Does my church have “bug light” theology?
By Cory Seibel
The church building was located on a corner that did not seem particularly significant or advantageous. Decades earlier the street had been the primary artery leading into a thriving neighborhood. During that period, the church’s Sunday attendance had swelled. Years later parishioners were still telling stories of the “golden days” when the church was so full that the ushers had to set up folding chairs in the aisles.
However, the demographics of the community had long since shifted. The areas of vibrant growth now were found in other parts of the city. These changes were reflected within the life of the congregation. Attendance was a pale reflection of what it had been years earlier. Seventy-two percent of the congregation was now 55 years of age or older. Most of the younger members lived more than 20 minutes from the church grounds. The church had become increasingly insulated from its neighborhood.
While it was clear that the things that once had worked no longer produced the same results, the leadership struggled to understand what needed to be done differently. Meanwhile, many church members continued to dream of a day when it would again be necessary to put up folding chairs in the aisles. And so, they faithfully prayed, “Lord, thank you for placing us as a light on this corner” in the hope that scores of newcomers would again be drawn to this location.
Then in the middle of a weekly prayer meeting, Joel was struck with a profound realization: His church had fallen prey to “bug light theology.” Folks commonly place bug lights in their backyards to combat the presence of insects. Once an insect is drawn to the bug light and comes into contact with it, zap! You get the picture.
"Bug light" theology
It occurred to Joel that his congregation had developed a similar mind-set about their witness in the community. They knew that Jesus had called them to be the light of the world (Matt. 5:14). However, they seemed to assume that the activities held inside their building were somehow so compelling that neighbors inevitably would be drawn through the front doors. Then, zap! The experience of being at church would be so electrifying that these newcomers would surely embrace the gospel. However, this theology clearly wasn’t working.
In reality, the experience of this church is not altogether different from that of many churches today. Across many generations of Christian history a tendency has developed for the church to be understood as a place where religious things happen. This has fostered an “attractional” mind-set toward the church’s identity as the light of the world. Simply stated, this approach assumes that “if you build it, they will come.”
So we build programs and events designed to draw others through our doors. Our message to our communities is “Y’all come and see.” In the end, “outreach” actually proves to be little more than “in-drag.” Over time some experts have even suggested that the keys to church growth are similar to what it takes to succeed in real estate (location, location, location) or retail (offering the right goods and services).
Now, I do not mean to discount the importance of inviting people to church. Neither do I mean to diminish the value of the services and events held within our church buildings. As a worship pastor, I have spent many years devoting my passion and energy to planning and leading these events and services.
Furthermore, I do not mean to suggest that the church should somehow lessen its investment in being hospitable toward new people who come through its doors. If anything, we need to continue to work harder at welcoming the newcomer. However, if we hope to be faithful to God’s call to bring good news to our communities, is an attractional approach sufficient?
More than attracting new faces
A growing number of people in our culture no longer view the church as a viable source of answers to their most burning questions. Many actually assume that the religion espoused within church walls offers nothing of relevance to their lives. The church is seen as a cold, unfriendly, even hostile place.
As a result, it is increasingly unlikely that many of our neighbors will choose to enter our church doors. Even some “seeker” churches are coming to this realization. Far too much of the “church growth” being experienced in many places can be attributed to the movement of Christian people from here to there. Meanwhile, scores of our neighbors remain beyond the reach of the church.
These realities present us with a wonderful opportunity to reassess our identity and calling. What might God be inviting us to discover at a time like this? We see the answer to this question modeled most clearly in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus did not stand at a distance and say, “Y’all come.” Rather, as John 1:14 tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
The incarnate Light stepped into the darkness to show us the way to God. The Father was not content to wait for “seekers” to come to him. Rather, through Jesus he sought to meet us where we are (John 4:23). Jesus walked with us, ate with us and communicated eternal truths to us in language we could understand.
Following his resurrection, Jesus discovered his disciples cowering in fear behind locked doors. Despite this, Jesus proceeded to present them with a charge: “As the Father has sent me, so send I you” (John 20:21). The followers of Christ could no longer huddle behind closed doors. They were to become a people sent forth in his name. Like these disciples, we are only faithful to our calling when we live in a way that demonstrates that we are commissioned by Jesus to participate in his ongoing mission.
Going out to sow
Knowing this, should we be content to hide our light under a bowl (Matt. 5:15), or do we choose to position ourselves strategically in the midst of darkness in much the same way that our Lord did? Church planter and author Neil Cole notes in his book Organic Church that Jesus begins the parable of the sower with the phrase, “A sower went out to sow” (Matt. 13:3). This observation compelled Cole to ask a simple, yet profound question: “What if we bring the seeds of God’s kingdom to where life happens?”
Cole became increasingly convinced that “church should happen where life happens.” When his church set out to take this seriously, they pondered starting a coffeehouse as a place to cultivate relationships with non-Christians. However, Cole says, “God ruined our plans by suggesting to us that we go instead to the coffeehouses where people were already.”
What might happen if we began to ask similar questions where we live? We aren’t talking about a return to old patterns of confrontational evangelism or door knocking. For that matter, we aren’t necessarily even talking about programs. Rather, we’re simply talking about the way of Jesus—the way of incarnation.
What if we were to invest in relationships over the long haul in a way that would enable us to walk and eat with those who need Christ? What if we truly listened to our neighbors and coworkers closely enough to understand their world from the inside and to communicate Christ to them in language they could understand? What if we modeled loving and serving in a manner that demonstrated the validity of the gospel?
The early church
We see this way of life powerfully displayed within the early church. Aristides, a Christian apologist in first-century Athens, described the Christians of that day: “They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something they give freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother.”
It is estimated that the early church grew at a rate of 40 percent per decade during its first several centuries. This occurred despite the fact that “Christians didn’t have direct mail, large special events or banners to get their message across. All they had were themselves,” write Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson in The Externally Focused Church.
Our church buildings aren’t bad, but they can limit our imagination. As it’s often said, we shape our buildings and then they shape us. Sadly, this has remained all too true of Joel’s church. This congregation has never managed to get past the mind-set of “bug light theology.”
Ultimately, they decided to engage in an expensive sanctuary-remodeling project. Many within the congregation hoped that once the neighbors noticed that beautiful new stained glass windows had been installed they would come to investigate what was going on. However, this expectation was never realized. A short time later, the congregation raised $50,000 to construct a steeple on the roof of the sanctuary. Surely this would catch the attention of the neighborhood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this expectation also remains unfulfilled.
How might Jesus be inviting us to join in his mission within our neighborhoods and communities today? What might happen if we invested even a portion of the resources of time, energy and imagination we presently devote to being intentionally attractional to being intentionally incarnational? Let’s go see!
Cory Seibel is assistant professor of pastoral ministry at MB Biblical Seminary and is based on the Fresno, Calif., campus. In addition to teaching, Seibel is directing pastoral ministry education, including supervised ministry experience, and is serving part-time as minister of worship at Bethany MB Church in Fresno.