This summer, my wife and I spent some time in the UK. One day, we checked online for churches to visit that Sunday, and found one that seemed very lively. I clicked on the “staff” page. There I found an impressive number of staff, both full and part-time, but I confess I was baffled by the list of their qualifications. Some were “OLM,” others “LLM,” some were “with PTO.” One was “retired NSM with PTO,” and another “LLM (formerly Reader) with PTO.” We did in fact worship at that church on the Sunday, and found it a wonderfully energetic and faith-full community. But my experience with the website was a sobering reminder that the first contact many people will have with our churches is online. We need to design our websites with “outsiders” in mind so that the first impression is not off-putting, and in fact, invites visitors not only to our church but to our faith.
In particular, I believe we need an explanation of the Gospel upfront on our websites. Many church websites describe their community as “family-oriented,” “inclusive,” “kid-friendly,” “a welcoming community,” and so on. Most go further and say something about faith: “knowing Christ and making him known” is popular; “followers of Jesus” and “a faith-filled family” are phrases that crop up. Smart websites have a “Frequently asked questions” section, anticipating visitors’ questions like “What’s the dress code?” and “Do I have to belong to your denomination?” But I haven’t found many church websites with a section explicitly called, “Becoming a Christian.”
The church of which I am a member, St John the Evangelist in Hamilton (see www.rockonlocke.ca), recently added a section called just that, under the tab “New here?” (OK, I confess, it’s not a coincidence: I had something to do with it.) What follows is the text of that part of the website. Naturally, you don’t have to agree with every word of it. There is not enough about some things and probably too much about others. It’s intended as a taster, a teaser, meant to intrigue and attract. It is not a systematic theology. If you don’t like it, hopefully it will inspire you to write something better. But if you do like it, you are welcome to copy it or adapt it for your own church’s website.
Becoming a Christian
The simplest way to define a Christian is as “a follower of Jesus.” That means, someone who tries to learn from Jesus Christ what he has to teach about God, about life and how to live it, and about death and how to deal with it. In a sense, a Christian is a student of Jesus the Teacher.
If that is a Christian, then what is the church? Again, at its simplest, church is when followers of Jesus get together. Why do they get together? To learn more about how to follow Jesus, to pray together, and to encourage one another in their faith. In a sense, the church is the school of Jesus. And, in most churches, they also break bread and drink wine together (variously called the Mass, Communion, Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper) as Jesus told his followers to do. They also get together because one of the things Jesus taught was that God is interested not just in individuals living good lives, but in people learning to live as a diverse and harmonious community.
Another way to think of a Christian is as someone who has responded to the Good News—or Gospel—that Jesus taught. What is that Good News? It is about something he called “the Kingdom of God”—the state of affairs where things are done in the way the Creator intended. Jesus said that this Kingdom came into the world in a special way when God sent him into the world—in effect, that he was the King of this Kingdom
So what is the Good News of “the Kingdom”? That God in love has not given up on our world, with all its hurt and folly and wars. Rather, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, God is at work to put things to rights, to shape a world where all pain and self-centeredness is done away with. And God invites human beings everywhere to be part of this new thing he is doing in the world.
How do you become part of God’s work, part of God’s “kingdom”? That’s where becoming a follower of Jesus comes in. Why? Because it’s from Jesus that we learn most clearly what it means to work with God in this project of restoring the world. Jesus demonstrated the Kingdom himself—by the way he lived, but also by his brutal execution for our sins and by his miraculous coming back to life three days later—and he taught others how to walk that same road. And that’s why, if we want to work with the Creator in this amazing global restoration project, the best way to do it is in the school of Jesus.
How do you become a follower of Jesus, then? Jesus used two old-fashioned-sounding words to describe it: “repent” and “believe.” “Repent” means to turn away from one thing, and “believe” means to turn towards something else: a 180 degree change, as if we set off walking west and then turned right around and start heading east. Another word for turning around like this is conversion. For some people, that turning around is sudden, but for others it takes a long time.
So what does that journey in a new direction look like? As you might expect, it means a complete change of view. (After all, if you were heading west, you would have been walking towards the sunset; now, facing east, you’re heading towards the sunrise.) Before, it meant living my life as though it belonged to me. Now I realise that it is a gift from the Creator. Before, it meant setting the priorities of my life according to what I thought was important. Now it means learning what God’s priorities for my life are. Before, I could be as selfish as I wanted to be. Now I am learning to serve God and others. The changes are huge.
Does that sound difficult? Well, yes, Jesus never said it would be easy: he was very clear that in some ways it would feel like a death, and any experienced Christian will tell you that following him is often difficult. But the good news is that in following Jesus, you are actually learning to follow the Creator’s way, which means you’re learning to live your life with the grain of the universe, not against it. And in the end that means experiencing what Jesus called “life in all its fullness”—becoming the person that you were created to be, and doing what you were made to do—and in the company of the God who made you and who loves you.
If this sounds intriguing, come check us out one of these Sundays. As you can tell, becoming a Christian is a big thing—in fact, the biggest decision you could ever make—and nobody wants you to rush into it. Come see what church (this followers-of-Jesus-getting-together event) is like. How do they experience Christian faith? How do they handle the difficulties? What are the joys? How do they keep going? How do they experience the love of God? Listen in on their praying, their singing, their teaching, their conversation. They will welcome your eavesdropping!
And if, after a time, you decide that this is indeed what you want, talk to the minister about baptism. If being a Christian is being a student in the school of Jesus, getting baptized is the way you register in the school. It’s a public ceremony (you can’t be a private Christian) and involves you stating your desire to be a follower of Jesus. And the whole Christian community (your fellow students) is there to cheer you on, promising to support and encourage you in your new life.
Perhaps you were baptized as a baby, but have never really done anything about it. In that case, if you decide you want to be a follower of Jesus, there is something called “Re-affirmation of Baptismal Vows,” where you are not baptized again (that’s not necessary), but you take the promises that were made on your behalf as a baby and make them your own as a thoughtful adult choice. And that can be just as meaningful as baptism itself.
Do email us or phone if you would like more information. And, wherever you are at in your spiritual journey, we look forward to meeting you one of these Sundays.
The first step to revising your own church’s website just might be to check out the sites of other churches. What works? What doesn’t? Learn from the mistakes of others and be inspired by the ingenuity of those who do it well. And, in particular, let’s take the opportunity of this first contact with new people to say something about the Gospel