As a kid, my family enjoyed dinner every Sunday after church at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. This would be the Italian side of my family. The second thing that hit me when I walked through their door was the plastic covers on the lamp shades–thankfully NOT on the sofas and chairs. The first thing was the smell: a heavenly blend of garlic, marinara sauce, and Italian spices from the roast beef.
Play, watch TV, eat, fall asleep while the grown-ups visited. A good life.
Whenever I smell Italian food, I think of Grandma and Grandpa’s house.
If you were to visit (they’re in heaven now, so you can’t), you’d say their house smells “Italian.”
If you were to ask them to describe their home’s smell, they would say… “Our house has no smell.” Or maybe, “Our house smells normal.”
Your own culture is invisible to you. It doesn’t smell like a culture. It doesn’t smell at all, to you. It’s your NORMAL. My Irish friends don’t listen to Irish music, they listen to music. My Greek friends don’t eat Greek food, they eat food. We become oblivious to the smells and textures of our own culture. We interpret them as NORMAL and as UNIVERSAL. Who DOESN’T love the smell of cooked cabbage, right? (Peeeeewwwww!)
And that’s what can make church-people like me so dangerous: we create a church-culture that WE can’t smell. But our VISITORS CAN SMELL IT. It’s the first thing that hits them.
In our minds, we don’t do contemporary worship or traditional worship or cutting edge worship. We just do worship. Everybody should like it, right? To us it is meaningful. To us it is reverent. To us it is celebrative. It has become our “normal.” It’s the music of our hearts. Hate to burst your bubble, but just because it’s in your heart, doesn’t mean it’s in everybody’s heart.
We universalize our normal. We get so used to it that we can’t imagine anybody NOT being used to it. It has no smell.
But our visitors smell it a mile away. They smell our worship style, our color scheme, our musty air, our architecture, our pacing, our technology (or lack of it), the elements we include, the elements we omit, our language, our coffee brand, our Bible translation, our inter-relational harmony, our wood pews or theater seats, our printed media, our projected media, our choice of instruments, our volume, and our preaching style. All the stuff that we stopped noticing years ago. It all communicates.
Your church smells. The most important question you can ask is this: IS IT A GOOD SMELL OR A BAD SMELL TO THE PEOPLE GOD HAS CALLED YOU TO REACH?
Can you smell it? If you can’t, your church is in trouble.
The second most important question you can ask is: DO WE EVEN KNOW WHAT SMELLS GOOD TO THE PEOPLE GOD HAS CALLED US TO REACH? If God has called you to reach your community, what is their median age? What is the segment of that age you are best equipped to reach? What smells do they hate? What smells drive them away? What smells do they love? You have to know. You have to listen. You have to relate… and you have to SACRIFICE.
That’s the next important question, actually the most decisive question of all: ARE THE PEOPLE AND LEADERS OF YOUR CHURCH WILLING TO BREATHE WHAT SMELLS BAD TO YOU SO YOU CAN REACH THE LOST?
I am NOT saying that we should water-down our doctrine. No way! I believe in teaching the whole counsel of God from the Word of God. I am NOT talking about the content of our faith, but about the PACKAGING of it. I am talking about the morally neutral, cultural elements that define us. I am talking about the stylistic stuff. Stuff that leaders should be super-sensitive to. Are we needlessly driving away honest seekers after God? Are we putting a stumbling block in their way because we don’t like the smells they like? Are we willing to sacrifice our preferences for the sake of lost people?
How long would you hold your nose (and smile) if it meant a great flow of hurting people into God’s kingdom?
Three lessons here:
1. Learn to smell your church through visitor’s nostrils. Okay, maybe not the most appealing analogy, but you catch my meaning. You stopped noticing that old planter in the corner, covered in dust, years ago. But it tells newcomers you don’t care. You stopped noticing the handwritten signs taped to the walls. But it tells your visitors something. You can put out a million signs that say, Visitors Welcome. But if you create a church that doesn’t smell good to them, don’t be surprised if they stay away in droves.
2. Sacrifice your preferences for the sake of lost people. Here’s where Paul smacks us upside our self-centered head:
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.” 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, NKJV.
If your church smells the same today as it did fifteen years ago, don’t be surprised if the young people go elsewhere. I’m not saying that your church is necessarily bad… maybe God is calling you to reach somebody other than young adults. That’s great. Be true to your call. I’m just saying, don’t be surprised.
But I’m also saying something deeper. Are you, veteran Christian, so hardened that you’re willing to drive away potential converts for the sake of your personal preferences? God help us! And God give us leaders brave enough to defy that unholy spirit.
“Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our [younger, weaker] brother’s way.” Romans 14:13, NKJV.
Oops. Did I catch you self-righteously nodding your head? “See!” you think, “You’re offending the bretheren and sisteren! It’s wrong!”
No, it’s not wrong. It’s wrong to offend the WEAKER brother or sister… that is, the new kids on the spiritual block. It’s not wrong to offend the veteran, by this Bible verse.
Dear Long-Time Christian, please give up your right to be offended. Please give up your right to have it your way. Please give up the drive that makes you lock the church in YOUR personal Golden Era… Please let the church smell FRESH.
That means we may offend–we must offend–people just like ME: veteran Christians. I should love lost people so much that I can tolerate any smell to get them saved and folded into God’s family. I must make that sacrifice, not the lost people around me. God calls me to that. And if I’m not ready for that by now, the church should pass me by. Lord knows, I’ve had enough time to grow up.
Remember all those times you said that every Christian is a missionary? Well, it’s time to practice what you preach.
Pretend God planted you in a far-off land. Pretend you’re a missionary to an alien tribe. Pretend you have to eat food you don’t like, sing songs you don’t like, and worship in a hut you don’t like… in a language you don’t like… so they can spend eternity with the Savior. Be a missionary, and please, for heaven’s don’t grumble about it.
3. Celebrate the smells of other churches. Don’t criticize them if they’re preaching Christ and his Word. Don’t judge their music or vestments or programs or language if they are reaching their community for Christ. So they’re not the same as you. So they don’t share your preferences. They can reach people you’ll never reach.
Aren’t you glad somebody told you about Jesus in your language, your style?
That is a pleasing aroma to God.
Can you smell it?
I’d like to invite you to one more local book-signing. I’ll be at Barnes and Noble on Saturday, April 25, at 10:00 to noon. In many ways, this one is most important to me. I did signings at two local Christian bookstores, and that was fun. But this one is about our testimony. I’d really love the Barnes & Noble store to know that Christians come into their store and buy their books. So if you can make it, just to visit for a while, or if you could hold off buying a book till then, that would be great.
Get on the email list and I’ll send a reminder.