While this probably happens more regularly than we would prefer to think about, there is a story that has been making the rounds that has touched a nerve in my heart and, based on its circulation throughout the inter-webs, the hearts of a lot of other people as well. Perhaps you have seen the story that has come out of Florida about the family of a boy who decided to throw a big party for his sixth birthday. The family invited all sixteen of his classmates and then on the day of the big event, not one of them showed up.
As I was reading about this I was seriously bawling my eyes out as I thought about this boy, who, once he realized that no one was showing up, started asking his mother, “When will my friends get here? ” I could not help but think about my own children should they ever find themselves in a similar situation. As a parent, what do you say in a situation like that? How do you help your child to still maintain a sense of their own self-worth in the face of such stunning and pointed rejection?
As I was thinking about this story and this family, my brain could not help but begin to drift back towards the Church and I thought about all of the different invitations we send and all of the different “parties” that we throw. Perhaps we would not normally think about what we do in the church in that fashion, but when get down to it, it’s really the same thing. So what happens when the Church decides to throw a party, and few (if anyone) chooses to accept the invitation and show up?
It happens a lot, does it not? Perhaps more than we would like to admit or really think about. It is happening more and more regularly as more of our congregations begin to deal head-on with the declining condition of our programs, membership, and budgets. And when this happens, when we look around our sanctuaries, class-rooms, or assembly halls, we cannot help but wonder to ourselves, “Where is Everybody?” As we ask such questions and as we try to cope with the sense of rejection that is personified by the empty chairs, it becomes natural for us to collectively begin to question the worth of our congregation. Who are we? What are we doing? Does this even matter any longer?
Clergy, how are we helping our congregations maintain their own sense of self-worth in those moments of perceived rejection? Who is helping us maintain ours?
I can remember the first time where in my young ministry career I experienced such a rejection. I remember very clearly one Sunday night when we were supposed to have our regularly scheduled youth group gathering, and not one of the thirty-plus students that we had on our roster decided to show up. It was a stunning blow to me, and one that I could not help but take personally. I can remember sitting there, alone, in our youth room, questioning all sorts of different things, and I remember how difficult it was to do what Taylor Swift tells me to do, and “shake it off” so that I could move on to the next week.
So, Church, what do we do when our invitations to join our parties for Jesus are rejected? Perhaps we can learn something from the mother of that boy who had not one friend present with whom he could celebrate his birthday. Instead of bemoaning the circumstances, and instead of blaming or demonizing the children who chose not to attend, the mother found other people to come and party. She hopped on social media and threw out a blanket invitation to whoever wanted to come and celebrate. And lo and behold, people came. They did not just come to make an appearance, but they brought presents, and they made a big deal out of the big day that it was.
But what happens when the people whom we have invited to worship, youth group, or our small group ministry turn us down? What happens when we hit the moment of realization that the people that we have invited to our party are not coming? Perhaps, at first, we are like that boy in Florida on the afternoon of his birthday, or perhaps we are like me, that night in the basement of a church in Missouri, asking the question, “When are my friends going to get here?” This is a natural, instinctive reaction that would be and is felt by anyone who has experienced such a rejection.
But that cannot be our only response. And therein lies the struggle facing today’s Church; so many of our congregations never allow themselves to move past this initial response of self-pity and into a realization that it is altogether necessary for us to finally expand our “guest lists” and start inviting people that would not normally expect to be invited.
While it is possible for us to use our imaginations and envision what it would have been like for that boy in Florida had his mother not made the fearless and audacious choice to throw open the doors of their home so that a party could be celebrated; it is not necessary to use such an imagination when it comes to so many of our local churches. We have seen far too many examples of what happens when a church does not want to expand its scope, reshape its ministries, and relinquish its sense of possessiveness. We discover in those examples a collection of good, faithful, and loving Christian people sitting in a room, surrounded by good food, good music, and the greatest Good News the world has ever known asking the question, “When are my friends going to get here?”
Something tells me that this isn’t what Jesus had in mind.
Photo Credit: Bejo/Shutterstock
Rev. Aaron Todd serves as the Minister for Education at First Christian Church-Midwest City, OK . Among other things, he focuses on youth, children, young adult, and family ministry. He is married to Debra, who is also a Disciples pastor, and together they have a 3 year old son named Zach and a precious baby boy named Josh. In addition to their human children, they have a 5 year old dog named Amos (named after the prophet). Check out his blog, Peace.Love.Coffee