Thinking Thursday: What does the Christian Church have to offer?

A lot has been said and written about reaching the members of Christian cults for Jesus. Organisations like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs). There is a lot of advice available on how to reach them with the gospel. But we also need to talk about the importance of not just getting someone out of a cult, but into the kingdom.

In light of this, I want to consider: What does the Christian Church have to offer a cult member, like a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness? The glib, spiritual answer is the true gospel, salvation, a personal relationship with God, assurance, and so on. But what about in everyday life? What do we have to offer them physically, socially and emotionally?

It is very easy to operate only on a spiritual level and think that making a commitment to Jesus will make everything right. But what happens when you compare “Pie in the sky when you die” with “Cake on a plate while you wait”? People respond more to what they can see and relate to now than to promises about a distant future. Peter said “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15). Many of us are prepared, but nobody asks the question.

I find myself convicted by this too. How often does anyone notice that I’m different because I’m a Christian?

What do people see when they come to church? This applies to everyone, but those coming from a Christian counterfeit background have some pretty good things to compare us to. The Mormon Church puts great emphasis on families and social events. There are organisations for members of all ages, dinners, dances, picnics, and festivals for drama, dance, speech and sport. There is always something going on and lots of ways to get to know people. They are experts at ‘friendship evangelism’. Because they offer a ‘calling’ to a large number of members – even if it is to collect the hymn books – everyone feels important and needed. There are opportunities for many members to give talks and presentations, which develops their confidence, and Sunday School classes for adults, which increases their knowledge and understanding of their faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses attend 5 church meetings a week, where they study their publications, learn more about their faith, and practice their doorstep approaches. The importance of spreading the gospel round the doors is continually emphasised, and everyone is encouraged to take part. Because they are marginalised, they draw close together to support one another against what they see to be persecution.

Then, one day, someone realises that what they have given their life to is not the true gospel after all. They have been deceived, and if they want to come into the truth, they have to give up not just false beliefs, but their friends and their whole lifestyle. They look to the Christians to replace that, and because we have the ‘truth’ they expect it to be better than what they had before. What do they find?

A few years ago I was in the difficult position of having left one church and not yet settled on a new one. But it gave me the opportunity to visit churches as an outsider. I deliberately did not introduce myself or make the first move. I walked in, sat by myself, and waited to see what happened. Praise God, I never went home without someone making me feel welcome. But there is more to it than that. It is a sobering exercise to go to a style of Christian church that you are unfamiliar with and see how you cope when you don’t know what to do in the service.

If you have ever changed churches within the Christian spectrum you will know it takes time to adjust. The new church does things differently, maybe has different priorities. Hardest of all are the unwritten rules – “The way we do things here”. You can unsuspectingly fall foul of all sorts of conventions and taboos.

I remember one church where the minister got up one Sunday morning after a lively hymn and told the congregation that he didn’t want them to clap because he thought it detracted from the spiritual atmosphere. In prayer meetings, some churches encourage everyone to join in the prayers by saying “Yes, Lord!”, “Amen!” and other affirmative phrases while someone is praying. In other places this is considered as interrupting and irreverent. Unlike the principles of salvation, no-one can sit you down and explain the rules, because most people don’t think of them that way, or even at all. They have just absorbed them instinctively in order to fit in. And you can feel very uncomfortable until you do the same.

Now add to that the baggage that ex-cult members bring with them. Most cults teach wrong things about what Christians believe, so they will be confused. They will get their previous beliefs mixed up with their new ones, and not always be able to see why some of them were wrong. I remember one lady who came out of the Mormon Church and went on an Alpha course. She caused so much disruption asking questions the leaders could not answer and bringing up things that no-one had ever thought of, that they eventually asked her not to attend again. It may have saved confusion for the other people on the course, and saved embarrassment for the leaders, but she just felt rejected and lost.

Because they are new Christians, they are not able to serve in any teaching role, like Sunday School, and there may not be many other opportunities to serve. Suddenly, they are useless. They have left behind all their friends and all the organisations they used to go to. Suddenly, they don’t know anyone and have nowhere to go. Their lives, once so rich and full, are now empty. Sunday may be wonderful, but the week is long from one Sunday to another. When I left the Mormon Church I had recently been president of the women’s group and was frequently in the pulpit preaching. I joined a church that had no women’s group and didn’t allow women to preach.

