“Could someone please pass the chicken?”

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” ( Acts 2:42-47)

Andrew Nelson Lytle wrote in his seminal work, “A Wake for the Living”, that back in the earliest days of the twentieth century if someone from the industrialized North met you for the first time, the question they would most likely ask you would be “What kind of work do you do?”

Lytle then wrote that to the contrary, folks from the agricultural South would likely introduce themselves with one of two questions:  “Where are you from?” or “Who is your daddy (or mama)?”  Southerners moved at a different pace, and were less concerned with vocation, leaning more toward interest in place and relationship.  Connection was the priority.

Our culture has changed significantly over the years, and a more transient population has blurred some of the lines between North and South, and the industrial, consumer mindset has become a part of even our rural areas..  Today, people are more concerned with “doing”, “producing”, and “obtaining” than “being connected”.  The attitude has even infiltrated our churches.  Think about it…How does your church measure itself? By productivity?  Or connectedness?

In the church of my youth, the Attendance Board was the tool used to measure the church.  It hung in a hallway that connected the sanctuary to the Sunday School rooms and Fellowship Hall.  Everyone that attended would likely pass by it.  The board contained numbers from the prior Sunday, including attendance for Sunday School, attendance for the worship service, and how much the offering was during each of these times.  We actually took up three offerings each Sunday: One before Sunday School, when birthdays were acknowledged.  Little kids would put change equivalent to their age (10 years old = 10 cents) in a small, church building shaped offering box while the congregation sang “Happy Birthday”;  Adults would usually do the same, but in dollars.

We then took up an offering during Sunday School, and finally the “general offering” during the worship service.  Brotha, we knew how to pass a plate back in the day!

The attendance board of my youth has today become a monster. Churches most often measure themselves in the same way western culture measures success: by productivity.  The old board has been enhanced and “improved” with pie charts, line graphs, and budget reports that only an accountant could understand.   One post-modern evangelical church I served at measures the following on a consistent basis:

– Worship service attendance

– Sunday School attendance (Whether you call it “Connections”, “Life Groups”, or whatever the latest catch phrase is, folks, it’s still “Sunday School”…)

– Discipleship classes attendance (usually on Sunday night)

– Prayer Service attendance (Wednesday nights for adults)

– Awana attendance (for elementary school-aged kids)

– Youth group attendance (for teens)

– Number of volunteers serving during each of the aforementioned

– Number of individuals served during special outreaches (toy, clothing, food giveaways)

– Inventory of products given out during special outreaches (number of toys, boxes of food, etc.)

– Number of volunteers serving during special outreaches

– Offerings during worship services

– Offerings to special funds (building fund, in particular)

– Number of domestic missionaries supported, and dollar amounts given on a monthly basis

– Number of foreign missionaries supported, and dollar amounts given on a monthly basis

– Number of people who receive Christ as Savior during Sunday morning worship

– Number of people baptized during Sunday worship

– Expenditures according to line item budgets for each ministry in the church (tallied on a weekly basis, with each ministry leader receiving a monthly report).  These included Awana, which is divided into 4 different age groups; Children’s Church, Children’s SS, Nursery, and VBS; Youth; Grief ministry; a ministry to internationals living in the local area, which was divided into two ministries in order to offer ESOL; Missions; Worship (the band); Men’s ministry; Women’s ministry; College ministry; Celebrate Recovery; etc.  Lord have mercy, you need a full-time accountant for children’s ministry alone!

– Number of church attendees contacted by deacons each month.  Each of the 12 deacons in the church was responsible for 12 households (because 12 is a good Biblical number, you know…), whom they were required to make at least phone contact with on a monthly basis, and record their activity on a spreadsheet.  The deacons were also given Sunday morning and Wednesday night attendance records for each of their assigned households, so they could inquire as to whether there any problems when people missed church, or if a child or teen in the family wasn’t attending the ministry that was age-appropriate for them.

– Number of home groups (divided according to geographic area)

– Number of attendees at home groups

– Number of volunteers hosting home groups

– Number of visitors on Sunday mornings

– Contacts made with visitors

– Attendees and visitors are also divided and counted according to their zip codes, so the church can measure where it needs to be doing more outreach.

