It’s evening, and you’re finally settled at the dinner table. Just as the first spoonful of long-awaited yam and celery soup is approaching your mouth, the doorbell rings. You aren’t expecting anyone, but you experience a sinking feeling in your stomach because you strongly suspect who it is. It’s someone with an agenda that isn’t yours but who will insist that their agenda become yours. Yes, it’s someone selling something.
The single-pane aluminum frame windows in your house have been a virtual neon sign inviting every construction company and window pane producer in a five-state area to ring your bell. A recent hail storm has every roof inspector in existence descending on your neighborhood. The initiative on the next ballot will apparently affect your great-great grandchildren, either making or breaking their very lives. You will be condemned to an eternity of suffering unless you accept the religious message of the young zealots on your porch. Household break-ins are on the rise, and your only hope for securing your valuables—and maybe your life—is through signing a multi-year contract tonight with a particular home security company.
You know how it goes. These interruptions are annoying at best, and rarely have anything to do with your actual needs. Yet they keep coming. People come to your door uninvited and hope you will alter your schedule for them and their product. And they expect you to pay them for the privilege! There are even a few who will use high pressure, manipulative techniques, telling you things that may or may not be true just to get you sign on the dotted line tonight.
Not surprisingly, this is often how the residents of neighborhoods see local congregations. Our neighbors perceive a local congregation as yet one more entity primarily seeking its own profit and benefit. And, to be honest, there is good reason for that. As the church, we often are more concerned about selling our product than in being in relationship for the sake of our neighbors. We justify this by saying that what we are selling is exactly what they need. Though that may actually be true, that isn’t the issue here. No one likes someone else’s agenda imposed on them. Whether the church goes door-to-door or offers great youth programming, we are often correctly perceived as seeking to benefit ourselves, bolster our membership, fill our pews, and most importantly, increase the offering.
I know this sounds terribly cynical, but we need to be honest here. Isn’t that how we measure our success as a congregation? Using the same primary criteria for success as someone selling faulty vacuum cleaners doesn’t seem in keeping with the reign of God. It’s time to challenge our assumptions about success. It’s time to consider the kingdom of God before we consider the annual congregational report. It’s time to put the needs of our neighbors ahead of the needs of our organization. It’s time to strengthen relationships with our neighbors. It’s time to reveal the perichoretic nature of God in our communities. And, like all relationships, this starts with listening.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of coming uninvited to sell a particular product—one you may or may not need or even want—there were caring and trustworthy people who actually had your best interests at heart? Not offering you their product to increase their sales commission, but helping you, serving you, making your needs their priority? Can you imagine someone patiently taking the time to really learn what you wanted, what you needed, and only then sought to help you get it?
Yeah, right. That door-to-door company wouldn’t last long.
But that’s really the point: the church isn’t a door-to-door sales company.
Can we be the organization that takes the time to listen, to learn, to meet needs that emerge from relationships rather than the organization’s agenda? Shouldn’t the church be this? Relationship is the nature of the triune God, the God we are called and sent to reveal. Relationships, then, need to be our first priority as the church. Relationships involve trust. Trust takes time to develop. That, again, begins with listening.