Another difficulty is that, sadly, there are many Christian Churches today that are struggling with internal problems. Members gossip, criticise, and get into cliques. How can they recommend the gospel to others? Other churches are good places to be, but have no evangelism. Someone once said that the church is the only organisation formed principally for the benefit of non members.

Many churches do have a program for evangelism, but no follow-through. Teaching someone the gospel and bringing them to the point where they make a commitment is not enough. Jesus commanded us to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). Disciples are not converts. Discipling takes time and effort. Converts need to be befriended, taught, nurtured, and made to feel needed and important.

Years ago I spent time with Premmies and Moonies, and what drew me to both these groups was their love and care for one another. I truly felt they would do anything for me and would share their last meal.

Well, enough of being negative. I hope that as you have thought about your church you have been able to tick off the things they do right. But maybe not. Consider what your church will do with people who come to them, seeking the truth, or answers to life’s questions, or maybe having already made a step of faith. Will you say “welcome” and then expect them to fit in? Let me make some suggestions:

  • Have ‘Welcomers’ on the door, or nearby, who can watch out for new people and make them feel welcome. This is a delicate task, for they must not be ‘pushy’, just friendly. It is sometimes nice to have someone to sit with you and help you to feel at ease in a strange place – even if you are a long-standing Christian!
  • Have an introductory course which new people can attend, led by those who are skilled at explaining the gospel and relating to people.
  • Have a ‘Christian Living’ course for new Christians or those who want to get back to basics. Lots of people never get further than their initial commitment – they don’t know what to do next. The course can include explanations of ‘the way we do things here’ as well as guidance on prayer, worship, Bible study, and service. It is also useful to ask every new member to attend, no matter how long they have been a Christian – it means they get to consider what the church believes and how they do things and make sure they will fit in.
  • Have a team of people willing to fellowship newcomers. This works for friendship evangelism as well as for helping new people to feel part of the church. This does not require great skills, just a willingness to chat on the phone, go for coffee, help with chores/babysitting/shopping. Any serious questions can be referred to those skilled in apologetics or counselling – which brings me to my next point..
  • All members should be encouraged to understand the basics of the faith and be able to explain it and defend it. But there should be those who are better able to answer the ‘thorny’ questions or the ‘difficult customers’. There also needs to be a counselling resource – if not in the church, then outside it – where those with deep needs can find help.
  • House groups or special interest groups are a good way to introduce new people to some members they can get to know better. This will make them feel at home sooner. They should also be a forum for growth for all members.

It is all very well to say the church ought to do something. One pastor used to say “Church is the people of God, gathered around the Word of God, ready to do the will of God.” So that means you, and it means me. What can you as an individual do to help new people? You can be a ‘welcomer’ in church, a friendshipper out of church. How well do you know the members of your church, so that you can spot someone new? And how many times do they come before you have the courage to talk to them? It is a skill that can be learned – and think of the friends you will make as you practice! You can encourage your house group to attract new people. You could even volunteer to run an introductory course or a ‘Christian Living’ course!

The true gospel is “Cake on a plate while you wait” AS WELL AS “Pie in the sky when you die.” When our churches cater for people’s needs, then we will be able to answer the question about the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15), because people will see and ask.

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About Ann Marie Thomas

Married since 1974, Christian since 1986, 4 children, 4 grand children, disabled with fibromyalgia but was working almost full time until a stroke in May 2010 changed my life completely. Writing poetry and making up stories since I was a child, I only started to write seriously when my children were grown. My main ambition is to write science fiction, but along the way I got distracted by local history and poetry about my stroke. Taking early retirement gave me the chance to concentrate on my writing. My book, Alina, The White Lady of Oystermouth, was published in print and ebook at Easter 2012. The success of Alina led to the publication of Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John in September 2013, and The Magna Carta Story at Easter 2015. I am still writing science fiction - a series of novels called Flight of the Kestrel. For all my author news, see me author blog at www.annmariethomas.me.uk
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