There is a convenience store in Cape Girardeau County with a roadside electronic sign flashing the words, "Amazing Bathrooms." Having a clean, secure place to freshen up is a real draw for motorists, particularly in the summer with so many of us traveling. Naturally, the proprietor's hope is that if you use the store's bathroom that you'll also make a purchase -- of fuel, soda, candy, et al.
It strikes me, though, how far afield the phrase "amazing bathrooms" is from the store's core business. XYZ Convenience Store was not built to be a rest stop. From the deep recesses of memory, I can recall a bank once offering a complimentary toaster to customers who open new checking or savings accounts. Again, the most important thing in choosing a bank is not the promise of a free appliance but examining how well the bank handles its core business -- keeping my money safe and making it grow.
It got me thinking about what a church's core business is. I have an uncle who is involved in international ministry, mainly in Russia and Ukraine. For Uncle Bob, the church's core business begins and ends with the following: getting people to make first-time commitments to Christ. He will tell us about how many professions of faith were made in Kiev, in St. Petersburg or in Volgograd.
I listen to my uncle, who is concerned about an entire continent coming to Christ, and think: "Good work! But what happens after these folks make that commitment? Is there any follow-up, any intentional Christian formation going on?" To put it more bluntly and to use the parlance of the business world, "Uncle, is there any service after the sale?"
I've been collecting the new state quarters and have filled many of the slots for the 25-cent pieces in a commemorative binder. A quarter, like any coin, has two sides. One side of a coin is more focused on national identity and typically has a portrait of a leader (Washington on the quarter, Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin Roosevelt on the dime, Lincoln on the penny.) The reverse of the new quarters is focused on state identity -- Missouri's features Lewis and Clark and the Gateway Arch, Tennessee's features several musical instruments, etc.
I've often thought that a church's core business might be like two sides of a coin. Some churches are focused on one side, my uncle's side, call it "winning the world for Christ." Other churches flip the coin and put more of their emphasis on what happens after, call it "being Christ to the world."
The best churches find a way to do both, of course -- although in my experience, it's rarely a 50-50 proposition. Congregations decide, either intentionally or by inertia, to give one side more effort than the other.
It may be that a church's "core business" is not as easily defined as that of a convenience store or a bank. The image of a two-sided coin may be too limiting. But this we can say with confidence: If churches ever begin putting too much emphasis on their terrific bathrooms or the availability of free toasters or some other creative gimmick when inviting people to an encounter with Christ, then perhaps we'll be abandoning our primary business model. We're here to help introduce the life of faith and a nurturing faith community to a world desperate for answers, for friendship and for a Savior. This last paragraph might make my Uncle Bob feel a little queasy. How about you?
Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.