Want to be an effective church? Throw a party
March 22 2001 by Tom Ehrich , Religion News Service

Want to be an effective church? Throw a party | Friday, March 23, 2001

Friday, March 23, 2001

Want to be an effective church? Throw a party

By Tom Ehrich Religion News Service "How long has it been?" asks our oldest son, who is home from college for the afternoon. "Six years?" says my wife, as we bustle together through the familiar routine of preparing for a party. More like four, my son guesses, remembering a party for his high school graduation.

In my parish ministry days, we entertained frequently, sometimes small gatherings, often large dinners for 20 to 50. Tonight's party for our Sunday School class is our first since moving here two years ago.

Dinners were probably the most radical things we did in parish ministry, at least the way we did them.

They were more radical than preaching, which people tune out if it cuts too close. More radical than worship, which even under my outside-the-box tutelage tended toward routine. Far more radical than church politics.

Dinner parties changed things. They helped strangers to become friends. Like the large table in one church kitchen where decades of women chopped chicken and onions, talked about life and became friends, these dinners helped task groups to form personal relationships.

We deliberately mingled newcomers and old-timers, young and elderly, married and single, thereby changing the equilibrium of parish life. We asked leaders to help serve. We showed no preference for pillars, but tried to treat everyone as special.

Most important, the parties helped people get closer to each other - to come out from behind their walls, to exchange more conversation than a Sunday howdy-do, to learn names and stories, to feel more at home.

Some people loved the parties. Newcomers wanted to meet folks. Members who had been around for a while but never fully integrated into church life were glad to be allowed in. Those who yearned for growth and vitality loved the excitement.

Some people hated the parties. They hated losing their little perch of preference. They resented the newcomers for coming, especially if they were different from the prevailing pattern, and they resented me for treating all as equal.

They feared the rearranging and deepening of relationships. They feared change.

Their fears were well founded, for nothing changes a congregation more than its members getting to know each other and its ranks opening to strangers.

This is when a congregation starts to bear fruit - not when its budget balances, or its doctrine is perfectly tailored, or its worship is tasteful and orderly, but when its members become friends and its circles become open to God's diverse interests and divergent nudges.

As I read the gospel, the fruits Jesus wants are repentance, changed lives, a heart for justice, a hand for servanthood, an eye for seeing deeply, a voice for praise, and a fundamental orientation toward victim and outcast.

I am convinced that religion's historic concerns for dogma, orthodoxy, tradition, hierarchy, order and good taste are quite foreign to anything Jesus taught. He had deeper quests in mind, namely, touching the broken heart, healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, casting out demons, humbling the powerful, lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry, releasing captives and giving sight to the blind.

In pursuit of his quests, He brought people together and forged relationships. Our ritualized re-enactments of the Last Supper, whose every detail we have fought over and fine-tuned, fail to capture the radical and messy spirit of what Jesus himself did.

My advice to pastors who dare to be effective: Throw lots of parties, get to know your flock, and then serve and preach to them as friends. Be ready for trouble, for when deepening relationships yield change, the agent of change will come under assault.

My advice to lay leaders: Cut council meetings short, spend less time and heat on financial management, and instead bring food to the parties, embrace the new and overlooked, and protect the pastor when relationship-building bears the fruit of vitality and growth.

My advice to evangelism teams: Skip the brochures, ads, telemarketing, follow-up cards and other easy stuff, and instead invite people to dinner.

Not that anyone is asking my advice. But hey, it was a good party.

(EDITOR'S NOTE - Tom Ehrich is a writer, computer consultant and Episcopal priest. He lives in Durham.)

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3/22/2001 11:00:00 PM by Tom Ehrich , Religion News Service | with 0 comments
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