Church Websites and Prevenient Grace

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This past week, I was thinking about theology and technology as I was re-reading Bishop Robert Schnase’s book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. We are incredibly blessed as an annual conference to have a bishop who thinks and writes with a strategic and systematic view of how we, as a denomination, can move forward in a new, complex reality.

I got stuck for a while on page 14. In his chapter on “The Practice of Radical Hospitality,” Schnase touches on an important part of Wesleyan Theology, prevenient grace. He writes,

According to Wesley, before people ever consciously come to faith, they have inner desires for relationship to God that are stifled, forgotten, neglected, ignored, or denied. By the grace that precedes awareness or decision, God creates readiness for faith in the individual and fosters the nascent eagerness to please God. By God’s grace, people may be more ready than we realize to accept the invitation and initiative of Christ that comes through gracious hospitality.[1]

I feel like a bit of a poster child for prevenient grace. I was not even marginal Christian until my late 20s. When I was in my early 30s I was already a pastor. Lots of people asked, what happened? Was it a near death experience? Was it a tragic life event? Was it a blazing blast of light? And I would always tell these different interconnected stories that never seem to get at the heart of what happened. It was as though God was pulling me toward something I didn’t know was there.

harvarddivinity

Website of Harvard Divinity School, circa 1998, courtesy of webarchive.org

And in there may be the seed of what I do now and why this is so important. This was way back in the day when lots of folks hadn’t even heard of the internet. However, when I started feeling this pull and was trying to figure it out, I didn’t even know who to ask. So I searched, the internet. There wasn’t a whole lot of great stuff there yet. So, you know where I ended up, this person who had been in a church maybe 5 times in his life, all for weddings and funerals? The website for Harvard Divinity school. I was fascinated by the school and all the information they shared on their website. I actually said to one of my friends, “I think it is time to go back and get my masters degree.” He said, “where are you going to apply?” I said, “Harvard?” He replied, “Why Harvard?” I responded, “They look like they have a good divinity school.” He paused for a bit and then asked, “Why are you thinking about going to divinity school? You don’t even go to church.” I said, “I have no idea.”

 

Well, I didn’t go to Harvard. I got a scholarship to Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Bishop Schnase writes in his book, “By God’s grace, people may be more ready than we realize to accept the invitation and initiative of Christ that comes through gracious hospitality.”[1]

As I look back on my years of stumbling through life being pulled at by something I didn’t understand, I can mark the times that journey was forwarded by hospitality: A divinity school website that was very well thought out and informative, a church sign that was changed every week and made it clear new people were welcome, a choir director who have the confused new guy a place to belong, the pastor who seemed genuinely thrilled to explain who Jesus is to me one afternoon in his office, a seminary that gave me and my wife a place to live before I had even signed up for classes.

cold-calling

I think some people dislike talking about evangelism because they think it is a bit like cold calling. But it is not. God is already calling. There are a lot of people trying to answer, but they simply don’t know who is calling them and for what. We get to be the ones who say, through radical hospitality, “We have been expecting you.”

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So what if someone who is stumbling toward God stumbles upon your website? Will their journey be forwarded by your hospitality? As they are searching for something they don’t understand, will your website speak to them in a way that greets them wherever they are on their journey? Will the website give the impression that you believe that what you share is a serious answer to the questions in their heart?

Remember, this all has world-changing significance because that is the thing about God; God doesn’t force us to accept the invitation. But we miss out, and the world misses out when we don’t.

[1] Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Abingdon Press: 2007, pgs. 14-15

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