Last year I got to meet a Christian lady from Pakistan. She said where she’s from, people crowd in rented tents just to hear the gospel, until they are spilling out of the doors. Here, in what is known as a Christian country, we have beautiful buildings, and a freedom to believe what we want, but the preachers are speaking to empty pews.
I have not been able to shake this image from my mind.
It is a large part of why I moved from Hillsong, a wildly expanding and very popular church, to a local Anglican Church. Because, although the preaching hits me in the heart, and the people are kind and welcoming, there are back few pews are pushed together, unused. And nothing has never stirred my heart so much as to see those pews filled.I think this feeling is common amongst Christians. The people who have been saved from drowning and are sitting safely in the boat drying off know better than anyone what it feels like to still be in the water. If nothing else, Jesus told us to make disciples and spread the gospel. That alone makes it worthy of our time, energy and passion. But I’ve come to realise three things in my mission to fill the pews.
Firstly, that we do not fill the pews to fill the pews.
So often when you are passionate about converting people to Christianity, you let that become your focus and you begin to spurt utter nonsense in the hope of getting people to listen to you. I’ve seen Christians bring up the most controversial things in order to get attention, or start every conversation with “how do you feel about Christ?” There’s nothing especially wrong with this, but I’ve realised that forcing a reaction from someone on the spot is not the best way to get them into church, particularly with an open mind. For instance, when people stand on boxes in the city and shout bible verses about salvation and hell at passers by. They have this desire to see people saved, but they see the people in front of them as a mass. They are happy to fill their pews with people scared into being there, people they don’t know and who don’t know Christ, and to fill a yearly quota with numbers instead of humans. Something I had to decide from the get go was that I wasn’t making friends with people just to get them to church. People can smell fakes, and advertisers. No one wants to make friends with someone who is just going to try and sell them something. People want to make friends with the friendly. So we cannot blindly go about filling the pews with extras and randoms, just as it’s embarrassing when you find out your friend has an app that gives them followers on Instagram.
Secondly, filling the pews takes time.
This is something that has been weighing on my heart recently. I’ve just started uni and everyone has been telling me this is the time I’ll have the best conversations and make life long friends. But, every time a class ends, someone has somewhere to rush off to. Every time I make conversation with someone, the next class they’ll be sitting next to someone else. And, as much as you may want to blame my lack of good friends and, consequently, good conversations, on my awkwardness, I had to realise that to get to a point where someone is willing to discuss religion with you, you will have to give them time. Just as you can’t make friends with only the intention to convert them, I think you can’t make friends until you’ve given some time to getting to know them. I think they are worth the time and effort in the first place.
Now, I’m having trouble making friends at all. But once I do, I need to remember, along with every other Christian who has any friends, that they may not say yes the first time, and there is no specified timing to it all. I became friends with my coworker when we started working together. A year on (this Monday, in fact), I gave her a book on Jesus. It isn’t instant, because people aren’t microwave popcorn. When you are genuine with people, you will get closer to their heart. It’s a simple truth, but one that means patience.
And finally, the pews may not always be full.
When I joined the church I’m currently at, around 5 people left for good things in other places. And I realised that, even as I pray for God to use me to fill the pews, these pews are not the only ones that need filling. They will move, and fill other seats. But God will use them to fill 30, 60, 100 times what was planted. And I’ll just keep filling the seats I’ve got in front of me. And so, the church will grow. Do not be disheartened if your friend moves church- as long as they’ll be with you in heaven, both you and God can have a smile on your faces. The easiest way to fill a pew is to fill it with people who don’t yet believe, and get them to keep coming back. But if a Christian fills it, that’s great. If a person fills it for a while, that’s okay. It just means the work will not be done until Christ returns, and you knew that was the case anyway.
So, in short, I’ve found my mission in life is summarised in the little catch phrase of “fill the pews”. I don’t care if that’s with kids, or they’re not real pews and were filling a football stadium for Christ. I don’t mind if it’s in Australia or Pakistan or if I’ll pioneer evangelism in Antarctica. I just want real people, with real problems and stories and hearts to come and hear the good news.
Because there’s no point it being preached to empty pews in beautiful churches no one sees.