Ad Clerum on Church Culture

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:19–20)

Eddie Gibbs grew up just two miles from my home near Nottingham, England. We went to the same boys’ grammar school –although a couple of years apart – but we had never met. He became a senior professor at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, and a recognized expert and published author on church growth and church and culture. I heard about him through a mutual friend, and when I discovered that he was coming to the Washington area. I called to see if we could meet. He not only agreed, but told me that he was free for the weekend, so I immediately invited him to visit and do a quick assessment of the Truro Church culture. I was still in the beginning months as rector and learning about this remarkable congregation. Eddie came, and after we had shared stories of our boyhood days, he spent the rest of his time talking to members of the congregation, reading all of our leaflets and bulletins, wandering around the surrounding neighborhood, and then attending each of our three morning services. After lunch at the rectory, I invited the vestry to join us and listen to his observations.

Eddie began by congratulating us for our extraordinary history and all of our remarkable programs and the glorious worship in which he had participated. He said that he was most impressed by the teaching and preaching ministry and the network of “home churches” that provided opportunities for discipleship as well as pastoral care. Eddie concluded by observing that Truro Church was a “wonderful club for connoisseur Christians.”

The vestry members sat stunned, and then one asked quietly, “Is that good?” I assured him it was not, and then I asked Eddie to say more. He told us that most of the people he had met during his walk through the neighborhood didn’t even know that we were a church. He pointed out that for those driving by,the only visible sign read, “No Entry on Sunday Mornings from 9am to 11am.” (It was the exit from the parking lot.) He also observed that the main church door was locked most of the time – and only open at the end of the services for easy exit. It seemed that everyone “knew” that we entered by the unmarked side doors.

He added a few more points, but by now we were all reeling –we had never seen it as Eddie did. Over the next months we made many changes – including taking down that sign! We also started a deliberate outreach program to the homeless in the neighborhood – and 30 years later, that ministry continues to flourish.

What Eddie observed is something that every church must constantly review –every community develops its own culture, its own way of doing things, and it is sometimes very hard for those on the outside to find their way in! And then, once inside, we have to be careful that we don’t use language that obscures. For example, we called the Truro entrance area the narthex and the basement the undercroft. Everyone knew what was meant, unless, of course, they were new! Following on Eddie’s observations, I made a deliberate practice of always asking newcomers what they found difficult or confusing when they first arrived, and I tried to make the appropriate changes.

Years earlier, when we planted the Church of the Holy Spirit in Lafayette, Louisiana, we started with a blank slate –there was no pre-existing church culture. So we had the wonderful and slightly daunting opportunity to create our own. Around the time that we were beginning this ministry (early 1983), the television series Cheers began,and their opening song described how we wanted people to feel about our church:

Sometimes you wanna go
Where everybody knows your name
And they're always glad you came
You wanna be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows your name

We also wanted to be a church where there was a genuine recognition that all of us are broken and in need of God’s healing and forgiveness. We invited people to share their personal testimonies during Sunday morning worship, and we made sure that we modeled God’s forgiveness and mercy in all of our ministries. This led to some remarkable moments of grace.

One of the most memorable took place outside the front door – we met in a high school with two large parking areas on either side of a long, covered walkway. On this particular Sunday morning, I saw a family of three walking towards me from the left parking lot. I recognized Alberto (name changed) – a professor at the university who had battled a lifelong addiction to alcohol that had led to a painful divorce from his first wife and three children. In the last couple of years, however, he had finally beaten his addiction, remarried, and was celebrating the birth of their first child. Walking towards me from the right parking lot was Mary (name also changed), his first wife, and their three teenage children. I calculated that they would meet just where I was standing. I held my breath and began to pray! Just as they were about to collide, Mary smiled at Alberto and his new wife and, holding out her arms, asked, “May I hold the baby?” Everyone nodded and smiled and they all walked in together, and I started breathing again. It was truly a moment of God’s grace in action.

We became known as the “Church without Walls” not simply because we owned no buildings but because we worked hard to tear down the barriers between us –young and old, rich and poor, male and female, married and single, black and white, educated and not so much – that are so often caused by sin and ignorance and lead to further isolation and brokenness.

One Sunday morning we had a visit from a woman who was a longtime member of the large downtown Episcopal church–she had heard stories about us and came to see for herself. Afterwards, as she was leaving, she said to me in a rather patronizing tone, “You seem to have attracted cast-offs from all over town!” I gave her a big smile and said, “Yes –and isn’t it wonderful!” And it was!

To God be the glory,