It’s Easter morning and I’m driving home from the sunrise service at The Fields Church in Carlsbad and listening to NPR’s Weekend Edition because it’s early and the voices on NPR are so soothing, when I hear a commercial — for a church. “What if church was a verb? Would you come?”
Well, no, I think to myself, because I’m a godless, liberal NPR listener.* Don’t these people know that fans of public radio hate religion* and would find the notion of an active church — as opposed to one that just sat still on Sunday morning — especially alarming?
But the ad presses on: “What if church considered ecology part of theology?” Ah, saving the earth. There’s something the godless and the Good Steward can agree on. Maybe this isn’t such a terrible use of ad dollars. By the time it’s over, I’m curious enough to check the website at 10thousanddoors.org.
Well, now, this looks good. (The site, as it turns out, was designed by college-age interns from Belmont University — a smart move.) Clean, bold, and conceptually simple, with a different door for each category: FIND (Looking for something? Odds are we can help), WATCH (People making a difference in their own backyards), NOW (Access headlines, people, and causes), TALK (Here’s a place to ask those questions...), and most interesting, GO/DO (Google Earth locates needs across the globe). And down at the bottom: US (We are the people of the United Methodist Church).
“The Methodist movement didn’t start as a church,” says United Methodist Communications chief executive, Rev. Larry Hollon. “John Wesley, during the Industrial Revolution, went out into the streets and preached to coal miners in Birmingham. The poor people were attracted to his preaching, and every study group was expected to have a dispensary for medicines. From the very beginning, there’s been a connection between the very practical needs of people and their spiritual needs. We would like to recapture that sense of the movement. Jesus taught in the synagogue, but He often taught on the street corner — with the woman at the well, with workers in a field. I think if Jesus were to speak to us about this campaign, He would say, ‘Welcome. I’ve been out here in the streets all along. I’m glad the United Methodist Church is joining Me once again. Go to it.’” Open the door and go outside.
Also: open the door and invite folks inside. The 10,000 Door project, says Hollon, “is a follow-up on eight years of hospitality and welcoming training we’ve done to create a sense of openness for people who are not familiar with the church and who are looking to connect. There’s this whole body of research that says that people identify themselves as spiritual but not religious. They’re searching for spiritual understanding and for personal understanding about their own place in a religious context, but they don’t have the language or the handles to do it. There’s a lot of Google-searching that goes on about religion. We’ve purchased several key words, and we’ve created a Google-search database that is unique to the United Methodist Church. We’ve actually purchased a Google server specifically for those searches. We’ve also put online a United Methodist 101 course. People can sign up and get involved in a direct interchange with other people — it’s a moderated course, and they can raise questions in a safe environment. We’ve had 1200 to 1300 people go through.”
Also: there are lots of doors. “There are many ways to engage the church, and they’re not all through the front door. Some are through the side door, some through the back.” For instance, “we’ve set a goal of starting 600 new places for people to gather for worship and study — not necessarily new local congregations with churches. Storefronts, urban settings, suburban settings. There is no fundamental departure from worship that is traditional, but there is a willingness to offer different forms of worship and worship that speaks to people in different ways.”
And maybe worship — or even God — isn’t the first thing you talk about. “We are targeting folks who are thinking about social justice and global issues. One of the things that makes us distinctive is our focus on both personal holiness and social holiness — meaning active engagement in mission projects or in public policy advocacy that is consistent with the ethical teachings of the church. Faith has been a province of individual change and individual behavior, but one of the things we’re finding in our research now is that people want to effect a broader change on the whole world. Our efforts at eradicating malaria are not the work of one church but a combination of churches.” Hollon cites a case where the UMC in Texas raised $1 million for bedding nets to be distributed in the Ivory Coast. The UMC in the Ivory Coast joined in the effort, “and that galvanized a national response” with the eventual result of “a national health benefit of $34 million from the Global Fund.”
Concludes Hollan, “Ads on NPR and CNN and in National Geographic — ads for people who are concerned about the environment and global issues — are part of the strategy: reach people where they are. If you’re comfortable in the NPR environment, we want to address you where you’re comfortable. We are simply extending an invitation to give us a look.” — Matthew Lickona
*It’s a joke. Honest.