Sunday, April 11, 2004

Spokane

Quiet Christians
For many mainstream churchgoers, spreading the word about their faith can prove to be a daunting task

Paul Turner
Staff writer

Last week, just before the 8 a.m. Palm Sunday service at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, the Rev. Brian Prior said the words that send a shiver through some quiet Christians.

Alluding to the next weekend's Easter services, he said, “You might want to invite friends or neighbors.”

Yikes.

A while later, a visitor asked Bobbi Rollins, a lay leader at the Spokane Valley church, if she could do that. “It would be hard,” she said. “It would
be hard for most of us.”

She loves her church and is proud of the clergy and congregation. But like many other nonaggressive Christians, anything that remotely resembles evangelizing just isn't her style.

“It's awkward for most mainline folks,” said the Rev. Bill Brackett, pastor at Community United Methodist Church in Coeur d'Alene.

He has had a hard time finding church members willing to distribute fliers, never mind actually knocking on doors and talking to people.

This reticence is no big mystery, said Andrea CastroLang, pastor at Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Spokane.

“It's the fear that the moment we open our mouths we will be lumped together with the crowd that scares off good people by hitting them over the head with Bibles,” she said.

But this creates a conflict. You see, the men and women in pulpits aren't the only voices calling for congregants to spread the good word beyond the steeple's shadow. There are multiple biblical admonitions to share the message of Christian faith.

Those passages do not, however, instruct believers to drag potential converts off to their house of worship, said the Rev. Bill Peterson of Spokane's Emmanuel Presbyterian Church.

“We are called to be witnesses, not prosecutors,” he said. “I find that many of us who are turned off by the thought of evangelism are reacting to having been buttonholed, or handed tracts, or asked very personal questions about faith before the individual has earned the right to go there.”

He summed up the contrasting styles this way.

“A witness shares what they have seen, heard and experienced. A prosecutor implies a shortcoming in someone else's life or behavior.”

Anyone who has been the target of proselytizing knows the difference.

Quite apart from biblical urgings or dwindling church rolls, there's another reason some people might seek to add those they care about to their congregations. It's natural to want to share an experience that has been satisfying and fulfilling. And sometimes people just have a hunch that their church might be a good fit for a certain person.

For many churchgoers, though, religion isn't a topic easily broached in secular settings. There's that fear of being misunderstood. And then there are the regional church-attendance statistics pointing to the possibility others simply won't relate.

“Here in the Northwest, many regard religion as optional or inconsequential,” said Westminster's CastroLang.

At a recent Wednesday night soup supper at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church on North Indian Trail, a few members of the congregation considered the question of whether they would be willing to invite someone to attend a service with them.

Sure, said one man. “The worst thing that could happen is they'd say no.”

But insurance underwriter Doug Myers made a face suggesting that he didn't think it was quite that simple. A bit later, he acknowledged that he would have to think twice before issuing such an invitation.

“I wouldn't want to strain the relationship I have with that person,” he said.

That's the rub. Even if the inviter views the offer as a welcoming gesture of friendship, there's no guarantee the invitee won't think a lingering note of weirdness has been sounded.

If popular perceptions of religious movements and churches were universally positive, such apprehension might seem alarmist. But here in the real world, indifference and hostility to faith matters lurks just up around the bend.

“Inviting someone to church can be a very tactful and tasteful way to let a friend know that church has been meaningful to you,” said Emmanuel Presbyterian's Peterson.

But it requires a willingness to make oneself acutely vulnerable to a potentially stinging rejection.

The Rev. Steve Egland, pastor at Prince of Peace, recognizes that it would be tough for some people to ask a friend to join them in a pew. One fear might be that the guest would simply be underwhelmed by the service itself, he said. “That would be embarrassing,” said Egland.

Of course, if someone initiates a conversation about your church and asks about the schedule and programs, that's different. Even shy Christians have been known to seize such moments and encourage the questioner to come check it out some Sunday.

Surely, though, pastors imploring members of their flocks to reach out to friends and neighbors aren't picturing something quite so passive.

Seemingly all church boards fret about ways to increase Sunday headcounts.There's good reason for concern. Between 1965 and the end of the century, mainline Protestant denominations had lost roughly a quarter of their membership. There are exceptions to that trend, nationally and locally. But to a large extent, the growth that has taken place has been at biblically conservative nondenominational Christian fellowships.

What to do? Some church leaders decide establishing an on-site preschool is the answer. Others conclude that Bible study or teen-oriented programs are part of the magic formula.

But surveys say there's nothing quite like one-on-one invitations.

Spokane's Life Center, a Foursquare Gospel church, has experienced growth in large part because members have been willing to invite friends, neighbors and relatives.

“It's the relationship that makes the difference,” said the Rev. Joe Wittwer, pastor.

He said the personal touch is everything.

“Imagine that you're sitting at home on a Saturday and the doorbell rings,” said Wittwer. “You look out and see two strangers in suits and ties. What do you think? You think, ‘Uh oh, I'm being intruded upon.' But on the other hand, if you looked out and it's your best friend or some family member, then you have an entirely different response.”

Congregations of the same denomination can have varying attitudes about all this. Part of it, said one pastor, is that individual churches simply have different personalities.

For instance, it might be a mistake to imply that there is one unifying approach to evangelism among all Catholic parishes.

Here's just one: “St. Francis of Assisi told his 13th century followers to preach the Gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words,” said Barbara Wodynski, director of religious education at St. Rose of Lima Church in Cheney. “That still just about sums it up for me.”

But what if laudable deeds and quiet acts of compassion aren't enough to retain current members and attract new ones?

Chances are, those churchgoers will eventually hear the pastor suggest inviting someone to come to a service with them.

For some, that would require stepping outside the comfort zone.

“Evangelism is a term that makes some of us break out in cold sweat,” said Susan Preuninger, director of lay ministries at Hamblen Park Presbyterian Church on Spokane's South Hill.

One recent afternoon, as her church's Outreach Committee (formerly known as the Evangelism Committee) was about to start a meeting, the members considered whether they would be able to invite someone to come to church with them.

Preuninger said that in the right circumstances, she could. “The main thing is you have to know who you are and be comfortable with your faith. Then also, you need to have a genuine interest in the person.”

Still, it's a challenge. Not long ago, Preuninger presided over a Sunday seminar titled “I Hate Witnessing.”

Committee member and director of children's ministries Joe Bruce said he grew up in a church that took an “in-your-face” approach to spreading its vision of spirituality. “But that's not my personality type,” he said. “I'm not good at that.”

He's not alone. Though cynics enjoy caricaturing churchgoers as extroverted, full-throated holy rollers, many Christians are quiet, contemplative and prone to regard their faith journey as a private matter.

Believers of different stripes can debate whether that amounts to living a Christian life in the fullest sense. But Westminster's CastroLang sees a more immediate problem.

“We're not doing a good job of communicating that churches are made up of really normal people,” she said.

While acknowledging that there are many misdeeds to criticize, she said she thinks media depictions of religious life have stigmatized the mainstream worship experience. And the only way that's going to change is if church members who aren't crooks or deviants find the courage to share their stories.

“We are in some ways very nosy,” said CastroLang. “We are thrown together with office workers and neighbors and other soccer-team parents. And we are not the least bit shy about sharing news about a good place to eat, a sale at the Bon, a great movie we've seen -- anything that adds to quality to life.

“But we're embarrassed because we're not sure that people will think of a faith family as an improvement to their lives.

“We all go to church because it meets a need. And yet somehow we fear that, if we talk about that, we will be a laughingstock.”

She's praying for that to change.


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