The Socially Intelligent Church

René Breuel is pastor of Chiesa Evangelica San Lorenzo in Rome, Italy, and editor of the forum

If a non-Christian’s path to finding faith is essentially social, as we outlined in last week’s blog, and if they need to belong before they open themselves to believe and behave differently, then how can our churches reach out and incorporate them? What are the practices our churches can put in place to contact, befriend, and assimilate nonbelievers?

I’d like to outline a few features of a socially intelligent church:

1. Open networks: A group’s intrinsic tendency is to close in on itself and attend to its own needs. This social dynamic is reinforced by the somewhat hostile contexts we minister in, especially in the urban centers of global cities, where our small(ish) communities are tempted to become hubs or shelters in a massive sprawl of unbelief. We want to meet and reinforce to ourselves that we believe, what we believe, and why we believe, and this is instinctively done in a safe environment segregated from the outer context. So often our churches become closed networks, wanting to see others embrace Christ but not doing nothing much more than expecting that they will automatically show up at church. Churches with this dynamic will not make the substantial effort to befriend and invest time and energy in nonbelievers, nor will it show the signs of welcome, interest and embrace when they do come. 

Rodney Stark, however, has found in his study of the rise of early Christianity that the early church was especially open: attentive to its surrounding needs, serving nonbelievers at great personal cost, welcoming them warmly.  Here are some concrete practices to help us keep our churches socially open:

a.    Select number of meetings: having a limited number of weekly church activities, including for the leadership, allows people time to befriend seekers, invite them for dinner, or go out frequently so as to build closer relationships.

b.    Varied use of space: to meet not just in the temple or on our turf, but in a host of environments: squares, parks, pubs, homes. This will not only let people come in contact with the church in more ways than only the “official” services at the temple, but will also help believers look beyond our walls and develop a larger vision for the city. “I am quite sure, too,” wrote Charles Spurgeon in a chapter on open-air preaching, “that if we could persuade our friends in the country to come out a good many times in the year and hold a service in a meadow, or in a shady grove, or on the hill side, or in a garden, or on a common, it would be all the better for the usual hearers. The mere novelty of the place would freshen their interest and wake them up.” 

c.    Regular social activities: to have regular activities that are purely social—like picnics, playing sports, watching movies—to which we can invite newcomers for the first time, so that they can become acquainted with the group and start to belong.

d.    Constant encouragement and modeling: to reinforce our socially-open ethos—in our sermons, studies, or one-on-one pastoring—by praising, thanking and holding up concrete examples of people who befriend seekers.

2. Translucent borders: A closed community’s borders are fairly clear and substantial: it is obvious who is in and who is out. Theologically, peripheral issues become important to demarcate us from society and from churches who believe differently. In a socially open community, however, borders are translucent: there are people with different degrees of spiritual maturity, and an openness to embrace people who believe different things, but who are on a journey and open to Christ. This brings a high level of diversity and ambiguity, which only a very mature leadership can manage. 

a.    Multi-religious outlook: in a recent small group meeting at church, a long-time believer who was there for the first time starting started criticizing a number of other religions, only to find that there were followers of these religions right there, next to him. A church that is open to seekers, and where they feel safe to explore the gospel without being judged for their current doubts or different beliefs, will seem at first sight almost like a multi-religious group, and Bible studies can become a curious clash of presuppositions that come to interact around Scripture. It is a beautiful and electrifying dynamic, and we strive to welcome and affirm seekers, and to give them space and time to work on their doubts. 

b.    Clear theological core: to allow for this diversity of beliefs, and to not let it spiral into confusion or heresy, a clear understanding of the gospel is needed, which is reinforced constantly, clearly and yet sensitively to nonbelievers. If a socially closed church needs to patrol its theological borders and reinforce uniformity, a socially open church needs to be so sure and confident of its theological core so that it can welcome and not be threatened by people with different beliefs. The gospel is presented constantly and in creative and respectful interaction with the worldviews, doubts and sets of beliefs of your context. 

c.    Active pastoral care and discipline: it also takes active, one-on-one pastoral care to deal with this kind of diversity, to clarify confusions that come along the way, to apply the gospel to the specific situations people are in, and to challenge them to leave behind patterns of sin and take the next step toward spiritual maturity.

3. Inclusive preaching: Socially closed churches specialize in dramatic conversions: the quick absorption of someone undergoing a crisis from the outside to the inside, usually in an intensified emotional environment. But what about the majority of our city-dwellers who are not undergoing a crisis, but are rather affluent, relatively content, and emotionally stable? It takes a certain kind of discourse to address them, in our preaching and in all of our communication as a church, using language that is inclusive, nuanced, gradual. 

a.    The vocabulary of “journey”: whereas the decisive, are-you-in-or-are-you-out mode of communication may work with people in crisis who are open to radical change, it distances people who feel just fine, but who may be open to consider a new perspective gradually. For these (the vast majority of people around us), we need to develop a vocabulary of journey, that helps them to reimagine the world in light of the gospel and invites them to gradual steps toward Christ. Rather than emphasizing the present, and excluding doubt and unbelief, the language of journey stresses more the direction we are headed than the specific state we are in at the moment, and lets skeptics feel they have space to consider the gospel according to their pace. We emphasize movement along the journey rather than clear-cut statuses.

b.    Inclusive language: churches that feel threatened by the city develop an us-versus-them mentality that exalts the “us” and denigrates the “them.” To address and include people who have not yet embraced Christ, our language needs to be inclusive, respectful of those who do not yet believe, and understanding of nonbelievers’ anxieties, fears, ambivalence, and even desire to keep a distance. This kind of preaching let seekers feel they belong, that we are in this journey together, and gently invites them to the next steps. It is backed by a robust theology of doubt, that honors people who have doubts and does not make them feel like they’re stupid, ignorant or sinful. 

c.    Assumption of intelligence: if we assume that people are simple and manipulable, our preaching will reflect this assumption: we will try to pressure and bully people with the strength of our personality, the passion of our rhetoric, the emotiveness of our anecdotes or the authority of Scripture. We will preach with a sense of superiority, and people will sense it. It may work where there is a vast gap in education between preacher and audience, but in our contexts, where people are well-educated, have traveled widely and avoid authoritarian figures, this approach instantly distances people. But if we assume that they are intelligent—and they really are!—and invite them to consider the scenarios of the gospel, acknowledge their doubts, answer their objections, and respect their decisions, they will feel honored that we treated them like intelligent people, and will draw closer. We may fear that we’ve lost the superior ground from which we could pressure their wills, but we will actually be closer to them and they will be more open to hear what we have to say. 

As we respectfully listen to nonbelievers today and seek to reach out to them, I believe our own understanding of the gospel will also be enriched. Their social path to faith reminds us of the importance of the theological category of presence: of Christ’s incarnated presence in our midst, of the inner presence of the Spirit, of the Christian presence in the city as a signpost and embodiment of the alternative reign of God. Lesslie Newbigin envisioned this sense of presence as the embodiment of “local congregations [which] renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pg. 232-233). Recovering the social aspect of faith in Christ helps those of us who are shaped by the Enlightenment to rediscover the importance of belonging to Christian maturity; to remember that to belong to Christ and to one another characterizes the people of God as much as cognitive belief and practical behavior. Thought and behavior are tremendously important, but outside of a relational community they will rarely happen. But when our love for one another is visible and when it enfolds those who Christ loves, Christ’s presence is manifest (John 13:32).