This isn’t even all, and my head is swimming.  If this church, and many others, were to get a visit from Robert Irvine and “Restaurant Impossible”, it’s likely he would chastise the church leadership, saying something along the lines of “How in the world are you supposed to adequately serve the people sitting out there, waiting to be fed?  How are you supposed to build relationships with consumers of the product you offer, when you can’t even figure out what kind of diner you are?  Look at your menu!  It’s out of control!  Burritos and fried catfish?  Are you a drug rehab center or a social service agency?  Grilled cheese with prime rib?    Are you a place of worship, or are you a widget factory, constructing a difficult to define item, measuring productivity in terms of numbers and budgets?”

“Before you can connect with the people who will keep your operation afloat, you’ve got to create integrity within yourself.  Build on your strengths.  Focus your energies.  Define and know who you are.  Figure out what you’re really good at, and do it!  Don’t put up billboards on the other side of town, hoping to reach people who would drive past twenty other establishments just like yours to get to this place.  That’s not an ‘unreached area’ just because those people don’t come here to be fed.  They’re eating somewhere else!  Focus your energy on a small, well-defined area.   Whittle down the menu.   You’re all over the place!”

This particular church was the result of church split.  The splinter group planted this church body only a few miles from their old church body.  The new congregation has experienced at least two more significant divisions in the past 10-15 years, with many congregants returning to the church from which they initially split, and others moving on to plant yet another new church in the local area.

Now, the people at this church aren’t bad people, nor is the leadership suffering from lack of sincerity or talent.  In fact, they’re known as one of the more vital churches in our area, and provide some needed services to the community.  To me, though, this particular church is living proof that connection is difficult to build, tough to maintain, and even harder than that to quantify.  If I approached the pastor of this particular church, and asked how they were building lasting relationships within their congregation, he would undoubtedly launch into a list of the ministries they offer, focusing on the small group opportunities, which are many.  Any pastor would do the same,  because it’s easy to demonstrate the value of your ministry with a product list.  You can’t quantify caring with a chart or list of accomplishments, though.  You can’t place a number value on loving your neighbor.

Unfortunately, you don’t impress “seekers”, or people looking for a church, by saying your church will care for them.  They’re thinking like consumers of a product, looking for programs for themselves and their children to participate in.  And because “seekers” are thinking like consumers of a product, churches are acting like they’re producers of a brand, hoping that their brand is more appealing than Church B down the road.   We’re all in competition with each other, aren’t we?

Aren’t we?

If you are someone who is looking for a church, I’m going to suggest that you look for something different when you’re visiting churches, something other than a product you might consume.  Along the same lines, I’m going to suggest some concepts to leaders of church bodies, some things to think about when you’re building a congregation.  Keep in mind that I didn’t say building a program, building a campus, or building a legacy.  I said building a congregation, a group of people who will, as the baptism liturgy says, “surround (each other) with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others, (and pray for each other), that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”

The Zac Brown band wrote in their debut song, “Chicken Fried”…

Well I was raised up beneath the shade of a Georgia Pine
And that’s home you know
Sweet tea, pecan pie, and homemade wine where the peaches grow
And my house it’s not much to talk about
But it’s filled with love that’s grown in southern ground

And a little bit of chicken fried

Well it’s funny how it’s the little things in life that mean the most
Not where you live, what you drive or the price tag on your clothes
There’s no dollar sign on a peace of mind, this I’ve come to know
So if you agree, have a drink with me
Raise you glasses for a toast…

I like my chicken fried…

There are some Southern concepts that I see in this song, and the term “chicken fried” has grown to be used in different contexts to mean “Southern”.  These aren’t concepts that are foreign to anyone living anywhere, though.  I hear these simple lyrics, and I think about my mama’s house; about family meals shared together; about the community we grew up in; about riding bikes on dirt roads, a cloud of red dust in our wakes, roads with names like “Crabapple Hollow” and “Pittman Cemetery Road”;  the dilapidated one room schoolhouse my grandfather attended, where my friends and I would wander within abandoned walls, and search for Coke bottles and other treasures in the woods behind.  I think about the church rail where five generations of our family has received Christ, and been baptized.  This is the place I feel most connected to, whether I’m in Atlanta or Albania.  This is the place my heart calls home, the place to which I’m connected.  Whether you’re from London, England or Sanford, Georgia, there’s probably a place like this for you, a place of fond memory, where your spirit and mind linger even if you’re far away.  That’s what “chicken fried” is all about.

