Back in January, we had the privilege of enjoying a wonderfully restorative break at Papamoa. The weather was close to perfect. The ocean warmed up as the days rolled on. Our daughter and friend were able to surf most days. My wife, Angelika, and I had time to read several books, exercise, nap, catch up with some long-standing friends, and enjoy the beach. And to top it all off, we were gifted free avocados for the first seven days! It doesn’t get much better than this, does it?

In one of my beach conversations, a friend kind of blindsided me with the claim that every church says it’s friendly and welcoming on their websites, but fewer are in reality, and fewer still have people or policies in place to follow up those who slip out the back door. A couple of days later, another friend told me of a recent coffee conversation he had with the senior pastor of a church that had been experiencing exponential growth over the past few years. My friend asked the pastor, “What’s your secret? Is there a church growth strategy that you’re following?” And the pastor replied, “I only have one church growth strategy: not to grow! I don’t want a large church. We simply try to care for the people in our church and ‘unfortunately’ this attracts more and more people.

These observations got me thinking. The first thought I had was I ought to avoid catching up with friends while on holiday! Close on the heels of this idea was that there were nuggets of gold in each of these tales. Then a third and more sobering reflection arose in me as I strolled along the beach one morning: might God be speaking to me about my roles as a lecturer at Carey in pastoral care, pastoral counselling, and inner healing, and that of a pastoral care worker at St Augustine’s? This led to the following thoughts that I combined with some of my summertime reading.

In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson asserts that we cannot merely order ourselves into improved action.[1] By this he means, it is simply not possible by our will power alone or the click of our fingers to be better church greeters and more compassionate community caregivers and then consistently carry it out. Rather, we need to go deeper—to the level of beliefs and ideologies. We need to see, own, and be changed by love and the truth that every person—no matter how prickly she or he may seem to us—is an image bearer of God, is loved by God, and is welcomed at Christ’s table. Such journeys from the head to the heart are neither short, nor easy. They typically require perseverance, help from others, healing, plus God’s assistance. But they certainly are necessary, especially if we wish to change at our cores and extend consistent, genuine, and palpable care.

How might we experience this kind of transformative depth, especially during this pandemic-induced lockdown, when some of us are busier than ever? In The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer talks of our need to eliminate hurry (surprise, surprise), as well as build and maintain trellises in our own lives that support our connection with Jesus (see John 15).[2] He explains that without trellises (i.e., Christian practices such as good-ole Quiet Times and keeping the Sabbath) branches (i.e., us) will not be able to sustain the life of Jesus who is the One who transforms and concomitantly assists us to see others as they truly are.

In a somewhat connected sense, Mark E. Thibodeaux in Reimagining the Ignatian Examen outlines 34 two- to three-page variations of the Examen prayer that also open us to God and God’s transformative power. For example, in the chapter entitled Who Wore God’s Face Today? we are encouraged to pray: “I look again at my day and ask God, “In what person did I fail to find your presence? What person did I judge to be without goodness?” I relive that difficult moment in my mind, speaking with God about why that moment was so difficult for me. I say to God whatever wells up in my heart. I ask for wisdom. I beg forgiveness. I ask for healing. I ask how God was hidden in this person and how I might call forth that Presence the next time that I encounter that person.”[3] How beautiful is that prayer? Surely God through prayers like this will transform us and assist us to care for others more effectively.

This is to say, if the kind of subterranean changes that I’m speaking of here don’t happen in us at the level of our hearts, attitudes, ideologies, and beliefs, our pastoral plans and our best efforts, will be limited in their ability to convey the love, care, and acceptance that people need to experience in our churches. If, however, deep transformation takes place in us we’ll be better able to care for those who visit, remain, and choose to move on from our churches.

 And upping our game even further, John Peters reminds us in Third Person: The Work of the Holy Spirit that the Holy Spirit continues to work miracles in our churches and us today and that “any church that cultivates an openness to the Spirit will have wonderful stories to tell.”[4] Oh, how I long for this! Oh, that we might seek and expect God to pour out His Spirit more and more in our congregations. May regular encounters with the Spirit become the norm in our churches!

Now none of this is to say that, when we’re not in a state of lockdown, that front-, back-, and open-door church policies aren’t important. We all know they are. Good front-door policies include appointing people to welcome yet not corner visitors; provide newcomers with information about our churches, but not in an embarrassing fashion; and may I add offer them exceptional coffee! Although some new arrivals understandably wish to be given space, front-door work may also involve team members looking out for newcomers both during and after the service, so that they are not left feeling invisible, isolated, or unwanted. Follow-up methods also need to be established and enacted. Some of us could also apply John Peters’ exhortation to critique ourselves through the lenses of visitors in order to remove as much religious jargon and as many weird practices as possible from our services, so that we don’t unnecessarily put people off.

Church back-door policies and practices are often neglected. “People leave churches for a variety of reasons. A helpful pastoral response to this situation can be to touch base with” these folks, enquire after the reasons for their departure, see “if there is anything the church needs to” apologise for, “and offer to bless them as they transition into the next season of their lives. This approach helps persons to attend to unfinished business and bring closure. It also demonstrates care.”[5] Moreover, it may encourage some of these individuals to return to our churches! Do you have equivalent practices in place?

Church open-door policies, as I’m using the phrase here, entail having numerous strategies and webs of care in place that ensure that everyone who freely chooses to be part of our churches experiences palpable care and community. This will help people on the inside of our churches not to feel like outsiders and communicate that everyone matters. Clearly, the outworking of these goals needs to be contextualised. It may, for example, involve regular table fellowship, organising people to contact every parishioner once per month to see if they have any prayer requests and/or practical needs that they’d like support with, and following up congregants who have experienced crises in the months and years after their crises have ostensibly passed.

If I were to attempt to summarise the above into a few words, I’d say: The future of our churches depends on our unencumbered openness to the Spirit of God, the quality of our connections with Jesus and the Bible, the depth of transformation in our innermost beings, and the richness of our fellowship with one another. This is the foundation from which our church policies ought to emerge. If we were to subvert this order, if we were to continue with our hurried lifestyles, some of us might find ourselves unemployed sooner than we’d anticipated! However, if we were to embody this process, if – whether we’re in lockdown or not – we were to learn to live unhurried lives, our churches, God’s Kingdom, and ourselves will flourish.

[1] Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. (London: Allen Lane, 2018), 193.

[2] John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019), 95.

[3] Mark E. Thibodeaux, Reimagining the Ignatian Examen: Fresh Ways to Pray from Your Day (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2015), 32.

[4] John Peters, Third Person: The Work of the Holy Spirit (London: River Publishing, 2017), 13.

[5] Philip John Halstead, “Creating Pastoral Care Strategies for Churches in the 21st Century: The Organic Process of Developing the Pastoral Care Plan for St Paul’s Symonds Street, Auckland, New Zealand,” Pacific Journal of Baptist Research 11.1 (2016): 72-87, 83.

Written by Phil Halstead