimum order for free shipping. Sweetwater.com, the online musical instrument store, is even better; every order ships free, from the cheapest accessory to the most expensive PRS guitar.

What I hate is the sort of free, like the offer from the Presbyterian Foundation for bulletin inserts for Wills Emphasis Sunday. The inserts are free with an *. When you check the note, you’re told that while the inserts are free, the shipping is not. So you end up paying probably $5-7 (if past experience is any indicator) for your inserts. A rep told me Monday that the Foundation did not offer the inserts for free PDF download. Not cool.

Food purchases are another area where you can get ripped off or, alternately, find really good value. For example, those typical chain burger places like Hardee’s and McDonald’s offer Angus burgers which are pretty good. But once you pay for a combo, especially if you substitute a shake or upsize to medium, you’ve dropped $8 or $9. For a burger, fries, and a drink! On the other hand, I ate at a popular Mexican restaurant in Amory, MS Sunday and got two pieces of catfish, rice, salad, sliced avocado, a whole jalapeno, flour tortillas, and all the chips and salsa I could eat, and the bill was, with tip, $7. Yes, I had water to drink, but I got a much better meal for less than I would have paid in a burger place.

As I congratulated myself on being a savvy food consumer, I began to wonder about whether churches offer good value, especially for church “shoppers” and “patrons,” AKA Sunday worship guests. What might be the “metrics,” as they say?

One would certainly be the sense a visitor has that he or she is receiving something beyond the expected. The typical (formerly) mainline worship service is pompous, dull, and wordy. But what if the language and music were fresh, the message relevant, and the rituals doorways into the mysterious presence of God? Suppose that instead of getting lectures in church school, members and guests could be part of small groups that tackled real issues from the news and daily home life. Wouldn’t such experiences add value and make attendance worthwhile?

Another would be the level of personal attention given to guests. I love Sweetwater for musical instruments because they assign a representative to each customer, someone whose name you know and can call on if you need gear or have a question. What if churches matched a mentor with every new member, ushers took time truly to greet and speak with guests instead of merely handing them a bulletin and guiding them to a pew, and the preacher handwrote a note or sent a personal email to each newcomer? Wouldn’t that set the church apart?

A final possible measurement might be the porousness of the congregation. By that I mean the openness of the church to new ideas, the ease with which new members move into the mainstream of the congregation’s life, and the number of “doors” and “windows” in the walls tenured leadership put up to keep newcomers and younger folk from the inner circle. In a Presbyterian church, an index of porousness might be the mix of men and women and long-term and newer members on the session (local governing body), as well as how many people under 35 or even 25 are serving on it. Another could be how flexible the terms of endowments are, so the money can actually be used for something when circumstances change. (I heard the other day in a meeting that endowment rules are made so strict by some people because they don’t trust their children and especially their grandchildren to administer the funds years from now!)

I am convinced that if newcomers and young adults sense that there is value in the church because they are valued, then they will be active. But if not, they’ll desert the church like video store renters switching to Netflix.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham


He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is” (Albert Schweitzer).

…their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16).


Recently CNN/HLN reported that Bob Dylan was stopped last month by police after someone called the authorities to report a “suspicious” man who might be a prowler. Apparently, Dylan, clad in a jacket with the hood up, was taking a walk in the rain before a performance and was looking in the windows of vacant houses for sale. The 24 year-old police officer who questioned him recognized his name when he gave it, but Dylan had no ID to prove who he was. The young woman only believed the legendary singer was who he claimed to be when they drove to his tour bus and everyone testified to his identity (see http://www.rollingstone.com/rockdaily/index.php/2009/08/17/outlaw-blues-bob-dylan-stopped-by-cops-after-suspicious-walk/).

It seems incredible to me that someone would look at that face we have been seeing since the ‘60s and not know it belonged to Bob Dylan. But then, the disciples failed to recognize Jesus on several occasions. Even Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener on Easter Day (John 20:14,15).

If you’re wondering why I’m spending time on a story about Bob Dylan, it’s because I see in it some clues about the difficulties people may have recognizing Jesus for who he is. It also helps us understand how the Church might better carry out the task of helping the world believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be.

First, Dylan was in a hood, mysterious and, to the caller, “suspicious.” Christ was once shrouded in mystery (“veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” as the hymn says). But now the mystery has been revealed (Romans 16:25,26; Ephesians 1:9 and elsewhere), and we are to make it known. Yet I wonder if we in the Church do not keep Christ hidden behind our jargon and ritual and most of all, by our inaction. The way people see the face of Christ is in our faces, feel his touch is through our touch, experience his welcome is through our welcome. If Christ is unknown, it is because we have stayed behind our walls, whether of stone or of fear, keeping him hidden. And when we have ventured out, we have not “lowered our hoods,” as it were, in order that the world may see the shining glory of Christ in us. Yet such revelation is precisely our calling. As the Scripture says: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Second, the young woman who questioned the rock star had little experience with him. She knew his name, but that was it. Given her generation, probably she was not particularly familiar with “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Positively 4th St.” If she had watched “Battlestar Galactica” on TV, she would have heard “All Along the Watchtower” several times, but may not have known it was written by Dylan. I doubt if she had seen a concert by, or read an article about, the singer.