We all desire the comfort and peace and connection of a place to call home.  Not only do our hearts crave this in terms of a geographic location, but whether we realize it or not, we desire a home of spiritual rest and peace, a church to call home…a “chicken fried” church.  I hate calling folks looking for a church “seekers”, because it makes you seem uncertain of what you’re looking for.  So, for the rest of this post, I’ll refer to y’all as “prospectors”.  You’re looking for a treasure, for something specific –  a church worth keeping.  In my typical dirt road fashion, here’s some ideas about what to look for in a church, and for church folk, what to offer…

+ A sense of place…

For Church Leaders – Instead of following all of your denominational recommendations  that say you should be reaching people within a ten or twenty or even fifty mile radius of your church, try establishing a parish.  Take out a map, and define a reasonable distance that you can manage to meet people within.  This may be a very small geographic area, if you live in an urban community.  It may be larger if you’re in a place that is less densely populated.  Make concentrated efforts to meet people within walking distance of your church.  If you have to drive to meet people, try to stay a reasonable distance from other churches.  Let other churches know what you’re doing, but don’t be territorial and say, “This is our parish.  We would appreciate it if you don’t do outreach here.”  That’s just ugly, and we’re trying to escape the competitive mindset.  If people cross parish lines to attend churches other than the one most local to them, then so be it.  It’s not a crime.  The idea is that your church be focused in its efforts to reach people.  If you’re not loving and serving people in your own backyard, why are you trying to get folks who live ten miles away to come to your church?

For Prospectors – Can the church you’re considering define the area they are serving?  If you can see houses from the church yard, ask the pastor in a curious, off-hand, casual way, “Who lives over there?” Ask for details about their lives.  If he’s making big talk about how many counties or zip codes they’re reaching, but doesn’t know the name of the folks right next door, then they aren’t thinking like a church that wants to build connectedness and community.  They’re operating under an industrial, productivity-driven mindset, chasing numbers instead of forging relationships.

+ A shared history…

Church Leaders – As our culture becomes more and more transient, we see many young families who work in urban areas, but live in suburban or rural communities.  Others are moving from rural life to become urbanites for the first time.  What are you doing to incorporate them into the life of the community?  Not just the life of the church, mind you, but the life of the community.  Are there community traditions that they can be a part of without necessarily attending your church?  Events that will send them the message that they are an important part of a close-knit culture?  I think of the rural community I live in, and the biggest fund-raiser our church has, the annual pork barbecue.  Some of our more skilled cookers aren’t necessarily the most faithful people at church, but they are a part of a tradition, and they are welcome to play a role.   Other people in the community might  even attend other churches, but they are always invited to eat, and made to feel welcome.  Some don’t attend church at all, but get the same treatment.  Some aren’t even Christians, but take part.  Now here’s the kicker…Those folks aren’t treated like evangelism projects.  They are treated like friends, family, and neighbors, because that’s what they are.  Robert Kennedy once said, “It is not more bigness that should be our goal.  We must attempt, rather, to bring people back to…the warmth of community…”  Are you shooting for big, or inviting people into the warmth of community?

Prospectors Are there people in the church you attend who are eager to meet you, and make you feel incorporated into the greater community?  If you lack familial ties to the area, does anyone offer you local history of the community, or of the church?  Maybe there’s someone who offers you anecdotal history about the home you just bought, or even the property or street it sits on, and lets you know that you’re a welcome part of the ongoing story of the community.  Everyone wants to feel like an important character in a story.  One of the most tragic characters I’ve ever read was Harper Lee’s Boo Radley from “To Kill a Mockingbird”;  always on the outside, watching from a distance, always feeling like there were barriers between him and the rest of the community.  If there weren’t perceived barriers, there were literal ones.  Remember his older brother, Nathan, stopping over the knot-hole in the tree where Boo left toys for the children next door, Scout and Jem?  That knot-hole was Boo’s connection to a community that he desired to be a part of.  Is the church you’re visiting filled with Nathans, stand-offish and clique-ish, not allowing any outsiders in, or are there some Boos you can rely on to reach out to you in small ways that may not seem like much to the world, but are really significant in terms of heart?

+ An inviting table…

Church Leaders – People need to be fed more than just a sermon.  Are you offering the communion table on a consistent basis?  If not, what is your theological basis for not doing so?  Martin Luther said something along the lines of, “The communion table is the only place where we might enjoy communion with God and community with each other.”  The Table is the place where we as a believers can bring all of our shared joys and sorrows, all of our gain, all of our loss, and be refreshed by the Holy Spirit.  In the liturgies that prepare us to partake, we admit our flaws corporately, we receive assurance of forgiveness corporately, we give thanks for Christ’s sacrifice corporately, and we are filled by His body and blood, as a community of believers.  It baffles me that many denominations count baptisms so vigorously, then almost completely discount the communion table.  Baptism, whether you consider it a sacrament or a ordinance, is the doorway to a  journey in faith;  Holy Communion is the nourishment for the trip.  To participate in one and ignore the other is like eating french fries without ketchup.  Weird.

