Over the years I’ve noticed an important, but unexpected indicator in small congregations. The church refrigerator door.
See if this progression sounds familiar.
At first, there’s just a friendly reminder posted on the refrigerator door: Please don’t leave items in the refrigerator.
Then this: Please clean out your own leftovers and dishes. Items will be thrown out every Friday. This is everyone’s job!
Then this: NOTE! Don’t leave a mess for someone else to take care of! It’s just rude and not fair. Clean out your own dishes. THIS MEANS YOU! It’s basic decency. The refrigerator gets disgusting and there’s no such thing as a kitchen fairy!
And sometimes this (written in red marker across the top of the previous message): NO ONE’S LISTENING. I’M NOT DOING IT ANYMORE!!!
Hopefully you’re not at the red marker stage. But let’s be clear. The refrigerator issue is rarely really a refrigerator issue. When people get anxious about big things beyond their control, they grasp onto smaller things within their control. When problems feel despairing and unsolvable, they pick out things that ought to be solved with common sense and good manners.
Hence, when small congregations feel decline and despair, they sometimes get serious about refrigerator hygiene.
But refrigerator-type indicators can show up in other places, too.
After decades of decline, one small congregation found itself sharing a parking lot with a strip club. Young women went in through a back door. Men of all ages filled the parking lot. And, not surprisingly, some trucks were left overnight in front of the church. Especially on Saturdays. Just in time for Sunday morning worshipers to be annoyed. Really annoyed.
The worshipers were few (about 30), but the note-writing impulse was abundant. They kept a bright orange stack of papers by the door. So the first person to church could mark each non-church vehicle with something like this:
Your parking is unauthorized! This is a violation! No vehicle should be left here overnight on Saturdays! We worship here on Sunday mornings and some of our members need parking close to the door! In the future, we will ask the city to tow you at your expense.
Yeah, you guessed it. It wasn’t really about the parking. There were plenty of spots. The real issue was their own sense of out-of-control decline and grief. The neighborhood around them had changed from respectable single family homes to . . . well, something very different. It was anguishing. They felt helpless. So the notes showed up. What else could they do?
Plenty, it turns out. A new pastor who didn’t know any better suggested a different approach. First, they would pray and discern for a few months. Not the general approach to a parking problem, but a great approach to the real problem. They would pray for their new neighbors. Learn more about them with new demographic data. Imagine their stresses and lives. See folks with the eyes of Christ, who had a habit of cherishing unrespectable types.
Then they changed a couple of things. First, they began relationships with the young women who worked at the strip club. They realized they knew so little about these neighbors. They started by simply taking baked goods to them. Before the club opened. No judgment. No agenda. No strings. They passed little chocolate cakes through a guarded back door that opened just wide enough to receive the goodies. They promised to show up next week with more. And did.
Over months, they learned that several of the women had children. So they provided Easter baskets. Just because.
And second, they ended the screaming-orange violation notices. The pastor imagined, instead, a cheerful flier. With the church’s contact information and this:
We’re glad you found us. We’re here if you need anything.
And here’s the remarkable part. The part that may really surprise you. Despite all the chocolate and cheer, not one single person from the strip club ever set foot in the church. Not one grateful mother. Not one intrigued man.
But the church grew anyway. Against everyone’s expectations. Because somehow word got out that they were the kind of church that just anybody could go to. The kind of place that accepted just anybody. And the number of just anybodies began to trickle in.
Biblically, it makes sense. The whole salvation story is chock-full of just anybodies. Unappealing outcasts. Undesirable outsiders. Untrustworthy scoundrels. Flawed, sin-full folks. So refrigerator mess-makers and parking-policy violators aren’t really a stretch.
This pastor just reinterpreted the indicator. They had a hospitality problem. And a love-the-neighborhood-now problem. And an oops-we-shrunk-the-good-news problem. And God can lead us through those.
This week, find the refrigerator notes for your congregation. They may be literal or metaphorical. But what do they indicate? And how might you post this kind of message instead:
Ministry is messy. And we are a work in progress. But we are so glad you’re here. Yes, you! Do you have ideas for more ways this refrigerator can serve our community? Let’s talk.
Call your lay leaders or pastor today to begin. Let me know the holy-rescripted mess that unfolds. I cherish the conversations.
Thanks for your ministry,