Where I live, campaign signs have become part of the landscape since mid-April. Just about all of the primary winners have allowed their yellow, flamingo pink, and multicolored corrugated cardboard representations to become regular décor in the middle of yards and on the sides of highways. Poor Mr. Hersey, who “borrowed” the trademarked candy bar logo and was subsequently sued for doing so, still had signs up along the road into the summer.
One sign stands out from the rest. It continues to do so perhaps because it serves as a reminder to me of how fresh expressions of church serve to connect with the community of which they are a part. It’s also a good illustration of how we, as Christ-followers, seek to be missionaries in our communities cleverly disguised as teachers, waiters, nurses, lawyers and handymen.
The sign just happens to be decorated in camo.
In the Eastern Shore community, camo stands for two very important things: hunting and military. The former is a cultural and economic necessity to our region- especially as deer season is upon us and duck season is about to commence. Additional campaign signs also exist in the shape of geese. The latter characterizes the experience and background of National Guard, Coast Guard, and Navy members or vets in our community.
The person running for office used the language these people know, live, and have experienced. Camo shows solidarity and understanding of the things important to people in this area.
When we approach, speak to, and develop relationships with people as part of our work of starting fresh expressions of church, we need to do the same thing. We need to find out and ask directly—not assume—what is most important to the community around us and what are their greatest needs. We need to speak on their terms, in their language– especially when it comes to our communication of the Gospel.
We can’t attempt to use a one-size-fits-all “sign” that many churches still attempt to use, telling people with no church background that they just need to accept Jesus into their hearts. Trying to initiate Bible studies with unchurched people and expecting them to participate—and care—is usually unsuccessful and does not consider the spiritual, cultural, and physical starting point of the community.
Those of us involved in starting fresh expressions of church need more figurative “camo” decor and fewer decorated words. Missionaries adopt the dress, customs, and language of the people to whom they are sent. We need to be “one of them” and develop a heart for who they are as bearers of God’s image.
This means we need to start with where they are instead of where we are—especially if we are seminary-educated, well-churched, well-seasoned pastors, Sunday School teachers and church leaders.
Most importantly, we need to authentically care about the things they do so we can speak Good News into their situation.
Good news that IS the Good News can wear different paint and can have different expressions from the Eastern Shore to Washington DC, from Los Angeles to the outskirts of Birmingham, from the suburbs to cattle ranches. That does not mean watering down the message and hope of Jesus but rather using the language of those whom you are around.
What is Good News to the single mom?
What is Good News of Jesus Christ to the Crossfit guy swinging a kettlebell?
What about the businessman working 80+ hours a week?
The convenience store worker at your local gas station?
The folks living in a run-down apartment complex in the city?
Jesus speaks to all of them. He wants a relationship with all of them. Trying to say that with a universal swatch might do more harm than good.
It is going to take time, focus, and energy to earn permission to put our “sign” in their yard.
If there’s anything Fresh Expressions can learn from campaign signs, it’s the importance of sharing a starting point with the people to whom we’re ministering. We must be careful in how we communicate who we are, what we’re about, and what we care about. We want to communicate in a way that inspires them to put up our sign in their yard, rather than inspire them to force us to get the heck off their property.
I’m not sure how long the camo sign will stay up once the first Tuesday of November comes around, but every time I drive past the camo sign, I’m thankful for being reminded of the missionary I’m called to be.
Kris Beckert is a Mission Strategist/Trainer with Fresh Expressions US. She serves as Pastor of Innovation and Multiplication at Salem Fields Community Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia.