Meeting at the Level of the Ashtray

Often when churches are reaching out to people in their twenties and thirties, there is a tendency to expect them to become someone they are not before they walk into the door. For instance, eighteen percent of college students have never attended church before in their lives, but we too easily expect they will know exactly what to do when they step over the threshold of our sanctuary. They are supposed to know the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. They need to know what words like the “narthex” mean. They have to know exactly how they are supposed to take communion, or if they are welcome to the table at all. And then they are supposed to know and interpret the many unwritten social cues to which our churches adhere. For instance, in many congregations, if you’re moved by a musical piece, you are not supposed to clap.

There are good reasons for many of these practices of worship, and I don’t wish to downplay or dismiss them. But, as we sat around a table at the recent FTE Calling Congregations Conference, talking about how to minister to and with adults in their 20s and 30s, I realized once again how we cannot simply expect people to change who they are in order for them to fit in with us. It’s important to meet people where they are.

“It’s like what Howard Thurman said, you have to meet people at the level of the ashtray,” one of the participants explained.

I smiled at the image and asked what he meant. He told me how Howard Thurman wrote about his relationship with his landlady. There was tension between them and Thurman wasn’t sure what to do about it. Then he noticed how his landlady dumped out the lobby ashtrays each time there was a butt in it. She was fastidious about it, and so Thurman began to pay attention to those ashtrays. When he walked through the apartment lobby, each time a wayward butt was left in a tray, he took a moment to dump the ashes. Because he took the time to notice something that the landlady cared about, because he began to work with her, their relationship mended and strengthened.

After hearing that story, it reminded me that so often we want people to enter our churches and begin caring about all of the traditions and cultural norms that concern us, but we don’t always take the time to meet them at the level of the ashtray. We neglect to find out what concerns them, what is important to them, and how we can work together.

What concerns the younger men and women in our congregations? There are a lot of things that we can point to—the environment, the economy, AIDS, human trafficking, homelessness, poverty, or food issues. Big corporations have figured out that a new generation has deep care for so many things, and so they have developed cause marketing in order to link their products to a greater good. They realize that people are so worried about how they can change the world that it will influence what sort of products they will buy.

There are general trends, but I don’t know what the concerns are in each of our churches. Each context is different, and those who walk into our sanctuaries often have different burdens that they carry around. Yet, it’s vitally important that we find out what those concerns are. Listen to what weighs heavily upon them. Learn to meet people at the level of the ashtray and engage in work with them.

This was cross-posted from the FTE blog.

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7 thoughts on “Meeting at the Level of the Ashtray

  1. Thanks for the article Carol. I do not often visit your website anymore (I pretty much stopped reading and writing blogs a couple of years ago, and I really don’t miss it), but your writing never fails to make me think from a different Christian perspective than I am used to. I must try to remember to read your stuff more regularly.

    Carol, if you don’t mind, I wish to ask you to make a distinction. Most of the Christians I interact with are young Catholics who are heavily involved in US/Mexico border justice. I live on the border, and this is something that concerns and affects all of us down here. I regularly volunteer my time and effort for these churches in these social causes. These catholic churches, full of young people, live by the Social Gospel, and, even though I do not agree with all their political and social opinions, I applaud their efforts. I am fully confident that their churches have an ear to what is important to them, and minister to their needs.

    However, when it comes to worship and ceremony, even the most liberal Catholic church is as traditional as ever, and has not the least interest in meeting the congregants on their level. In that regard, orders come directly from Rome. I know that you are not Catholic, but with that said, it still seems a thin tightrope that you must walk. How do you keep relevant with social and progressive concerns in your community, yet maintain tradition with the more supernatural elements of your church? Do you consider, as Albert Schweitzer did, the giving of your life to service as an act of worship? I ask, because I believe the supernatural elements of worship are what make the church unique, not the social concerns (as important as those are). I guess a better way to phrase my question would be, do you also seek to meet young people where they are, not only in social concerns, but in the more spiritual aspects of the church, such as creeds, scriptures and worship?

    I hope you don’t mind the question. I do find discussing this stuff very interesting.

  2. They are supposed to know the Lord’s Prayer

    Of course, this problem is compounded by the fact that different denominations use different forms of this prayer. I still stumble when I attend Episcopalian worship with my wife (not so much over “trespasses”–although I deeply prefer “debts”–but over “his glory, forever and ever” vs. “his glory forever”–comma provided to emphasize the pause they provide when speaking out loud, by which point I’ve already moved on to the end of the sentence!).

  3. Thanks, Elsa. I really appreciate it.

    HIS, No! I don’t mind the question.

    I guess I see the commands “love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself” as working together.

    When we have a love of God, which-as you mention-is such a supernatural experience, that tends to help me to love myself. And loving myself compels me to love others.

    I think (and Paul Raushenbush has helped me understand this) that Christianity has had two strong movements in our lifetime. A conservative evangelical movement that focused on a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and sometimes worked against the poor in the political realm. And a liberal movement that has neglected spirituality and upheld the intellect more. They have tended toward social justice and loving our neighbors.

    Now (I hope and pray), people are beginning to see the importance of all three, working together.

  4. I think that ‘meeting people where they are’ is a widely accepted tactic in an overall evangelistic strategy.

    There is a passage that usually stays close to the top of my mind and the tip of my tongue which goes like this:

    “Giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:12-14)

    The point of posting this passage is that the people to whom we are reaching out have presumably not been qualified by the Father to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints and have not been conveyed from the power of darkness into the kingdom of the Son of His love and have not yet been redeemed through the blood of Jesus and had their sins forgiven.

    Therefore, although we do sincerely meet them in many ways where they are, our ultimate goal is to bring them where we have been brought to in Christ.

    I think sometimes we define evangelism too narrowly as bringing people into our church. If we really treasure what Christ has done for us and the extent to which He has transformed us, this is then what we should desire to be passing on to those to whom Jesus is a stranger.

    It happens many times that we are only used to bring them to that a particular point along the pathway of faith and that the Lord may ultimately place them elsewhere in the Body.

    In my opinion, it should never be about bringing more people into ‘our church’ but of bringing them to Christ and to as full of an appreciation for Him as we possibly can.

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