One fact that is overwhelmingly clear in Burlington and throughout Vermont is that people are not interested in church. Check out the stats:
*According to a 2008 Gallup Poll, Vermont is the least religious state in the US.
*A 2009 Pew Forum study ranked Vermont last in areas such as “importance of religion” and “belief in God,” while being tied for second to last in “worship attendance.”
*According to the to the North American Religion Atlas less than 3% of the state’s population are “evangelical adherents.”
*Even Men’s Health magazine rated Burlington as the least religious US city.
If you’re a Christian living in Burlington or a similar community, you’ve probably tried to invite a friend to attend a church worship service. You’ve also probably had the experience of watching your friend respond with awkwardness, discomfort, and possibly disdain. Based on their response you might as well have asked do you want a rash?
I recognize the general approach of most churches is to focus on the worship service as the “front door” to the church, but how many nonChristians in a post-Christian culture are really interested in attending a worship service? We can have a rocking band, challenging teaching, excellent ministry teams, and engaging people but the bottom line is nonChristians just are not interested and therefore will not experience those elements. Why? Because inviting a nonChristian friend to a Sunday worship service is like asking them if they want a “Jesus rash.” We may be promoting how the church is contemporary, relevant, missional, authentic, etc., but all our friends are hearing is rash, rash, rash… would you like to catch the same rash I have. They’re thinking why would I want something that will make me feel uncomfortable and cause people to look at me funny?
I am not ignorant of the fact that there are still places where you can draw significant numbers of people in with an innovative gospel centered worship service. In the college town of Tuscaloosa near the University of Alabama, you can draw in 1000 college students on a Wednesday night using this methodology. In suburban Atlanta, GA, you can rent out a school, assemble the band, do the mass mailing, put a cross out front, and expect a crowd on the first Sunday. In a post-Christian community like Burlington you’d be wasting your time, energy, and resources.
SO what should we do then? Maybe we could go back to two very simple approaches we see in scripture:
1) Authentic Relationships. Throughout the New Testament we see relationships as the primary conduit for discipleship and the spread of the gospel. Look in the gospels at how Jesus invested in the lives of twelve men. Scan through the book of Acts where the early Christian movement goes viral, moving from household to household through friends, family members, and coworkers. The same principle is at work today. The Institute for American Church Growth did a survey of 14,000 people of a wide variety of church and denomination backgrounds. They asked what or who was responsible for people coming to saving faith in Christ and connecting to a church. Here are some of their findings:
1% – Special need
5%- Pastoral relationship
4%- Sunday School or Sunday morning Bible study
1%- Evangelistic Crusade
2%- Church Program
84% – relationship through friend or relative
2) Sacrificial Service. This is Jesus 101. Jesus stated with incredible clarity in Luke 20:28, the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Jesus always sent out his disciples with a two pronged approach to ministry: heal and proclaim the kingdom (Luke 9 and 10). The way Jesus led his disciples to share the gospel involved serving and speaking, works and words. God uses our sacrificial service to soften people’s heart to His message. The problem for us is that we cannot truly serve others from a safe distance. Serving others will lead to messiness and sometimes even pain in our own lives.
This leads to several ways you can pray for us:
*On Sunday, March 13, we kick off our initial Home Fellowship. Please pray that we will quickly cultivate authentic relationships with each other and grow into a real spiritual family.
*As people join our Home Fellowship, pray that we’d all sense how God wants to work through our relationships with friends, family, and co-workers. Pray that we’d be sensitive to opportunities to share the gospel through serving and speaking.
*God is opening a door for our Home Fellowship to teach English in a predominately Somalian apartment community. Pray for wisdom in bridging the language barrier, the Muslim-Christian barrier, and learning how to best serve the refugee community.
*The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program has asked Christin and I to be “family friends” to a Bhutanese family which has recently immigrated from Nepal. Pray for wisdom concerning how to best serve this family as they adjust to life in America.
*Pray that God would show us how to best represent Jesus to a community that is disinterested in church, resistant to the gospel, and has misguided ideas about who Jesus is and what he is about.
As always, thank you for your prayers.