“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

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

Susan and I just saw a great movie from the middle of the last decade (2005). Maybe you’ve seen it; if not, I recommend it highly. I consider it one of the best theological films of this century so far.

It’s called Elizabethtown, and is about a young man named Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) who fails so monumentally in his work that he wants to kill himself. But then a call comes that changes, and saves, his life.

The story follows the classic, archetypal course of the hero’s journey. Drew must go from his home in Oregon to a strange land (Kentucky, specifically, Elizabethtown) to complete a task for which he is totally unprepared. Along the way he meets a wise guide, Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who helps him navigate both the unfamiliar physical and emotional landscape. Living up to her name, she makes things clear for Drew, but not so much by telling him what he needs to know as by guiding him to discover the possibilities of life—his life–for himself. Drew, so prepared to end his existence, finds in and through his failure new possibilities.

One of the key themes of the film is remembrance and the different ways we do that. The climax of the story is a memorial, which features different characters recounting their experiences with the deceased. Earlier, Claire speaks an enigmatic line, which somehow feels to me central to the tale: “I’m impossible to forget, but I’m hard to remember.” What is the difference between not forgetting and remembering? I’m still trying to figure that one out!

Another theological theme is the Holy Spirit, present in unpredictable ways and at odd moments. I love the scene in the Brown Hotel ballroom where a special effect goes awry as the band Ruckus plays “Free Bird.” A gigantic white dove catches on fire as it flies across the room, setting off sprinklers, then crashes to the ground. Most people run. But Drew’s sister Heather (Judy Greer) stands under the shower from the sprinklers with oransher hands in the orans position (see picture for an ancient example) , eyes closed, as if being baptized. Is this rebirth what she has been yearning for? How do you and I respond when the Spirit comes in crazy ways?

It’ was interesting to see this movie while I’m reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, which also has to do with the hero’s journey. Rohr points out that it is through suffering that we move into the second half of life, our further journey. “One of the best kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight,” he writes, “is that the way up is the way down. Or if you prefer, the way down is the way up.” He continues: “The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further. Why would we?

“Normally a job, a fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured. The pattern is in fact so clear that one has to work rather hard, or be intellectually lazy, to miss the continual lesson” (xviii-xix).

The lesson from Rohr and from Elizabethtown is that God comes to us sideways, from sources we don’t expect, on a journey we did not or would not choose. He is not absent from suffering; in fact, it may be through the experience of loss, failure (even fiasco), sadness, and strangeness that his greatest lessons of the soul are taught and learned. As Claire urges Drew: “I want you to get into the deep, beautiful melancholy of everything that’s happened.”

God give us grace to receive what he gives.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham