I went to a retreat this past weekend with about 40 other Presbyterians. The Rev. Dr. Eric H. F. Law was the keynote—an Episcopalian priest and founder of Kaleidoscope Institute in Los Angeles. The institute was born out of his own Christian journey of trying “to address race and diversity issues in faithful and constructive ways.” I had never heard of Eric Law prior to this two-day retreat, but I soon realized that I have been exposed to his work for many years.
It was an amazing retreat that helped bring into focus much of what I have been struggling with for years, both professionally and personally. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (more information about the PC(USA) can be found by clicking here), along with most Christian denominations these past several decades, has been shrinking by some 30,000 or more people every year. There are a multitude of reasons that have been thrown around as to why. I have heard it said that if you get a 100 people in a room, they’ll give you 1,000 reasons why we’re shrinking. But this weekend something was brought into sharper focus for me. We have forgotten how to be “friends.”
In Scripture we read how Jesus tried to be a friend to a lot of people—especially people who didn’t really have very many friends. But church-folk so often do not befriend people without some ulterior motive. For years I have heard preachers try to encourage their members to invite friends to church. “Let’s fill these pews,” they tell their often-times not-so-eager congregations. I have heard people in these congregations respond privately that they are just not comfortable inviting people to church.
I remember in the first church I served I had a conversation around this very issue. The pastor (I was the associate pastor) had convinced the session (the church board in Presbyterian-ese) to host a “Bring a Friend to Church Day” one Sunday. For weeks we heard announcements about this big day when everyone was invited to bring at least one person to church. The day came. Our attendance, which averaged around 300 people, jumped by a whopping 20 people!
I asked the pastor why we wanted people to invite their friends. “For what purpose?” I kept asking. He must have thought I was severely misguided. “Why wouldn’t we want to invite our friends to Church?” he would respond.
“I know it’s a good thing, I’m not questioning that,” I said during one conversation. “I just want to know if we have thought about what the reason is? Why do we want to do this?”
He finally responded, after weeks of my badgering him, “Because we want to fill the sanctuary, so that we can fill the offering plates, so we can do more of God’s work.”
I was not satisfied—admittedly, many will tell you I am rarely satisfied. There was something else more basal that I was searching for. In my last position as pastor of a small, rural congregation, I worked very hard to try to get them to think outside the box and beyond our own congregational needs. I tried to help them see the community outside as the place where we need to be living our Christian faith, not just talking about it. In fact, I would often times tell them to stop talking about it and just live it—let your life be the gospel! I would tell the session (remember? Presbyterian-ese for church board), “We are not in the business of First United Church, we are in the business of the Kingdom of God here and now.” So if someone came to visit our church, but ended up finding a spiritual home at another church, we should celebrate that they found a place to grow and connect to Our Creator. This line of thinking did not go over well, especially when I successfully helped people find other churches that better suited their needs and desires.
Well, this weekend it finally hit me why I was so anxious about the “Bring a Friend to Church Sunday”, and why I have struggled so much with all the gimmicks we so often do in churches to try to “get” people into Church. We have forgotten how to just be friends with people! We have forgotten how to shed our ulterior motives (of filling the pews, making budget, growing the budget, making cool graphs that show we’re growing, etc.), and just be a friend.
Eric Law emphasized that the primary focus of our going out into our neighborhoods, or organizing ministries within our churches that reach out beyond the walls of our buildings, is to simply offer friendship, whether or not the people we serve ever darken the doorways of our church buildings. We are called in our journey to follow Jesus to simply be friends, especially to the friendless.
Eric talks about a model whereby we speak to people’s fears in order to invite them into relationship with us, both as individuals and as a community of faith, in order to invite them to simply experience the grace of friendship. He calls it the Margin of Grace—the margin between fear and ritualizing their commitment to our friendship by actually coming and participating in our community of friendship, the Church. Specifically, he talks about our call, as Christians, to be relational, authentic, and inclusive. Why? Because that is what Christ calls us to do and be.
We live in a very scary world. In the town in which I live it can be particularly scary. Most of the people who live here are wonderful people. Unfortunately, it only takes a few to instill fear in people’s hearts and minds, and that is exactly what has happened. People are so afraid, they’re afraid to even be friends or welcome a friendly smile!
I serve as pastor on campus at a local high school (a volunteer position). I am on campus almost every Tuesday. Just like the community, a very small number of students make it a very scary place sometimes. This small number of students are not always nice to me. In fact, some can be down right rude. But, most are very respectful, and even curious why I’m there. I am very clear to tell them I am simply there to be a friend—I am not there to convert anyone, or preach a certain religion, or try to convince anyone of anything. I simply there to be a friend. As a result, I truly believe I am earning their trust and the privilege of being a friend (an adult friend, mind you, with all the responsibility to be mature in those relationships, but a friend none-the-less).
Once per week I go over to the local high school and walk around on campus at lunch time. I wear my clerical collar and simply smile and say hi to the youth. I don’t try to talk or act or dress like them. I am not a teenager. I am simply someone who cares. I take very seriously the responsibility of being a friend to people who often have no one they can trust. I try to authentically be who I am (besides, youth these days are very shrewd and can see right through anyone who is inauthentic). And I try to be clear with them that I am an adult, but I am also on a journey just like them.
In all likelihood, none of these mostly non-white students will ever come to our mostly white, mostly middle and upper class, and mostly well educated congregation. They probably will never come to our youth group. And they will most likely never give any money to our church budget. And you know what? I don’t care! That’s not why I am there. That’s not why I greet the people who start lining up at 5:00 a.m. or earlier to get food on the third Saturday of the month. That’s not why I try to walk the neighborhood around our church buildings whenever I get a chance.
I would love it if the people I meet came and became part of our community of faith, but that is not why I do it. I do it because Jesus showed me what it meant to be a friend, a true friend. And that is the kind of friend I want to be—someone who is trustworthy, someone who loves not so I can earn God-points, but because I genuinely care, someone who reaches out without any expectation or need for someone to reach back. I do it because I have experienced the love of God, and simply want to share it. That’s it. It is not only the margin of grace between fear and welcome, it is grace in the margins of our wider community.