Everywhere we turn the desire is palpable—we want to return to normal after pandemic life. We’ve struggled through sixteen long months living under the restrictions and suffering of a pandemic, and we simply want to resume our normal lives. We have been in exile for far too many months and we long for our own returning.
Our experience in the Church is no different. We yearn to fling our doors open, welcome our erstwhile congregants back, and revert to business as usual. The vision is as clear as it is well-conceived. Our primary focus is ensuring our people have returned for worship; then, and only then, will we turn our attention to inviting newcomers to join us.
Of course, if guests happen to come, we’ll welcome them openly. But attracting people from outside the family simply can’t be our focus at first. Our focus should be, must be, our existing flock, entrusted by God into our care. That is, after all, who we’re commissioned to serve.
Or is it?
Lessons from Ancient Days
In the dusty old book of Haggai, we read of Israel’s return from its own exile. One of God’s first instructions to them was to rebuild the Temple—the place of the Presence, the church of their day. And what were they found doing instead? Focusing more on rebuilding their own homes than on rebuilding the Temple. Through the words of Haggai the prophet, we discover exactly what God thinks about his people focusing on their own priorities over his.
“Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. Therefore, because of you…I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains.” (Haggai 1:10-11)
A quick read may lead us to conclude our emphasis on seeing our own people return to church before we begin a focused effort to bring new people into the fold is in line with this scripture. God called his people to rebuild the Temple after all. But before we rush too quickly to utter a resounding yes to this passage, let’s stop for a minute and ask ourselves, “What is the Church?” Our churches have not physically been torn down as the Temple was. What needs rebuilding in our day? Our rebuilding work is not directed toward the building itself, but what’s inside.
The Church’s mission has always been to go and seek those who don’t yet know this Jesus we love and serve, and invite them to come and see him for themselves. The Church was never meant to remain static in size and scope, but ever-expanding in its reach. Even as the Kingdom of God is about the already and the not yet, the Church has always been for those already adopted into the family of God and for those not yet adopted in. Scripture makes clear the primary responsibility of all members of God’s family is to intentionally invite those not yet in the family to come and meet their Lord. Focusing exclusively on those who are already a part of our congregations is like prioritizing the rebuilding of our own houses over the building up of God’s house.
How can we be invitational when our church hasn’t yet returned to normal?
Rebuilding after a time of exile is never easy. About seventy-five years after the time of Haggai, Nehemiah faced his own challenges as he led the project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Israel faced discouragement, fear, and constant threat of attack from the enemy. These are the same issues we face today as we seek to follow God and rebuild his church from the outside in.
But we can rest assured that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is with us in the midst of any opposition we face, whether internal or external. There is no power in the physical or spiritual world capable of thwarting his work to build his Church. We would do well to remember that his vision of shepherding has always been to go and seek the one. Staying for the ninety-nine at the exclusion of the one who is lost is never an option; he calls us to seek and save all those who are lost.
Our church family may not yet have returned from exile, but the harvest is ripe now. Never before have people all over the globe been so keen to find ways to process everything they experienced during the pandemic. Friends, neighbors, colleagues are asking the big questions of life right now. This is a decisive moment in history. It’s a crucial moment for the Church to focus on the one, not just the ninety-nine.
The Church will change as we emerge from exile. Once shaken so dramatically, nothing can return to exactly the same state as it once was. So, the question is, What do you want your church to look like on the other side of exile? What do you want your church to be known for? Do you want to be known as the group that looks out for its own, or as the family that seeks to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, inviting all to come?
Arise Church; this is our moment to shine. We have Kingdom-building work to do! May we all be encouraged by the charge Haggai issued the kingdom builders of his day:
“But now, take courage and work, for I am with you,” says the Lord of hosts. “My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!” (Haggai 2:4-5)
Let us at Alpha Mid Atlantic show you how to create an invitational culture within your church. With trainings and one-on-one coaching, we can share with you our vision of living as a Great Commission church in the 21st century. The Alpha Course is an 11-week post-modern, post-Christian, post-everything safe space for exploring life’s most difficult questions in the company of other sojourners.