What experience have our neighbors had with us as believers? Are we out and about, visible, involved, always available and helping when some need presents itself or there is some way we can contribute to the good of the community? And how is our public involvement perceived? The Church is to be the visible demonstration of what God intends for all humankind, the presence of Christ. Does our behavior lead others to think that Jesus was intolerant, judgmental, prejudiced, narrow, hurtful, and concerned with institutional maintenance and rules above all? Or do we reveal what our Lord was really like, the Jesus to whom the Scriptures testify—winsome; caring; concerned with the vulnerable and the marginalized; impatient with injustice and self-righteousness but helpful to those who admitted their need; and most of all, willing to give himself even for those who hated him? Encountering us, will people say "I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ” (Gandhi)? Or will their experience of Christ through us be positve and winning, a true reflection of our Savior?

Finally, the police officer eventually believed Dylan was who he claimed to be when those traveling with him bore witness to his identity. Of course, that is the key task of the Church: to bear witness. “And you shall be my witnesses,” commanded and promised Jesus (Acts 1:8). If we keep quiet, if our lives are not authentic representations of our Lord’s life, then he will remain as one unknown.

But God forbid that should happen. Let us tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Let us live as faithful disciples, truly following the Way (Acts 9:2).

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

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Note: Even as I celebrate the “Miracle on the Hudson” and draw lessons from Capt. Sullenberger’s work, I am aware that a commuter plane crashed last night into a neighborhood near Buffalo, NY, killing all aboard and one person on the ground. My prayers are with those families.


“Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).


“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isaiah 52:7).


Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger captured the imagination of everyone when he ditched his disabled Airbus airliner in the Hudson, saving the lives of his crew, 150 passengers, and who knows how many other people on the ground who would have perished had his plane crashed into one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. He is a hero, honored by his passengers, his hometown, his family, the President, the Super Bowl, the media, even note-writing strangers from around the globe.


Sullenberger’s interview with Katie Couric on “60 Minutes” last Sunday evening showed us again just what sort of man “Sully” is and why he deserves the label that has been put on him by so many. He provides an example of the kind of work ethic, composure, and humble spirit that are so desperately needed in these days. Contrast his demeanor and approach to his work with the outrageous and cowardly behavior of the CEO of the salmonella peanut company, who hid from authorities, then took the Fifth when questioned. Or the actions of the irresponsible fertility doctor who implanted eight embryos in an equally irresponsible woman who already had six children. (She now expects the public to pay for their support.) Or the schemes of the greedy Wall Street bankers and others who have brought us to the worst financial crisis in our land since the Great Depression.


Listening to “Sully” on TV and the Internet, I was impressed first of all with how confident and professional he is. In order safely to land his airliner in the Hudson, he had to accomplish simultaneously a number of difficult tasks, like keeping the wings exactly level and the nose up and maintaining a certain airspeed, all while remaining calm. He told Couric: “I was sure I could do it” and “I had a job to do.” What if all of us paid such attention to our work, focusing on doing our tasks well and in a “workmanlike manner,” as lawyers say? What sort of nation, churches, businesses, and families would we have?


Second, I was reminded how providence works. Couric said: “There couldn’t have been a better man for the job: a former Air Force fighter pilot who spent nearly 30 years flying commercial aircraft, specialized in accident investigations, and instructed flight crews on how to respond to emergencies in the air.” In the interview, “Sully” observed: “”I think, in many ways, as it turned out, my entire life up to that moment had been a preparation to handle that particular moment.” Isn’t it true that by virtue of training or personality or influence or whatever other resource is uniquely ours, God puts us in places where we can serve effectively and make a difference, whether it’s saving many lives or simply brightening someone’s day with a smile or a kind word?


Finally, I felt again the urgency of the need for good news in our world. A note to Capt. Sullenberger celebrated how he had brought a “wonderful day” in a “world that seems to be so full of bad news.” CBS’s “The Early Show” pondered whether the “Miracle on the Hudson” was “luck, fate…or grace.” And “Sully” himself, a reluctant and humble hero, summed up well: “Something in this episode has captured people’s imagination; they want good news, they want to feel hopeful again. If I can help in that way, I will.”


Are you listening, all you in the Church, followers of the One who came bringing Good News? Our task, our calling, is not to quibble and argue over words and standards and the maintenance of institutions. It is to bring good news in a world hungry for it; it’s to help people feel hopeful again. That is what “Sully” Sullenberger did in this one extraordinary act of courage, concentration, and competence. And that is our calling every day as our faithful lives demonstrate, and our winsome words proclaim, the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.  








© 2009 Tom Cheatham