The Sermon Starts in the Parking Lot

Is the message you’re sending nonbelievers and visitors to your church consistent?

Excerpted From
People Are the Mission
By Danny Franks

We preach plenty of messages from the stage that just don’t match what our guests experience on the sidewalk, in the lobby, in the auditorium and other places on campus. For example:

Onstage: “We serve a God who shows extravagant mercy.”

Offstage: “Hey pal, you’re sitting in my seat.”

Onstage: “Jesus met people right where they were.”

Offstage: “Good luck finding your own parking spot.”

Onstage: “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

Offstage: “Maybe you don’t realize this, but I’m a charter member, and the way we’ve always done it is . . .”

Does any of this sound familiar? Do your offstage messages complement or contradict your onstage messages?

Let’s say you invite a nonbelieving friend to your church. Maybe it’s your coworker four cubicles over who is an agnostic and is going through a divorce. You’ve been inviting her to church for months, but she’s skeptical of church people and organized religion. Or maybe it’s your neighbor who respects you but respectfully disagrees with your brand of spirituality. At best you’re the friendly—but misguided—neighborhood Bible thumper. (Unless you read your Bible on your electronic device, which makes you an app tapper.) At worst you’re the guy who will trick his kids into joining your cult.

These are people you may have been investing in for years, dripping gospel truth into casual conversation, praying that their hearts will be awakened to their need for Jesus. And finally, after multiple invitations, they decide to attend a church service with you.

So when Sunday comes, you’re on high alert. You’re seeing what they see, feeling what they feel and experiencing what they experience. You’re processing everything they hear from “Hello” to hellfire and brimstone. And you’re picking up on every single detail that could potentially offend them and undo the investment you’ve made in their life. When one of your unchurched friends shows up at your church, you might find yourself painfully aware of discrepancies from the sidewalk to the stage.

If your guests show up on an average weekend where average things happen, what will they see? What will they think? What will they feel? If they’re skeptical or agnostic, they need one excuse—­only one—­to turn away from your church. What if that one excuse is that they perceive your church as messy, disorganized and uninviting? What if they think your friends are not friendly? What if your friends come across as too friendly?

Peeling paint and a weedy flowerbed shouldn’t matter, but they do. One rude greeter shouldn’t offset the 99 kind ones, but he does. One inattentive kids’ worker, one misspelled lyric on a slide, one overeager membership sales pitch—all of those things speak. And any one of them could be the thing that turns your friend away from your church and away from the gospel.

Now to be clear: That doesn’t mean that we are taking the full mantle of life change on ourselves. When we rely on the Holy Spirit to change hearts, it frees us from the failures of our environment. One inconsistent experience or one off-­kilter greeter doesn’t cause the kingdom to implode. We don’t want environments to fail, but when they do, it doesn’t diminish the ability of the Spirit to change someone’s life. We don’t aim for mediocrity, but if we occasionally hit it, the power of the Spirit can still overcome our lack of excellence. The message of hope from the pulpit is far more important than the perfectly brewed cup of coffee from the lobby cafe.

So we have to ask the hard questions about the sidewalk messages at our church. While it may be true that your pastor’s sermon is the crowning moment of the weekend experience, it’s not the first moment. And the discrepancies our guests see may more than offset the sermon they hear. We have to poke around on every offstage detail and ask, “Does this add to or take away from the message of the gospel?” We have to make sure that the message before and after the message is consistent, complementary and coherent.

Before we move to the next section, I want to offer a word of caution: If you’re a part of a smaller church with little or no staff, a small budget and a nonexistent volunteer team, don’t get discouraged at this point. Whether your weekend attendance is 50 or 5,000, my challenge is start where you are. The people around us are at the center point of God’s mission for our churches, regardless of size. Take what God has given you and trust him to multiply it for his kingdom. Biblical hospitality doesn’t need a spot on the staff organizational chart or a line in the annual budget to thrive. Simply take God’s kindness toward you and begin translating that into the lives of others.

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