I recently had a conversation with a woman who used to be a churchgoer when she was young, but hasn't found herself in a church setting in a while. When I told her I lead worship at a nearby church, she was interested in coming to visit.
We in the church have theories about where we go wrong in bringing new faces into our buildings. Out in the world people go about their everyday lives, and we watch to see if they are a part of the church or outside of it.
As for the ones who are outside the institution, we believe we've lost them — the "unchurched," the ones who have left the building in which people gather every Sunday and Wednesday to worship. We worry about them. We call them. We ask why they've left and when they are coming back.
When I was young, I would have called my interaction with this woman a "witnessing opportunity," but that's not the way I see it anymore.
Every week my family eats at the same burger restaurant in our city. We consider the people who work there as part of our community, a group of people who love our family and who teach us to be better human beings.
Could this be church?
Perhaps instead of asking how we should get more people into our church buildings, we should ask how we can be the church in our everyday lives.
What if we are the church here in this restaurant on Sundays at lunch time where we talk about how tired but happy we are as parents of two kids, where we watch our little ones out of the corner of our eyes to make sure they're not causing mischief.
What if the church is the interaction with every person we encounter who sees us trying to be kind parents, trying to honor the immigrants who work here as cooks, trying to tip our waiters, trying to get to know the other humans who inhabit this space?
It is an irony that we sit inside our church classrooms to ask these questions, when we could be asking them in the streets where we live, to the people we share our lives with.
I've been thinking about my faith attitude as a child. I grew up praying for all of my lost, “heathen” friends. I remember an evening once when I cried for a friend because I was so terrified that she'd go to hell unless I could help her understand her need for salvation.
I cried because I loved her, but I may have neglected the work of being love to her in the process.
And I deeply regret it.
The world doesn't need us sitting in our church pews, crying over their sins.
The church needs us to be the people of Christ wherever it is we find ourselves in that moment.
I am still called to love when I'm eating out with my family.
I am still called to love when I am in the line at Target.
I am still called to love when I'm getting the oil changed in my car.
I am still called to love when I'm sitting in a coffee shop.
I am still called to love when I walk in the woods and watch the birds outside my window.
So as we re-evaluate our church settings, let's consider that the church is already out there, and we need to let her do the work she's already been doing for centuries.
Let's consider that the church is already us, as sure as we live and breathe.
That doesn't give us a tally mark on the attendance record every Sunday, but it does give us a fuller sense of how to care for our communities and our shared humanity.
It instills in us that Jesus, until his last breath, engaged with people in every part of his day, whether he was standing in what we would call a "holy place" or at a well outside the city.
Getting people back in church isn't the answer to our question, because the question should never have been asked in such a way.
Instead we ask, how are we the church? The answer will be right in front of us, for better or for worse.
The answer will be in the way we teach our kids to love the other, in the way we use our homes to host others, in the way we practice generosity.
The answer will be in the language we use and in our ability to live a life of grace despite what political side we stand on.
The answer will be in the way we see life, in the value we place on the journeys of the people around us.
The answer, my friends, to the question, is found in the reality of Jesus, who spent his days with and for all the creatures he encountered and chose to serve.
May we be that kind of church.
This woman that I see every few weeks may walk into my church one Sunday to worship with me, and I will certainly celebrate it.
But I'll also celebrate these moments with her, these spaces in which we see each other and know that we belong to something true and good, something that does not let us go.