Last night our church participated in a community fair hosted by our area colleges, Henderson State University & Ouachita Baptist University. We were excited about the chance to hand out information about our church and hopefully get some kids plugged into Beech Street.
I quickly discovered that at a community fair it's very difficult to get students' attention. Everyone has something they're giving away and if what you have isn't any different the kids won't even stop. When we said we had free candy, they barely broke their stride. When we said we had cookies their ears would perk up but, to be honest, several other places had cookies. But then I discovered what would stop almost every student who came by our table. Rather than telling them we had cookies, we told them we had homemade church lady cookies.
You can't appreciate the stopping power that phrase has on college freshmen until you see it for yourself. It was as though they'd hit an invisible wall. They'd turn to our table, take some cookies, hear about our church, and head to the next vendor. You can say what you want about spiritual gifts but I'm convinced that the approximately 600 cookies that the ladies of our church provided were as powerfully used by God as any sermon I've ever preached.
There's a lesson for churches to learn from this. What does the student's interest in homemade cookies teach us about how we can minister in our communities?
Be authentic. One young man at Henderson asked me, "What's the difference in you guys and the other churches here? What makes you guys different?" It was a great question. And you could answer it several ways. You could talk about what a great praise team you have; but lots of churches have a great praise them. You could talk about how friendly you are; but lots of churches are friendly. You could talk about all the cool ministries you have; but lots of churches have cool ministries. So I answered as honestly and simply as I knew how. I told him that we were just a bunch of messed up sinners who serve a God who loves us in spite of our sins. I told him that we don't have it all together and we don't really try to pretend that we do. We just serve Jesus because we love him and he's better than anything else in our lives.
Now I'm sure that's the wrong answer according to most evangelism textbooks you'd read but I think that the church gets off track when we put on this facade that tries to show that we've got it all together. I think that actually drives people away. The gospel is an appealing message because it's for bad people. What makes it good news is that in Christ, God is reconciling sinners to himself. But often we try to act like we've got everything together so well that people who don't know Christ don't think they've got a place among such saintly people. Or they're turned off because they see how we act on Sunday night and know we're a bunch of hypocrites. But what if instead of acting like we've got it all together we were just honest with others and with ourselves? I think instead of driving people away, we'd actually draw people in to learn more about the God who loves messed up people. I'm not suggesting we celebrate our sin. I'm suggesting we celebrate a God whose grace is greater than our sin. See, we think we've got to hide our imperfections. The reality is that our imperfections highlight God's grace. Again, it's not that we celebrate our sins. It's that we acknowledge them, and then celebrate that God's grace is greater. In Romans 5:20-21 Paul wrote, "Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Grave overflows, it super abounds over our sin. All who repent can be forgiven--no matter their past, no matter the sin, Jesus' blood can wash it all away! That's the message people need to hear. Not, "Look how I've got it all together" but "Look how great Jesus is to love me even though I'm a wreck!"
Be exclusive. The students weren't interested in our candy, and weren't all that interested in our cookies--until they learned they were homemade cookies. That was a draw because no one else had homemade cookies. Everybody had free candy. Everybody had free pens. Everybody had information cards. Everybody even had smiling, friendly people at their booths. But not everybody had homemade cookies. It was the exclusivity, the 'I can't get this anywhere else' that really grabbed them.
What makes the church unique, what we have to offer that no one else has, is the gospel. Nobody else is offering a savior who forgives all who will repent and believe. Nobody else is offering redemption through the blood of Jesus. Nobody else is offering the lasting joy and satisfaction that only comes from knowing God and delighting in him. That's what we have. That's what Paul spoke about in Philippians 3:8-9, "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith..." In other words, there was something in Christ greater than in anything else that could be found. That's the exclusive message of the gospel, and Jesus has entrusted the delivery of this message exclusively to his followers. This is our job, our task, and no one else's. When we try to draw people in with anything else, we just become another voice in the crowd that fades into the background. But Jesus promised in John 12:32, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." When we lift him up through preaching the gospel, he draws people to himself. We have the exclusive message of the gospel and we have the charge to preach it.
Have a good reputation. What would make these students stop and accept cookies from complete strangers? Answer? We told them the cookies were homemade church lady cookies. Nobody's ever had a bad cookie at a church potluck. Church ladies have earned such a reputation for good cooking that all we had to say was, "Homemade church lady cookies" and we had kids interested. If we want to reach our communities we have to be willing to do what it takes to earn a good reputation. I Peter 2:12, "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation." Peter calls us to live above reproach before others so that even if they want to accuse us, they'll find nothing. That's the way we impact our communities. By investing not just our money but our very lives into where we live. We earn the right to be trusted by the way that we live among our friends and neighbors. That's not easy. But it's the life that we're called to live for the glory of God. Let's do whatever it takes to reach whomever we can, for the glory of God.