“Is that we are called to do? Create a place where everyone knows your name? Did Jesus call us to build a Christian version of Cheers?”
Those are the words of Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the Church of the Resurrection, the largest United Methodist Church in America. Hamilton, speaking to the 2015 Leadership Institute, recalled the decision to add a second worship service over 20 years ago. His leaders pushed back: “Then we will not know everyone. We love this sized church. We know everyone.”
When churches are faced with a change or a decision that will impact the comfort zone of individuals there will always be a push back. There is security in keeping things stable. There is comfort in knowing everyone. There is confidence in leadership knowing that they only have to work with 100 people instead of 200 people.
When I led a vision process in a former church there was push back:
“What if we grow?”
“What if there are too many new people?”
“What about the older members?”
“We will lose them.”
“I don’t want to be in a church with so many new people.”
“I like things the way they are.”
Last time I checked the New Testament, knowing everyone’s name and keeping things the same was not a hallmark of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus started his ministry with 12 Jewish fishermen. He stayed with them, ate with them, and taught them. As time went by, he invited many others to join in with Jesus’ ministry. There were women, the sick, the lame, the demon possessed, sinners and Gentiles — pretty soon, Jesus included so many new people, they were referred to as “the crowds.” The disciples didn’t know all their names, they didn’t know all their stories, the disciples didn’t know the children’s names or where the people worked. Jesus simply invited people. That is the behavior of a fruitful and growing Christian community.
One of the best part of the television show Cheers is that everyone knew the character Norm! He’d walk in and the bar would shout, “Norm!” The reality is not everyone knew Norm. The main characters knew Norm. What about all those people who came for the first time? Did everyone in the bar call their name out when they entered the door?
Often in church growth, evangelism, vision or mission campaigns, leaders are afraid to invite others and reach out. The myth about churches is that we have to get everyone to agree. We cannot alienate anyone. This is often the reason why new vision statements fail, new worship services fail, or changes in worship fail: they’ll offend someone. Often that someone is the “Norm” of the church. We have to keep Norm, Sam, Cliff, Carla and Woody happy. If you want to keep the main characters always a small known group, then your church will not reach new people.
If you want to reach new people you have to make decisions where you will not know everyone’s name. Decisions that are not about Norm’s needs. People will work against church leaders when programs and ministries start to reach people outside the church. Why? Because it means that the attention is not on them, but others — outsiders. This was the challenge of the Pharisees. The Pharisees didn’t like Jesus because he didn’t focus his ministry on them but on the lost and broken.
Next time you make a change in your church and someone says, “I like a place where I know everyone,” ask them, “Do you want this to be a Christian version of Cheers or a place where we welcome people, even if we don’t know their name?”