When I was a kid, I enjoyed rearranging my bedroom. Every once in a while, I was overcome by an urge to completely rework the space. Nothing was wrong with the prior arrangement; I just wanted something new. I know my parents heard me shifting stuff around back there, but they didn't seem to mind. I pushed my bed across the room, shoved bookshelves into different corners, and reorganized the posters on my wall. Whenever I finished these renovations, I was brimming with pride over my visionary use of feng shui.
There was only one problem. No one else cared.
I had no siblings to invite for a tour. Plus, I lived far from town, so my circle of friends rarely congregated at my house. I believed I had created a thoroughly welcoming space, but few people would ever experience it.
Lately, I've realized the same dilemma plagues the local church. When it comes to our hospitality toward the wider community, we unwittingly operate from a "come and see" mindset. We push promotions and shove forward new programs in an attempt to draw people inside. Meanwhile, numerous research polls show that even as churches utilize cutting-edge technology to gain public attention, church attendance is steadily declining. Even the growth of large church bodies is primarily "switchers," people who simply jump from one congregation to another, rather than the result of genuine new relationships forged in the local community.
As pastor of The Church on the Hill (formerly Northeast Church), I have experienced this mindset first-hand. Having recently sold our old property and purchased new land across from West Jackson Middle School and Gum Springs Elementary School, I'm constantly asked by congregants and new acquaintances alike about our building plans. It's easy to respond from a "come and see" mentality - to talk about a state-of-the-art sanctuary with a seating capacity of this or that, or an interactive classroom environment for children, or an aesthetically pleasing multi-purpose space from which a dozen different ministries can operate.
But what does any of that matter if no one cares to see it? If we build only what our congregation needs, what have we accomplished other than an expensive room remodel? As I've said many times already in my sermons, what good is it to build a warm welcome space if we haven't first learned how to be warm, welcoming people? Isn't that an essential responsibility of a local church?
I believe churches should exemplify a commitment to caring for the local community. However, this isn't exclusively a religious practice. Whether we're talking about a church's presence in its community, or simply a person's presence among his or her neighbors, "come and see" is never as compelling as "go and be." On its own, "come and see" allows us to pretend we're hospitable without having to put our hands and feet into it. Throughout my 20 years of ministry, I've met a lot of well-intentioned folks who claimed they loved to entertain people in their home, yet I never once saw the inside of it, and whenever I would invite them over to mine, I learned their schedules were actually far too busy to accommodate such a visit.
We can get so caught up in arranging and re-arranging our own lives that we have little if any desire to welcome other people into them. Technology has made us remarkably efficient and productive, and yet we seem to have less and less time for actual community interaction. These days, we speak more to Alexa or Siri than to our neighbors. Groceries can be ordered online and picked up without ever having to set foot inside the store. Amazon leaves just about anything we could possibly want right on our doorsteps. Increasingly, as a result, our front porches are empty, our neighborhood encounters are fleeting, and involvement in community life is at an all-time low.
Recovering a sense of true community is no easy thing. But it starts with a willingness to consider how we can provide for the needs of others as much as our own. Sometimes this means pausing at your mailbox to ask your neighbor about his day. Sometimes it's engaging in a genuine conversation with the lady ringing up your purchase at Publix. And sometimes it's committing to design a church campus that strives to meet your community's needs, not merely your own.
From time to time, we all get those urges for something new. But when you get that itch to rearrange your schedule, don't forget to make some room for, well... for whatever opportunities might come your way. Because they're everywhere. We just have to shed the "come and see" mentality, step outside our doors, and take those chances when we see them.