Obstacle Course

I never thought I’d say this, but we at St. John’s have possibly the most exclusive church in the nation right now.

The obstacles to entering our church are so daunting that it requires unusual drive and dedication to overcome them, even for committed Christians. It takes a truly exceptional visitor to persevere in the face of these barriers.  

This has nothing to do with money, class, theological purity, or an unwelcoming, insular attitude. It’s just that, thanks to street construction, we’re very near having to tell people, “You can’t get here from there.” First, the pavement between our main parking lot and the church was demolished.  Then the main traffic artery, perpendicular to the other street, was also torn up for several blocks.

If you want to hear a sermon at my church right now, you really have to want it.

Some people do. On Sunday, I watched through the window in horror as an elderly couple, barely able to negotiate a step on a sidewalk, plunged ahead into the construction area. They tottered down the torn-up grass bank into the ruts and ridges of the sandy no-man’s land that was once a street, and then gamely struggled up the far bank. All this in oppressive heat and humidity.

This is the picture of discipleship. Would that our congregations were filled with such people so determined to get to worship that they would risk life and limb, let alone discomfort, to do so. This construction has provided evidence that our congregations are blessed with such people.
On the other hand, these barrier-blasters are relatively few. Attendance at services last Sunday was the lowest since I have been here, rivaled only by a January Sunday in which another obstacle — in the form of a snowstorm — stood in the way.

As I study both the inspiring, intrepid Word-seekers and the disheartening attendance figures, I find yet another paradox with which the church must grapple: the paradox of accessibility.

On one hand, we see the necessity of breaking down barriers to the Word, be they physical, cultural, psychological, or emotional. We have seen the results of decades of maintaining barriers in our congregations, keeping out those who are not like us, demanding that visitors conform not only to our doctrine, but to our entire church culture. We have created worship spaces, as I discussed last month, that are unwelcoming and even inaccessible to so many people who need to hear the Word.

On the other hand, we have also seen the results of years of over- accessibility–catering to individual preferences to the point where the main point of worship is not to please God, but to entertain religious consumers. Psychology has told us that we are far more likely to value that in which we are personally invested. The more time, effort, and sacrifice we invest in a cause, the more committed we are to that cause.

Simply put, we get what we put into it. By focusing on the comfort and convenience of our members, we deplete the church of commitment.

I guess I see two guiding lights in this discussion of accessibility:

There is a difference between eliminating barriers to the Word and pandering to likes and dislikes in an effort to lure people into the church. Blasting barriers works as long as God is at the center of our efforts.

There is a difference between hearing the Word and committing to discipleship. We bend over backward to eliminate the unnecessary barriers that keep folks from encountering the Word in our congregations. Yet at the same time, we recognize that our faith in Christ is not dependent on how easy or fun it is to practice that faith. Sometimes the new life that Christ brings lies on the other side of a desert; not easy but definitely worth the trip.