Over the years I’ve developed a routine for political and charitable fundraisers, which of course includes a set of recipes I’ve learned can please a crowd while not overwhelming me to make. And while I’ve got this routine down to a science, my first foray into such parties didn’t go well.
A member of our congregation had a friend running for elected office in Whitefish Bay. She asked me to hold an open house for the candidate - not a fundraiser but a friendraiser, an event to which I and the candidate could invite neighbors to. I got myself organized, planned my menu, made the food - a lavish spread of dishes, finger-foods, desserts. The table looked fantastic when the candidate arrived.
But a problem soon became apparent. I’d spent so much time thinking about and making the food that I’d neglected to work on inviting my neighbors. I guess I thought the candidate and his campaign would take care of it. But his campaign was not doing well. And one sensed it as he, our mutual friend from church, and I sat around. The abundance of the table and the emptiness of the room: oh, it was so awkward.
I learned that day: invitations matter. No matter how much I like to cook, the most important step in a successful event was the invitation. Without the guests, the party would be lame.
A similar realization lies behind the council’s work on a strategic goal for our congregation. You may have read in our annual report, and will hear in our meeting, the core of the proposed goal: “Because we love Plymouth so dearly, we will work to share it more broadly, changing lives through invitation and continuing engagement.” And we plan to measure success on this goal through worship attendance. In other words: we’ve spent a long time focused on the food we serve at the party, now it’s time to start inviting the guests.
And yet inviting people to church raises questions and tensions. The Council struggled to say the “e” word, evangelism; and you’ll notice our goal doesn’t mention it. That’s just the start of our uncomfortability. Becoming intentional about inviting friends and family and neighbors to church represents a growing edge - a new skill - to most in our congregation. And yet, invitations matter.
Certainly the importance of invitations can be heard in Jesus’ allegory from the Gospel of Luke. He told of a certain man who invited his friends to a banquet; at the last minute they all snubbed him so he invited anyone he could to share in his celebration.
Jesus was in the midst of a series of stories about the kingdom of God and how we are to behave as disciples. The conversation got incredibly uncomfortable because Jesus asked his followers to do difficult things: to give up places of honor, to take the poor into one’s house.
One of Jesus’ dinner companions responded, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” It was a meaningless religious platitude; an empty but pious statement which mostly communicated the man’s deep uncomfortability with what Jesus taught. We all have those moments when we feel the demands of discipleship are more than we can handle.
Jesus’ companion became uncomfortable because Jesus’ teaching called on him to take risks - risks to his social status, risks to his sense of place, risks to his ego. Likewise with our strategic goal: I know there is an uncomfortability with it, with this idea of focusing on invitation and continued engagement, the measurement of participation. What do we risk by having new people come in to the church? What risk do we take to invite people? What might change in how we understand ourselves? Any strategic goal worth taking, any strategic goal that isn’t just an empty piety, involves risk and uncomfortability.
I’ve heard a few specific concerns about this goal of becoming an invitational congregation which I want to address. One of the first things I hear is, “the goal’s just about money.” I can understand why people might think this: more people might equal more money. But we ought to be clear: if our motivation is more money then all our efforts will fail. Can you imagine saying to someone, “Check out my church so you can pay for the roof?” Probably the least inviting invitation ever.
Actually one of our members once made the opposite appeal. John Vergeront, who died this past year, once invited a colleague to church by saying, “It’s a great time to join our church, we just replaced the roof.” But of course John lived long enough to help pay for another flat roof on the church; and the colleague he invited stayed long enough to work on the committee replacing it.
Dollars are not the reason to invite people to church. Because, honestly, we’ll figure out how to do church with whatever resources we have. But also because we could entirely achieve our goal of increasing worship attendance if our current members just came more frequently. Our goal is not about money, it’s about increasing our engagement with people.
The deeper concerns about this goal relate to people and what we do. Some have asked if this goal means that we will not concentrate on mission, as if we face a choice between engaging more people and serving more people. This is a false choice.
Recently a church member said to me, “It just seems like we used to do more for justice then we’re doing now.” It’s a comment worth looking at more deeply.
Our highest years of worship attendance came during 2004 - 2009 and now our attendance is noticeably lower. In football terms, our attendance deflated. And what this means is that we have 40-50 fewer people than at our height. A lot more happened when our attendance was higher - we had many more committees doing interesting work in the church on all sorts of issues. In 2004-2009 we had an active Befrienders doing visitation, a strong MICAH core team, a Green Team looking at environmental issues, a Library Committee encouraging us to read, a Wellness Committee teaching us about healthy living. With our higher attendance, we were able to run 2 or 3 education events on a Sunday and they were interesting enough that people said, “I want to go to them all.” When an election came around, we had enough people with enough energy to organize phone banks and at the same time to send teams of people out to register new voters. I remember standing out at a Walmart with five Plymouth members registering voters until the manager kicked us off the property. Apparently registering poor people to vote is the one thing you can’t do at a superstore. But those things are not happening now.
