By Wissam Nasrallah
Inviting someone to come to church has long been a standing practice in evangelical churches. I have repeatedly heard pastors encourage and challenge their congregations not just to invite their friends to church but to (physically) bring them to church as well. The idea is simple: invite a friend, a coworker or a relative to come to church with you so that the professionals, or in most cases the sole professional, in the building can take care of them from the pulpit while the rest of us sit and hope that at some point they will raise a hand and be saved. Then, having invited someone to church, one can die in peace having “fulfilled his religious duties,” as we say in Arabic mo’adian wajibatihi al diniyeh (مؤديا واجباته الدينية) .
Many churches in the Middle East and elsewhere have adopted a “pulpit based” model of church, or what Warrick Farah and Alan Hirsch have called on this blog “a typical ecclesiology” model. The pulpit based model is where the pulpit becomes the bread-and-butter of pastoral ministry and church life. People come to a church space on Sunday, they worship, they listen (usually to the same person week after week), and then they go back home to their routines. Recently, instead of seizing the opportunity provided by COVID to rethink what it means to be a church, many Lebanese churches have added online elements to this model by sending pre-recorded messages on WhatsApp or Facebook for the congregation to hear.
This deeply ingrained approach is characterized by the unfortunate question we often hear when people ask someone where they go to church “عند مين بتحضر؟ ” A’nd meen btuhdar? : Whose church do you attend? Defining the church by who the pastor is reveals a profound misunderstanding of what the church should be and the role of each member within it. (In a previous blog I tackle the problem of flawed church culture that enables pastors to become untouchable celebrities).
Don’t get me wrong, people need to be fed well and I highly respect and appreciate faithful pastors and teachers who take the study of Scripture seriously and who spend time wrestling with the text in order to unpack the essential and necessary truths that are in the Word of God, words to convict, correct, build up, equip and sanctify God’s people.
However, when the sole activity/purpose of going to church becomes consuming a sermon, this means you can keep the habits acquired during pandemic lockdown of tuning in from the comfort of your home while sipping coffee in your pajamas.
Therefore, we need to shift our mentality from doing church to being church.
Although not an exhaustive list, I will mention three interrelated ways in which we can move towards this goal, with a particular focus on the third.
Continuing the third point, as Christians we often create insular sub-cultures that do not connect or relate meaningfully with the communities around us. Like the Pharisees in Luke 10:27, we often ask hesitatingly, “Who is my neighbor ?”.
Given the current circumstances in Lebanon, people need more than just a good sermon. They need a shoulder to lean on, a friend to open up to. They want someone who can support them, listen to them, and sincerely love them. When calamity or catastrophe hits, presence is more important than words. People might not remember a sermon but they will remember when you stood next to them during one of their bad days.
In other terms, instead of inviting people to church, let us take the church to people. Let us reflect Christ and live out the Gospel with both words and time. Presence and proclamation of the gospel go hand in hand.
Therefore, in a world of division we need be agents of reconciliation. In a world of distraction and “pathological busyness”, to use the term coined by Ronald Rolheiser, we need to have presence- real presence. In a world of one night stands we are to be invested emotionally. In a world of compliance and minimum requirements we are to love in a confounding way. In a world of programs, efficiency and speed, we need to invest in impractical and burdensome relationships. Indeed, our world tells us to spend time with those who can get us somewhere. Jesus tells us to spend time with those who will slow us down.
The truth is that living like this is costly, but loving others the way Jesus did was never meant to be easy or cheap. Because we, God’s collective Church, have experienced God’s presence and love in our lives first, we are all called and enabled to share that love with others.
If we really understand the full implication of the Gospel in our lives then we cannot be spectators of church. The gospel changes us inside out by transforming us into a nation of priests who are bringing the hope and restoration that is in Christ to people. God did not choose the smartest, the brightest or the most articulate to serve Him. The first disciples are the best examples of this. He has called you and me to be part of His great plan to redeem everything unto himself.
Wissam is Chief Operations Officer of LSESD. He writes at the intersection of faith, politics and economics.