When the pastor of my church announced his retirement date, the call process for new pastor kicked in immediately. The process included a series of congregational discussions, and one of the items discussed was the congregation’s vision of the church in five years. It sounds like, and is exactly like, the discussions businesses use to shape marketing and branding. Everyone was encouraged to speak freely and imagine daringly.
Among the many thoughts expressed was one that startled me: one member thought we should do a study of the demographic balance in the neighborhoods near to the church and strive for our membership to match that demographic balance. According to him, doing so would make our church more inclusive and welcoming.
The Bible says that the good news of Jesus Christ—his death, his resurrection, the salvation he purchased on the cross and our daily forgiveness through Him—is for everyone. Every time a church opens its doors, everyone is invited, and everyone is welcome. If a church in a neighborhood where the dominant demographic is black fills up on Sunday with only white people, the problem is not a demographic imbalance, and it will not be solved by achieving a demographic balance. The problem is sinful human nature, and it will only be solved by allowing the Holy Spirit to transform people. If there are no black people inside a church building in a black neighborhood, the explanation lies in sinful human nature, and sinful human nature cannot be transformed by a better spreadsheet.
People are only transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, just like the people on the Day of Pentecost. What happened when the Holy Spirit filled God’s people that day? The people exploded out of that locked room where they had timidly shut themselves up for protection. They boiled out into the streets and set fire to Jerusalem. They carried the flame of hope and love, and thousands responded. The book of Acts records that the demographic blend in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost was quite “diverse” and the sermon was quite “inclusive.” But none of the action had anything to do with a goal of achieving demographic balance in the church. All the action grew out of the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit provided the power. The people simply spoke God’s truth, the good news about Jesus, to everyone, and the Holy Spirit gathered in the harvest.
The church on the Day of Pentecost is the most graphic example possible for every church to use as a model. Churches are not governments. Churches are not businesses. Churches are clusters of people who receive the good news of Jesus Christ and then pass it on to others. Churches do not target the disenfranchised or the immigrants or the poor or the marginalized. Churches target people. Members of the church meet many people each day, and the mission of the church is to touch each of those people with the good news about Jesus. A church should not pick a target demographic and try to reshape its membership accordingly. The church should be encouraging members to listen to the Holy Spirit for inspiration to reach outside their comfort zone, but listening to the Holy Spirit is a very different discipline than studying a statistical analysis. A church should constantly be inspiring the members to share Jesus wherever they are, and the church’s demographic balance will reflect the people the members meet.
Where do members meet people? In the grocery store. At the doctor’s office. At school. In the park. At a meeting of NAMI. At the country club. At the Farmer’s Market. In the Post Office. At work. In a restaurant. Where does God want people to share the good news about Jesus? Wherever God’s people meet other people.
The one thing a church should not need to “plan” is evangelism. I served for a while on an evangelism committee, and it was stultifying. Evangelism does not happen as a consequence of a committee meeting. Evangelism happens when the Holy Spirit nudges someone who loves Jesus, and the good news bubbles out in a conversation with someone who needs Jesus.
Churches will need to “plan,” however, if the members are, indeed, sharing Jesus. If members share Jesus, there will be visitors in worship and in Bible study. The church needs a plan to assure space, supplies and services are keeping pace with the numbers. The church needs a budget and good fiscal administration. But the church does not need a demographic goal. It needs to have the goal of serving the people brought into the church by members who are obeying the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
Churches do not need to “plan” to be inclusive if the members are heeding the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Nor do they need to feel judged by God if their demographic balance does not look the way the government wants private clubs to look. Churches are not private clubs. They are families of people who love Jesus and share his good news with everyone. If the members are sharing the good news, then the membership demographics will take care of themselves. The people who live near the church will know they are welcome, because the membership will be sharing with everyone they meet.
Churches do not need to strive to be more “diverse” and “inclusive.” Church members need to strive to listen intently to the Holy Spirit and to obey the guidance of the Holy Spirit and share Jesus with everyone.