When I was a kid, I came across ads for a “silent dog whistle” in comic books, and I almost ordered one. I couldn’t figure how to manage the dollar plus postage and handling. But the notion has always intrigued me: Fido hears it, but the neighbors don’t.
I know it’s an inelegant comparison, but I thought of that device as a church planter (2000-2011) in Evanston, Illinois, close by Northwestern University. We were never very big, averaging just over 50 once we got going, but we had a great, albeit transient, crew. And I was privileged to baptize a fair number of converts.
If I had tried to pitch my sermons to beguile Northwestern’s and Evanston’s center of mass, who knows what contortions I might have undertaken. But as a 60-yr-old in the midst of college folks (and often the only one wearing a tie on Sunday morning), I just did my expository thing, preaching through books of the Bible as clearly and pointedly as I could.
Those who loved an inerrantist take on scripture “heard my frequency” and were apt to give us another look. I wasn’t doing PR in my sermons, but rather sounding a note that the redeemed could pick up. And I think it gave them the sense that they could bring lost friends with them to get the real deal.
But it wasn’t simply a matter of “correct, rebuke, and encourage” from the pulpit. Ours was a happy, friendly place. And yes, that sounds cheesy, as if we were working hard to mimic flight attendants on Southwest Airlines. No, I mean genuinely happy and genuinely friendly. Joyful.
For one thing, we had a music team from Mars, or somewhere in the heavenlies. They bluegrassed the classic hymns and brought whatever instruments they had – a voice from the Lyric Opera, a double-bass from the Civic Orchestra, a “canjo” (a stringed instrument made by putting a neck and strings on a Folgers coffee can), a collection of violins, saxophones, and guitars, and even a washboard. Our music man, who owned an art gallery, made it cook, usually up-tempo. It was infectious and well-crafted.
As for friendliness, the lack thereof is a pet peeve of mine. Raised in the South, I kept wondering in my 17 years in the Chicago area if it was just little ole rustic me, or if there was moral failing in the insularity I found in many fellow citizens. What was with those unreturned smiles and greetings? How could someone not say thanks when you stepped back and held the door for them? What should I have made of the el rider who didn’t offer to move his bag to let me sit down, who ignored an amiable observation, or grunted a shut-down phrase to a simple inquiry like, “Where you from?”
It ate on me until I got the chance to do some writing on it for a Festschrift. My piece, “The Virtue of Friendliness,” caused the editors some consternation since it seemed so lightweight, especially since everybody knew the real virtues were heavy stuff like Justice and Courage, Faith and Hope. Besides, one of the editors was a Yankee, and he knew that easy friendliness was a goofy, shallow Southern thing, not fit for serious Northerners, whose relationships were fewer but more substantive. Or something like that.
So I proceeded to argue, in friendly fashion, that friendliness was godly and its absence a failing. Distinguishing friendliness (not friendship) from its merely commercial, tribal, and diplomatic manifestations, I tried to show that it’s an outworking of the Golden Rule; that it takes risks, as “love casts out fear”; and that the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control – “suggest a certain readiness to meet the other person in an unmistakably upbeat, conciliatory, helpful, and positive frame of mind.”
I think it showed. And maybe the juxtaposition of a plain-spoken sermon and a happy/friendly group of congregants was intriguing.
In closing, I’ll add a third factor. Maybe it best fit a university town, but I think the appeal was wider. Simply put, I brought up things they didn’t know. Of course, in this largely post-Christian, biblically-illiterate era, you can do this by just telling the story of Elijah or Annanias and Sapphira. But I mean things like the Greek root of ‘ecclesiastical,’ the English root of ‘Good-Bye,’ the critical apparatus’s take on the closing verses of Mark, Gregor Mendel’s faith, Mark Regnerus’s study on the effects of gay parenting, the martyrdom of Polycarp, the ID of bacterial flagella. That sort of thing, in illustration and application. So even if they weren’t ready to get saved, they might be interested in getting smarter. I think that helped bring some folks back.
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Mark Coppenger is Professor of Christian Apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians: Pushing Back Against Cultural and Religious Critics. He blogs at biblemesh.com and tweets @mcoppenger.
Publication date: February 19, 2015