Saturday, 25 January 2014

Sofa so good...

I find myself reflecting on the experience of encounter.  We try to think about this in church a lot: what does it feel like for a person to encounter church/faith/Christians.  We write books about it, do courses on it, work with congregations to try and develop it. And sometimes the outcome is good, and a person has a positive experience of the encounter, and sometimes the experience is bad and the person is not made welcome or does not find what they are looking for.  Why do we care? Because we want people to hear the gospel/join our churches? Those are not entirely the same thing. You can measure the latter.  Some people think the latter will produce viable, lively, financially working churches.  Personal thought: the former actually does that.  But where am I coming from with this today?

Well, yesterday, I engaged with the true religion of 21st century Scotland/Britain: buying a new sofa.

The furniture companies are not ones that I have ever worked for, but I have bought a few sofas over the years.  The work that firms put into selling this high value and very personalised product is massive.   Interest free credit for years and years, hundreds of pounds off, images of happy, smiling people leaping onto vividly coloured sofas and clearly having a much better life after buying the sofa: these are advertising images to get us to walk into the store.  The message is clear. Come into *insert three letter abbreviated firm name here* and you will get something, cheaply, that will make your life better. OK. 

But walk into the store and it got fascinating. We popped into three of them, side by side, and each of them had clearly been on the same training courses/company manual/congregational development model.  A friendly person came up to say "hi" in a relaxed way, and we were told to have fun and take our time and what wonderful sofas awaited us.  Every time we showed interest in a particular sofa, the friendly face would appear and make some pleasant comments. We were asked about our children.  We were asked about where we lived. We were told that where we lived was a wonderful place. We were offered coffee.  It felt unobtrusive (although Mary felt she would rather have been left alone more). The whole emphasis was "we like you and want you to spend time with us and we care about what you care about."  The motivation is "we want you to buy a sofa" but it is well concealed below the layers of friendly personable sales work.

Even after we had bought the sofas we needed (/wanted) and the store manager had to come to check some technical aspect of the credit agreement, it was still done in a friendly, likeable, light-hearted way.  

So can one learn anything about how to make a church encounter positive from this experience? Of course we can, although with caution.  The church is motivated to draw people in and make them want to stay.  You won't do this, in my opinion, if you are not friendly and welcoming and genuinely interested in people. But what is the product that we offer? Sofa shops offer sofas. We offer... Maybe a warm community that is genuinely welcoming? Yes, OK.  An encounter with the living God. That sounds a bit scary.  How about a warm welcoming community that, in time, draws you into a saving relationship with the living God.  Sounds like we are getting there.  

A sofa shop doesn't expect you to come back every week, but they would like you to come back each time you want a sofa.  They want you to leave with a warm feeling so you return.  Same with a church: your quest for community/healing/divine encounter/justice/etc. is packaged in an environment that leaves you feeling warm. So you will want to come back, again and again.  In sofa shops they obviously try and teach this.  In churches we try and teach this.  But there are clearly some sofa salespeople that are genuinely interested in their customers and are genuinely friendly.  This maybe gives them an edge in how effective they are at being sofa salespeople.  I would suggest there are church leaders, lay and ordained, who are also gifted in having a genuine interest and even love for the people of God, and this makes them more effective at growing the church because of the texture and shared behaviours of the communities that they gather around them.  Maybe this is where the discussions from recent times on the Archbishop of Canterbury's 'good vicars mean growing churches' will end up because this is where they have come from.

The sofa companies work hard to tell people that coming to them will make your life better, and they welcome people with enjoyment and friendship in the hope that they will come back again and again. Maybe we could have quite a lot in common after all...