Prospectors – How do you think of communion?  Or do you at all?  And how often does the body you’re considering offer communion?  Do they regard it as something holy, or as some blank ritual?  There is power in The Table, power that creates connection.  I have vivid memories of taking communion as a child alongside my parents.  My father is gone now, but I know in his taking the bread and cup, he had faith in Christ.  I have assurance and peace in this memory, and I join him in the communion of saints who have taken these elements in hand, in mouth, and to heart.  I am connected to my dad through familial ties, and through participating in communion.  I hope to build the same strong sense of connection within my own children, that they would know The Table as a place of remembrance and refreshing.  Here I am connected to Christ, and connected to the communion of saints, whether they are present or passed on to rest in God.

+ Permission to be who I am, where I am…

Church Leaders – We know you want Sunday worship to be exciting and filled with joy.  Not everyone comes to church in a happy-clappy mood.  If the guy that has been visiting the past few weeks isn’t lifting his hands during worship, that isn’t a signal for the worship leader to tell everyone they need to be smiling because they’re saved.  We all bring our different junk to church with us.  Accept the junk, and give the visitor permission to leave it behind when they walk out the church doors.  Pastors, be transparent about your own life.  I once confessed sins, nothing too graphic, but sins nonetheless, to a congregation during a sermon, and was later told by the senior pastor that pastors “should never do that.  People hold us up on a pedestal, and they don’t realize we have the same problems they do.  We have to give them an example, something to shoot for attaining in their spiritual lives.”  What a pusillanimous (my new favorite word) dill-weed.  We all sin.  We all have baggage.  If church isn’t a safe place for us to admit we’re all messed up, where else can we do so?

Prospectors Does the church you’re visiting have some mechanism for allowing you to express who you are and where your heart is, without you being hammered for being less than perfect?  People sin and get divorced and lose jobs and homes and loved ones all the time.  I am stoked and excited about my relationship with Christ, but some days, life just gets the better of my emotions.  One thing I love about the small, rural church I attend is that there’s a note pad in the narthex, or as I like to call it, the front porch, where people stop and write down prayer requests.  Many people write these anonymously.  Many just write “unspoken”.  And we pray as a community over each request, even naming the “unspokens”.  As far as happy-clappiness during worship…Ugh.  I can’t stand worship leaders who smile constantly and tell you that you should be applauding and shouting.  I love a worship leader who intersperses scripture and prayer and responsive psalms.  I like all forms of music, but I don’t come to church to hear from a choir director or a guy with a guitar.  I come to hear from the Holy Spirit, who will meet me no matter who or where I am.  Does your church give you that freedom?

I love Sandra McCracken’s version of the hymn “O Come and Mourn with Me Awhile”, which says…

O come and mourn with me awhile
O come near to the Savior’s side
O come together, let us mourn
Jesus our Lord is crucified…

A broken heart, a fount of tears
Ask and they will not be denied
A broken heart love’s cradle is
Jesus our Lord is crucified…

A good church will give you permission to be joyful, and even invite you to be melancholy,  as an individual, and as in this song, in community.  We share the load of life together.  That’s part of being a community of faith.

+ A place to rest…

Church Leaders – We promote like a circus, don’t we?  The world we live in demands our attention.  Just ride down I-85 to Atlanta, and look at the extreme word vomit on the billboards….”Listen to This Radio Station”…”Watch This Television Show”…”Eat at Hooters”…”Buy This Car”…”Eat at Hooters”…and on and on.  We do our best to compete with all that, with our billboards, scrolling message signs, newspaper ads, mass mail outs, and door to door giveaways.  More than anything, we must appear more active and exciting than Church B down the road.  But what if we stopped all that?  What if stopped competing with the culture, and became truly counter-cultural, promoting our church as a getaway from all that, an oasis, a quiet place in the midst of the chaos?  Some old English churches have this engraved on the doorways…

Enter this door

As if the floor

Within were gold

And every wall

Of jewels all

Of wealth untold

As if a choir

In robes afire

Were singing here

Nor shout, nor rush

But hush…

For God is here.

Could it be that God speaks to us not only in ecstatic experiences (which He can, and will…), but also in quiet?  Everything we offer doesn’t necessarily have to be blockbuster exciting.  Some folks desire calm consistency.  We live in an uncertain world.  Peace and quiet is something many of us lack, and it’s a healthy thing.  We all need more of it.

