“This stuff is way too churchy!” the marketing director proclaimed as my wife and I sat down to discuss how to tell the community that a new congregation was being formed in Naples, Florida. “Too churchy!” she advised as we presented our concepts for a brochure that would be mailed to every household in a 20-mile radius. Cornerstone United Methodist Church was about to be born, and the marketing director was to help midwife that process. But upon consulting with her we discovered that she thought our ideas were way off base.
After looking at our humble brochure, she suggested removing any language that might offend or distract people from considering Cornerstone. “Do not use the word ‘church.’ Instead, try ‘community’ or ‘family,'” she advised. “Take out any reference to Jesus Christ; you know we don’t want anyone to be turned off.” In an instant the marketing world was taking hold of the story that would let everyone know about Cornerstone. With some new suggestions and formatting, our marketing director was developing a story that would accommodate the masses. It was deception, and every bad image of the marketing world began to flood our minds. Why hide behind fancy language that appeals to everyone? Why use images of perfect people in a brochure for a church that was supposed to be about the celebration of diversity through Jesus Christ?
To follow the advice of the marketing director would be to participate in consumer deception. This was the beginning of a participation in the narrative of the church, which was not to be manipulated and distorted. The church is a people called to worship, celebrate, and invite everyone to participate in the grace of God. So we told the marketing director to develop the brochure with the language we had prepared, the language she had told us would not work. Within this context Cornerstone began to share its story, and that story is beyond human control. Together, my wife and I decided that honesty about God’s call and work was far more important than selling the church like some consumer commodity.
This story of marketing the church is crucial for understanding what and who Cornerstone was to become. In the first few months of the church’s organization, a launch team was developed to help discern how we could become God’s church together. During meetings, the launch team would pray, study, and discuss what it meant to participate in the work of God as the church. They drew heavily upon the book of Acts, and the text that seemed to jump off the page was Acts 2:42-43: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone….” The early Christian community was helping to form and inform the team about the good work of worship. This work was to be a participation in the story that transcends time and culture.
The core elements of the early worshiping community celebrated those things that were a means of grace. The center of this celebration was worship. Worship shared more about the church’s identity than any marketing strategy or brochure. Participating in worship had to be our center as well, so that is where we began—with worship. God had laid out, through these practices that transcend time and culture, a model for worship that is beyond human agendas.
Initially, many on the launch team thought this sounded a lot like the same old story. “Why do we want to just reinvent the wheel that is leading the church to its death?” My response to their questions was one of affirmation, and it caught many of them by surprise: “Yes, it is the same story, but it is never old!” While many of the practices discussed had been celebrated throughout the years, it was not those “core elements” that were getting old but rather the human traditions that surrounded them that stifled the breath of the Holy Spirit.
So Cornerstone invited everybody to come and worship. Many came, from all over Naples and even Fort Myers. They came to see what was going on, what God was doing in the midst of a new congregation. Worship had taken on new significance, and within this celebration those participating found new freedom. If this action was seriously about God, then the practices that appeared old gave new breath to creative imagination and freedom in worship. Traditions based on human agendas or a need for comfort (such as a particular dress code), which restricted the invitation for all to come and worship, were no longer in place. These old “gatekeepers” had fallen away. People came to worship in suits and ties, shorts and t-shirts. They were young and old, of different races, and from different socioeconomic classes.
If this was all about worshiping God and not limited by our human agendas, then it was liberated for all to offer their human expression of praise and thanksgiving. The “core” elements transcend time and culture, but the work of the people comes from various forms of imaginative expression. As the congregation sang together, some would clap, raise their hands, and literally dance unto the Lord. Others would sit reflectively, but everyone was free to be present before the Lord without the pressure of congregational or denominational stereotypes. Together the community found that God’s formative story was being unleashed. “Come as you are” became Cornerstone’s invitation as we set our hearts toward becoming God’s church.
“Becoming God’s church” was the essence of what the congregation was learning together in those early years as Cornerstone participated in worship and practiced God’s unfolding story. Cornerstone uses the phrase “becoming God’s church” in all humility. This is not our church to control or manipulate; all belongs to God. “Becoming” indicates that all participants are on the journey of faith, and the practices that form the community have been made available for all throughout the ages. When the Body of Christ, the church, is about the business of “becoming,” it removes the dross that clogs the free-flowing winds of celebration and transformation.
“Becoming God’s church” also helps in acknowledging all those who have gone before and have contributed to the growth and health of the church. Those from the “old school” have a voice in this new day as well. Their experiences and struggles contribute to who the church is today and call the church to move forward in faith.
It was at a co-ed softball game that the word “becoming” took on new life. The softball team was participating in a heated match with one of our sister churches down the road when a lady sat down on the bleachers to watch a bit of the mayhem that was taking place on the field. The children of the church were playing on the bleacher in front of her when I heard her ask one of them, “What church is this?” Seven-year-old Kyle turned to the lady and said, “Cornerstone United Methodist!” “Where is that church?” the lady asked. Kyle thought for a moment and then proclaimed, “They’re out there on the field.” The walls of the church building had fallen down to reveal the true church. It was the Body, the people, gathered to participate in the formative practices of faith. Not finished yet but out on the field playing the game, striving together with great patience and fellowship to bring home a run.
Worship means much more than simply gathering on Sunday and “playing” church. It is in and through worship that disciples are formed in the image of Christ. Where that formation takes those who follow is back out into the world. If the church participates in those practices that transcend time and culture, it also equips the church to let God take the lead in everything it does. If the priority of gathering is God, it moves the church away from simply seeking its own kudos and opens the door for genuine dialogue and serious discernment. Does this work all the time? No. But it is in striving that the community grows, and it is in the struggle that the community finds direction, and it is in faith that the church seeks to bear good fruit.
It is not about us or those we want to see in church. It is all about God and who God wants to see in the church! This requires a complete surrender of self as we gather to do the work of worship and participate in the narrative that moves those participating outside the box.
“This stuff is way too churchy!” Yes, it is! Praise be to God, who has offered the gifts and grace to be the church. In working together, Cornerstone is still becoming and participating in God’s grand narrative, which brings the community beyond the limitations of self and sets those practicing the faith free to worship outside the box. During the nine years that Cornerstone has been in existence we have found that it is not slick marketing or homogenized targeting that makes a new congregation work but rather the genuine participation with God through the practices that transcend time and culture, opening the doors for creative expression and welcoming hospitality.
This article was excerpted and adapted from the Fall 2005 issue of Congregations magazine, copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. The full article can be read at /conversation.aspx?id=3730. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.
An even fuller version of the story of Cornerstone Church can be found in From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations.
Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power by N. Graham Standish
What is a blessed church? It is a church uniquely grounded in a relationship with God that allows blessings to flow through it. It is a church with a vibrant sense of faith, hope, and love. It is a church that embraces the sacred and that is not afraid to serve God in its own way. Pastor N. Graham Standish describes how a church that is open to God’s purpose, presence, and power can claim God’s blessing.
Rick Barger argues for congregations to reexamine what it means to be an “authentic church” in a culture where authenticity is hard to come by. As the key to congregational transformation he reclaims and lifts up an ecclesiological vision of the church as a “witness to the resurrection.” Recognizing the spiritual needs of a success-oriented society, he exhorts leaders to turn away from the story of our culture and to return to the story of the church.