It was a warm, late July evening in Chicago. Heading toward the intersection of Clark and Addison streets, which is the entrance to Wrigley Field, I was walking along with hundreds of other people, streaming out of the alleyways and sidewalks from where they had found places to park for the Cubs game. I didn’t want to pay a whole lot to park, so I found a less expensive place about ten blocks away and walked down Clark Street toward the stadium. If you know much about Chicago, you know that Clark Street, for several blocks in each direction from Wrigley Field, is a row of restaurants, bars, and sports shops that derive most of their income from crowds which flock there for Cubs games during baseball season.
As you might expect, in a city like Chicago, the crowd is diverse in almost any imaginable way, with, perhaps, the only thing in common being that they like the Cubs well enough to show up in large numbers even when the team isn’t doing all that well. The sidewalk was crowded enough for me to overhear a conversation taking place just a few steps behind me between several people who appeared to be Christians. I say appeared to be, because a couple of the women were wearing t-shirts they’d picked up at a Joyce Meyer event. They were complaining about having to walk down Clark Street, past the bars and restaurants, most of them with windows open, and through the crowd in order to get to the ball park. They were making note of their disgust with the way people were dressed, with the piercings and tattoos exhibited by many people, with the drinking, the smoking, the language some people were using, essentially with the whole scene. I thought to myself, “Well, what do you expect? This isn’t the lobby of your church on Sunday morning.”
And that’s the problem. The church culture in America has created so many places for Christians to hide, keeping them away from places like Clark Street in Chicago, or Carson Street on the South Side of Pittsburgh, a three mile stretch of bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors, shops and entertainment spots where the sidewalks come alive with hundreds of people from every walk of life on weekend nights, that the relationships necessary to the foundation of sharing the gospel are never built. Consequently, while Christians congregate in larger congregations that are more insulated and isolated than ever, fewer and fewer people are exposed to the gospel message and come to Christ.
According to just about every church research group that exists in this country, and there are many of them, most church “growth” taking place in America today is transfer growth. That is, Christians moving from one church to another is the reason that a few churches are growing, while most churches, 90% in most surveys, are declining in membership. People are shifting from smaller churches to larger ones. The larger churches collect more money, and tend to operate more efficiently. So they provide “ministries” designed to attract even more Christians from smaller churches. The larger churches have a “visibility” mentality. They think that, because they are visible, if people are looking for a place to hear the gospel message, they can come with an expectation of reasonable anonymity, sit and listen, and eventually have their spiritual needs met. Meanwhile, the church spends its resources on ministries to keep its growing membership happy and satisfied with their church “experience.”
If you live inside that bubble, it is very difficult to see that the conferences, rallies, camps, and even international short term missions trips are really activities to keep the church busy, and that they do not attract the people who throng the sidewalks on Clark Street on Cubs game day, or on Carson Street on a Friday night. Nor do they equip or prepare Christians to minister to those people in a meaningful and effective way. Generally, what we pick up from those things is an attitude that causes us to treat people who are not like us as if they were lepers. We’re rapidly retreating into a Christian world with our own coffee houses, radio stations, music, movies, television programs and friends. When we encounter someone who is living out there, in the world, it is easier to be put off by their personal habits than it is to learn how to somehow build a meaningful relationship from which they can see, and we can share, our faith.
At one time I led a small group for about two and a half years. The purpose of starting the group was to have a place from which we could reach into the community and draw people into Bible study and discipleship in a non-threatening environment, the comfort of someone’s home, instead of expecting them to “come” to church. Everyone was excited about the possibility of meeting new people who were not Christians, and having them become part of the group. And from time to time, we were joined by people from “out there” in the world, people whose lives had taken a much different path, who did not understand the church “culture” and as a result, had never approached it. When success was not instantaneous, that is, when people came to the group and didn’t respond to someone’s emotional invitation to salvation, or questioned the logic or reasoning behind a statement or truth that came up in Bible study, there was a clear shift in enthusiasm. People realized this would be harder than they thought, and many of them could not understand why someone wouldn’t respond to an invitation, or want to “come to the Lord” after just a couple of visits to the group. And they had an extremely difficult time developing relationships with people who expressed belief in ideas that made them uncomfortable. Several people who came from time to time were from a Hindu background, and continued to express belief in reincarnation. One individual, who had been deeply exposed to New Age religion, began to interpret scripture through that filter. Though the group was reminded that this was the essence of building relationships to share the gospel, and that the process takes a very long time, many of them became impatient, and demonstrated a loss of interest. The non-Christians sensed the drop of interest and stopped coming. The group failed because they couldn’t tolerate a difference of religious opinion long enough for a friendship to form. Even after that experience, with a group of Christians simply meeting together for fellowship and Bible study, one couple left, and refused to speak to me again, because I did not share his view of eschatology.
Most of the people on Clark Street before a game at Wrigley Field are not Christians. Nor are the people on Carson Street in Pittsburgh on Friday or Saturday night. And in the culture in which we live, it is not very likely that many of them would simply be driving by a church building and decide they needed to go in, or would wake up on Sunday morning and say to themselves, “I think I’ll go to church this morning.” The church that exists around us is more interested in taking a few of its wealthier, more prominent members on a short term mission trip to Belize or Botswana than they are in investing the time and resources necessary to reach the people on Clark or Carson Streets.
Don’t you think that’s exactly where Jesus would be, if he had been called to his earthy ministry in 21st century America?