Like millions of others this summer, my family has been delighted by everything Hogwarts. My ten-year-old daughter is on her second reading of the Harry Potter series and saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 twice while my wife and I saw it a pedestrian one time. We’re nearly done reading the series through for the first time to my six-year-old son.
One of my favorite characters in the books is one of Harry’s schoolmates, Neville Longbottom, a kind-hearted but occasionally feckless boy. One of Neville’s problems is his inability to remember the password that students need to say in order to make it to their quarters in Gryffindor Tower. Who can blame him for not remembering such words as flibbertigibbet or oddsbodokins? But remember them he must and when he does (or when someone assists him) he’s gained entry to a place he calls home.
The church that my colleague Trey Hall and I started — Urban Village Church, a new United Methodist Church in Chicago — has developed its own password without our realizing it. Before launching our first worship service in March 2010, we ran numerous ads on trains and buses in Chicago. Because it was paid for by our denomination, one of the requirements was that we had to have the United Methodist logo (the cross and flame) somewhere on the ad. I wasn’t sure how people would respond to that, but figured it would act as an experiment of sorts. Would people be turned off by a denominational logo? It turns out that most people didn’t notice it, but instead connected to the message we tried to convey, statements like: “We love Democrats/We love Republicans”; “We love gay people/We love straight people”; “We love Cubs fans/We love Sox fans.” All of our ads also noted, “Bored or burned by religion in the past? We’re doing church differently.” In the lower right-hand corner of the ad was the cross and flame. And that’s where the password comes in. Most people didn’t notice or pay attention to the denominational logo. The only people who did notice it were United Methodists. It was like we were whispering to them, “Pssst, we’re trying to do church differently, but we’re also United Methodist so come check us out!”
We sometimes get asked why we don’t call ourselves Urban Village United Methodist Church. Are we ashamed of our denominational heritage? Not at all. We believe that we’re doing church in ways that are wholly consistent with what John Wesley had in mind more than two centuries ago: proclaiming a robust gospel, bringing social holiness and social awareness together, emphasizing small groups, taking this life-changing message to the people rather than expecting them to come to us. But we also recognize that, in many ways, we’re in a post-denominational age. This isn’t news any more. It’s not to say, however, that the people who come to Urban Village are anti-denominational. Indeed, some are quite curious when we note in worship or small-group settings that we’re a United Methodist Church or when we introduced our bishop at our one-year birthday party (trying our best to use language that people would relate to — we introduced our district superintendents during that service and said, “They’re kind of like our bosses” and when introducing the bishop, we noted, “He’s like our bosses’ boss.”)
Words like Methodist or Presbyterian or Episcopalian or Lutheran probably don’t engender ill will, but they can create mystery and that mystery might be enough to keep people away.
We choose not to overemphasize the UMC connection because we’re trying to keep the barriers down so people can step easily into the church experience. Most of the people who come into our community have some semblance of church in their background. Many (as our marketing campaign noted) have been burned, excluded, even kicked out. Others have been bored and felt (and feel) like the Christian faith has nothing to do with their life today. Words like Methodist or Presbyterian or Episcopalian or Lutheran probably don’t engender ill will, but they can create mystery and that mystery might be enough to keep people away. Once people come into our community and realize we’re not that bad and, in fact, have something to offer that is really quite remarkable, they’re open to learning more about our heritage.
This is different than hiding or watering down the gospel. We’re pretty clear about our commitment to the good news of Jesus Christ. Every Sunday, we mention our core values: We’re bold in that we’re rooted in the gospel. Because of that gospel, we believe we’re called to be inclusive and welcoming of all people. That also means we should be relevant in ways that allow people to live out their faith Monday through Saturday, not just Sunday.
We don’t claim that this the “right” way to plant churches or to do evangelism. I don’t believe our decision to not include United Methodist in our name is the reason that our church has momentum (we have two worship sites in the city and are planning a third this fall). What matters for us is what matters for any church. We’re getting out into the community, meeting and making lots and lots of contacts, and creating awareness through social media, on-the-street evangelism, flyers in condo buildings and coffee shops, and, yes, ads on the L train. Even more importantly, we’re doing our best to create a Christ-centered and joyful community that people experience when they’re courageous enough to come to worship or a small group or a service opportunity. That’s what will hopefully compel them to establish and/or deepen a relationship with Jesus. And there are no passwords required for any of it.