Naked church

Dear Church: if you bring good news to your community you won’t need to inform your neighbors. They already know. If you don’t—well, chances are everybody knows but you.

Let’s get down to it: a church is either welcome relief or it’s not, and it doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to know the difference. Like the little boy in the fable who knew darn well that the emperor was parading through the streets au natural, often it’s people at the margins of religious life (or off the page entirely) who tend to be the most reliable truth-tellers.

Those of us on the inside are often too busy defending the color of the life preservers to notice that the bow of the ship is slipping beneath the waves. But ordinary run-of-the-mill heathens, God bless ‘em, are amazingly adept at distinguishing between a church that just might embody good news and a church that is operating, shall we say, in the buff.

Here’s a fun assignment:  One day when you’re feeling somewhat brave, ask one or two of your most trusted pagan friends to take a field trip with you through your church’s website. Then ask for their honest feedback. Warning: this exercise is not for the thin-skinned.

What these beautiful infidels will help us discover are the tell-tale signs of ecclesiastical nudity. I humbly offer three (and I’ve been guilty of each):

A church is walking naked among its faith-challenged neighbors if . . .

1.  It muddles the good news with arcane references.  A faith newbie may miss the message that Jesus is crazy about her and is cooking up something beautiful for her one-and-only life if she’s preoccupied with the question, What the bleep is a Narthex?

2.  It puts the denominational cart before the horse.  Long before your seeker friend gets around to pondering the priesthood of the believer, separation of church and state or the pronunciation of “Helwys,” chances are he wants to know if God cares about his failing marriage and Vicodin addiction.

3.  It assumes that people care about infrastructure.  I’m sorry, but every church that promotes its administrative scaffolding on the internet should be sent to bed without any supper. When’s the last time you heard anybody say, “Baby, I know I said I would never darken the door of a church, but have you seen First Baptist’s bylaws and committee diagram? I’ve totally changed my mind!”  Please.

Any time women and men who are not so much on speaking terms with God venture to investigate my church or yours—trust me, it’s a flat-out Jesus miracle and should be honored as such. And if some of these folk actually do show up in person, you can bet they’re looking for something more life-affirming than our institutional machinery. Let’s offer them the pearl, not the shell.

Bottom line: 

You can usually spot a church that’s sporting its birthday suit when its blood-pumping center is something other than God. Unfortunately, multitudes of us in church have perfected the art of leading from everything but God.

But here’s some hopeful news: Our cities, towns and neighborhoods are full of people who will tell us when we’re nekked.  We just have to ask.

Julie Pennington-Russell

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Julie Pennington-Russell is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Decatur, GA. She blogs at

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