That’s the difference that comes with 40-50 fewer people - we can do a few things but we can’t do as many things. The change of attendance meant a loss of strength, energy, creativity, and passion. In short, capacity. Our strategic goal, and the effort to invite and engage people, is fundamentally about increasing our capacity to change lives.
Inviting and engaging more people in the life of our community brings with it personal challenges, ones which can make us uncomfortable. Inviting new people can make us wonder: Will new people know how we’ve always done it? Will they sit in my pew? Will they care in the same way about the things I’ve cared about? And engaging our existing members more deeply can make us wonder too: Will the church emphasizing attendance make me look at the priorities in my life? Will I have to change my behavior? Do I want to be engaged more? In other words, I think we feel tension, or we ought to feel tension, about this strategic goal because it’s disruptive. Successfully working on this goal will mean our status quo as a community and as individuals will not stay the same.
Invitation and engagement will change the ways we do things at Plymouth. For instance: typically when we plan an event we focus on how we promote it within church. Do we lift it up in announcements? Get it in the bulletin? Do we have a sign up in coffee hour? While important, these efforts look inside of our community for participation. But this strategic goal will mean looking outside of ourselves - how do we invite people who don’t go to Plymouth to join with us in doing something worthwhile? How do we invite youth who don’t go to Plymouth to come to our Martin Luther King day retreat? How do we invite friends who don’t go to Plymouth to join us in making tacos at the Cathedral Center? We need to learn to say to our neighbors, “join me in doing interesting things with my church.”
It’s disruptive to learn new behaviors. Learning to be invitational can be hard. But we can do it. Over the last year I tried to adapt to a new behavior. I was talking with a family in the church; they teased me that all my references to food in my sermons left them hungry. It made me think about the stories and metaphors I used in my sermons; many of them did focus on food. So I’ve tried over the last year to use more sports analogies, mostly with baseball Perhaps I’ve overdone it because now I find some folks think I’m really into baseball. Unless my kid is on the field, I don’t want to be in the stands. But it was important for me to learn a new set of stories and metaphors; and if I can learn about sports then I think we can all learn new ways to invite and engage our friends and neighbors in church.
All of which is to say: we’re a bit like Jesus’ dinner companion. Jesus asked his companion to be more invitational and the man balked at the idea. So Jesus told a story to him (and to us) about why invitations matter.
It was the story of a certain man who wanted friends to come to his party. The man actually sent two invitations. The first, sent weeks ago, invited his friends and neighbors for a celebratory meal at his house. He’d received their RSVP’s; he knew they were coming. But the day of the dinner he sent a reminder to his friends. We do the same today: making plans in advance with friends and then perhaps sending a reminder email or text as the day draws close.
But when the man sent his reminder, the friends responded with excuses. I just bought a million dollar house sight unseen; I can’t come. I just bought a lamborghini sight unseen; I can’t come. I got married last month, so I’m writing thank you’s tonight. By these lame excuses the man knew his friends were snubbing him.
No matter: the man sent out new invitations, this time to anyone his servants could find. And as before, he sent a follow up invitation. “Make sure,” he told his servants, “make sure everyone knows they are invited.” Notice: instead of staying home alone with his party hat on but no friends, the man reached out to new people, people he didn’t even know, people his old friends would have rejected, inviting them in for his celebration. Why did he invite them? Because he couldn’t celebrate alone; joy becomes so much deeper when shared.
While the story sounded like something that could happen anytime and anywhere, Jesus meant it as an allegory for God. God was the certain man who sent invitations, got rebuffed, and reached out again because joy cannot be complete alone.
Read this way, the allegory corrects a misunderstanding about why we invite people to church. Many Christians think we ought to invite people to church in order to save them from hell. These Christians sound like a Geico commercial, “Fifteen minutes could save you an eternity.” Much of the energy in conservative and evangelical churches comes from this desire to save people from eternal damnation, the desire to get them on the lifeboat to heaven.
But we understand salvation differently. We’re not trying to scare people with hell; or convince them to act a certain way so that God will love them enough to save them. Marcus Borg, a great theologian who passed away this last week, spoke for many of us when he described salvation. He pointed out salvation comes from an old English word salve, heal. As Borg explained, “Salvation has to do with healing the wounds of existence. This is no small matter, for the wounds of existence are many and deep. Some of these wounds are inflicted on us, some are the result of our own doing, and some we inflict on ourselves.”
Marcus Borg gave voice to our understanding of salvation: it’s not about someday in heaven, it’s about today; it’s not about heaven and hell far away, but about it becoming on earth as it is in heaven. And so we might notice who the certain man in Jesus’ allegory invited: the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame; all sorts of people wounded by existence.
Our evangelism isn’t about scaring people with hell; it’s about inviting people bearing visible and invisible wounds of existence into community.
Invitation and increasing engagement, our strategic goal, are a way to heal the wounds of existence, to change lives, and to deepen our joy by sharing it together. Why invite people to church? Because invitations matter. Alleluia and Amen.