If you’re a church leader or member, it’s difficult to back away from the proverbial front doors of your church and look at your entire ministry from a fresh perspective. Occasionally, churches innovate and invite a guest to come as a “secret shopper” of sorts to give them added insight into practices, culture and facilities that might hinder a first-time guests’ experience. No one wants to put unnecessary obstacles between a person’s entrance to a church building and their experience with the Savior.
I wrote Super Center Savior as result of several years of observation of church life in the Bible Belt. I grew up Southern Baptist and have served in SBC ministries since I was 19 years old. The book is not so much an empirical study as it is an intuitive one. As a pedigreed Southern Baptist, my family and I were at least TTAWs (three-time a weekers). Sunday morning, afternoon and evening found us at the church building, as did Wednesday nights. We were in good company (and I’ve never had better banana pudding than at after-church fellowships).
Flash forward to my early 30s when I was taking my own family to church three times a week or more. The realization dawned on me slowly. With all of us professional Southern Baptists so active in our churches, our communities remained fundamentally unchanged. In other words, our activity did not enhance our influence. It hit me particularly hard one fall day when our family cheerily headed off to church in the minivan one Sunday afternoon, waving with big smiles on our faces to our neighbors.
Those pagan neighbors of ours… Do you know what they were doing while my shiny family drove resolutely to church? They were raking their yards. Some were visiting with each other across backyard fences. Some of the pagan kids were riding bikes or playing football in front yards. We threw towels over our kids’ heads so that they couldn’t see the fun idolatry. Ironically enough, our church secretary’s last name was Pagan, so we couldn’t escape from them even at church…
I stewed on the reality that the local church in most communities was simply providing religious people with activity and occasional opportunity. Even on our best days, the church was more consumed with its own programs, events and membership than it was with its community. And it wasn’t just our church or our denomination. We were all happy with our occasional banana pudding and Vacation Bible Schools, thinking that it wasn’t our fault that they didn’t come.
So I asked myself, “Where do my neighbors and folks go?” When they’re not at work or at home, what do they do? The answer was obvious one evening when Carolyn and I went grocery shopping. Our town was at Walmart with us. If you’ve ever lived in a town of 50,000 or less, you know how central Walmart is to the culture. It’s not just a place to shop. It’s a place to socialize. Walmart has more influence over most towns than all the churches within a 15 mile radius do.
Super Center Savior was written slowly over about four years – from Monticello, Arkansas to Blacksburg, Virginia. It’s intentionally a short book – about 110 pages – so that Joe or Janet Churchmember will be open to reading it in one sitting, or at least a weekend. It’s full of humor and good-hearted poking at the church. It’s also a thought-provoking discussion-generator for Christians open to considering how life might be different for our communities is the Christians within lived life every day joyfully in love with Jesus.
You may ask, why you should read the book. You’ve never heard of me, and there are too many books already on your reading list. In addition, that Francis guy has a new book. Or perhaps for you, it’s just life is too busy to read another book. Think about this way. On your next drive to church, look around at your neighborhood, at your town. I want you to notice all the activity going on while you drive to church. All those pagan joggers, pagan shoppers, pagan Hardees breakfast eaters. Let it dawn on you that there are more of them – a lot more – than there are of people in your church (even if you attend a “megachurch”).
Ask yourself what it would look like if your church had as much influence in your community as Walmart does. We’ll learn something about being the church from those friendly Walmart greeters in the next chapter.