Show, don't tell
Before moving to Cape Girardeau in 2005, our family spent 16 years in St. Louis County. Up north, this is the question that people ask one another: "Where did you go to high school?" (There are, to be fair, lots of high schools in the St. Louis area.) The high school identifier is a way to locate you geographically.
In Cape, my observation is that a different question is asked: "Where do you go to church?" The assumption, whether accurate or not, is that if you live here, you go to church. The church identifier is not a very good way to locate a person geographically. Some people walk across the street to go to church. Others drive across town. Some worship in a different county from where they live. There are some who drive across state lines to come to church. If locating a person geographically is not the intent in asking the church question, then there must be other reasons for the query.
I'm going to suggest that if you get asked that question, "Where do you go to church?" that you be evasive. Instead of offering up the information willingly, give them a Jesus' answer. Jesus preferred to show people rather than tell people.
Jesus was once at Bethany. So was John the Baptist, an impressive, fiery character whose aura and intensity were so compelling that people went out into the desert to hear him speak and to be baptized by him, hence the appellation "Baptist" or "Baptizer."
One day, John was with two of his followers and Jesus walked by. John, showing the deference that marked his relationship with his cousin, proclaimed, "Behold, the Lamb of God!" Intrigued, those two men began to follow Jesus, who whirled on them and said, "What do you want?"
The pair asked Jesus neither the St. Louis question nor the Cape question. They didn't care where he had obtained his education or where he worshipped. They simply wanted to know where he was living. Wherever that place happened to be, that's where the two men wanted to go. They wanted to be with him. Jesus' answer was not a geographic location nor the place where he was worshipping. He didn't want to tell them; he wanted to show them.
The Lord's answer, in John 1:39, is "Come, and you will see." What if we used Jesus' answer with someone who asked us the church question? Rather than give information, offer an invitation. Invite him or her to come with you sight unseen. Come with me some Sunday and you will see. Benefits? The person with whom you've employed the evasive answer cannot carry any stereotypes or religious baggage. A preconception, what you think about something before you experience it, often is decisive. Jesus didn't tell the two men where he was living because he knew showing them was better than telling them.
So, the next time someone asks "Where do you go to church?" try giving Jesus' answer. Show them rather than tell them. "Come and you will see."
The Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.