By Ed Thompson

Why are the fire trucks of volunteer fire departments always so shiny? Seth Godin asks that question or one very much like that – my memory may be somewhat off or perhaps my hearing since I was listening to an audiobook. His answer is because they spend so much of their time washing their trucks rather than actually fighting fires.

I have nothing but respect for firefighters, volunteer as well as professional. I probably wanted to be a firefighter when I was a child. I have no idea whether they actually spend a lot of time washing their fire trucks or not.

His question, however, got me thinking about the church. Maybe we spend too much of our time cleaning up our churches rather than spreading the gospel. In some ways, I know that’s not true. We don’t really spend that much time cleaning up our churches.

Within the last several years, I was visiting a church when I noticed on their bulletin board a flyer for “The Party.” Some of you may remember “The Party.” It was promoted by the Presbyterian Media Mission as a way to celebrate Pentecost. They produced buttons and bumper stickers, radio and TV advertisements, and suggested ways churches could reach out to their neighbors and invite them to worship and celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit.

I bought into “The Party.” I convinced one of our church members to cut something like 25 to 30 flames out of plywood. I painted them red, and then the Sunday after Easter, I offered them to church members to put in front of their homes so that when their neighbors asked them why they had a flame in their yard, they could invite them to worship on Pentecost and join us for “The Party.”

The flames worked. They got people talking. One of the local newspapers wrote a story about what we were doing, and they put a picture on the front page of the paper of my daughter next to the flame in front of the manse. She was about 3 years old at the time and was just about the same size as that red plywood flame.

My daughter’s now 35 years old. So that flyer on the church bulletin board is probably 35 years old. To be fair, the Presbyterian Media Mission promoted “The Party” for several years, so maybe that flyer is only 30 years old. Let me suggest that it’s probably helpful to clean off the bulletin boards in your church at least every 20-25 years.

Maybe I’m being picky, but it’s not just neglected bulletin boards. It’s neglected flowerbeds. It’s cracked plaster. It’s chipped paint. It’s stained ceiling tiles. It’s mildewed bathrooms. I think we get used to things being that way, so it doesn’t bother us. Maybe for some folks that’s comforting because it reminds them of their grandma’s house. Not to throw my grandma under the bus, but my memory is that her house smelled kind of musty. If I went into a store or a restaurant that smelled like that, I’d probably leave – and never come back.

So while there may be a few places that spend too much time and too much money cleaning up their church building, I don’t really see that as a problem for most of our congregations. I think Godin’s question, though, when we apply it to the church, can help us reflect on our purpose as well as our priorities.   

So rather than just having long lists of church members or relatives of church members to be prayed for, we could develop lists of opportunities for service in our community. Rather than asking our pastor and our deacons to focus on visiting our church members, we could have them make visiting community members or meeting with community organizations a priority. Rather than hiring a Christian Educator, maybe the church could hire a “community catalyst,” someone who is charged with going out and listening to the people in the neighborhood.

We’ve got great opportunities, as well as great needs, all around us. Is our focus inside the building or outside the building? Do we focus on our members or our neighbors? (Do we even know any of our neighbors?) Maybe we can do both. Maybe we can also clean off the bulletin boards at least every 20 years.