Prospectors – Remember, everything that glitters ain’t gold.  If the thing you note most about a worship service is the production value, or how cool the holograms of the pastor and worship leader are, then you’re looking for the wrong things.  Loud and flashy doesn’t always equal good.  Look for evidence that the church you’re visiting can be a place your spirit can find both rest and rejuvenation.

+ Permission to wander…

Church Leaders – Lytle wrote that Southerners are peculiar in that they are hopelessly tied to their place of birth, yet they will jump at the opportunity to travel and even live anywhere else at anytime.  I haven’t ever lived so far from the place I know as home, but I have traveled the world more than any other family member, doing missions work in Europe.  My dad did a little world travel during the 1940’s, but he spent a good deal of that time trying not to be shot by Japanese soldiers, so I don’t believe he enjoyed his journeys as much as I have mine.  People will wander and try other places.  Allow them to do so.  You don’t own them, and your church won’t die if one family changes their house of worship, even if they give a healthy tithe.  I once was part of a small church where the pastor was addicted to pleasing people in his congregation. He lived in fear of losing people, and as a great friend once told me, “Fear is never a good counselor.”  Poor guy spent a good deal of time on the phone apologizing for music choices, sound system problems, and forgetting birthdays and what-not.  It used to make me angry back in the day.  Now, I feel really sorry for him.   Another pastor of mine once said, “Everybody’s a blessing;  Some coming, some going.”  You never know…The person you allow to leave gracefully may come back one day, and be a mature believer and greater contributor to the church than you ever imagined.  Then again, if they’re stirring up trouble at your church, fact is they’ll probably do the same somewhere else, as well.

Prospectors – If a pastor asks what you do for a living, and wants to ordain you as an elder two weeks later, he is after your wallet, or has some interest in tying you down so that you won’t leave.  If you’ve been gone a while, and you immediately get placed in a position of great authority in the church you return to, consider the motives, and frankly, bluntly, ask the difficult questions.  I’m currently taking on some small role in the church I’ve returned to after years of being away, but not as a pastor, and only after learning to enjoy church again.  It took me over one year of just attending to get to that point.  My wife has led ministries herself, but just isn’t ready yet.  For almost 8 years, she missed Sunday worship to lead a children’s program, and has discovered that she actually enjoys worship.  Take your time.

+ Permission to come back home…

Church Leaders – I left the church of my youth at about 30 years old.  I drifted for 15 years through various denominations, and eventually came back.  My wife and I made a decision that this little church would be our home church, without even visiting it one single time.  We knew what they had to offer, in terms of programs.  We knew that it was a United Methodist Church, which means that the pulpit would have a new face in it every few years.  We knew what was offered in terms of the communion table.  Most importantly, though, we knew what to expect in terms of community.  We didn’t choose this church based on a good first impression or a charismatic leader or a worship style.  We chose it because we knew the people there would love us, and love our children.  A good church will have leadership that welcomes you home, without fanfare.  In fact, the quieter the welcome, the more sincere it is.  A true “home church” will act like you’ve never been gone, even if you have been for a long time.  As we were growing up, my mama always told us, “I won’t help you move out, but I’ll always be there to help you move back home.”  The church I returned to after years away loved me in just that way.  I’m treated like I’ve never been gone.

Prospectors – Don’t poor mouth churches you’ve been a part of or visited before.  It’s a turn-off.  In fact, it’s near the top of my list of turn-offs, right after hot weather, and just before feet.  It makes folks think you’re hard to get along with, or difficult to please.  Quietly slip into the life of the church, and enjoy being where you are.  Don’t overwhelm yourself with responsibilities and service positions immediately.  Make yourself available and open to other members of your community before claiming ownership of a ministry or a service position.  Be humble.  Give yourself opportunity to know the culture and history of the church, and the church folk the chance to know who you are.  And if you’re like me, returning home after years of belonging, then years of being apart, don’t worry…The church community already knows what’s vital to them;  namely, where you are from, and who your mama and daddy are.

Time to close this lengthy diatribe for now.  I’ll send y’all off with a thought from Henri Nouwen…

“The word ‘community’ has many connotations, some positive, some negative. Community can make us think of a safe togetherness, shared meals, common goals, and joyful celebrations. It also can call forth images of sectarian exclusivity, in-group language, self-satisfied isolation, and romantic naiveté. However, community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another. Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own (see Philippians 2:4). The question, therefore, is not “How can we make community?” but “How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?”