Theories about effective sales techniques are full of advice about being sensitive to the beliefs and needs of the customer. None is better than 1Corinthians 9:16-23. Paul is explaining how he obeys Jewish food regulations when working with Jews and ignores them when working with Gentiles. He tries to find out what is important to his potential converts and makes that important to himself to win their trust and attention. Anyone successful in selling cars, tablet computers, or snake oil does the same.
It is not a skill we are born with. Little children apparently playing together are often conducting two completely separate conversations, each only talking about what is interesting them at the time. Taking an interest in other people’s feelings and needs is a sophistication that we learn. It is also a sophistication that we lose with age. Weakening hearing and sight; increasing dependence on comfort; these isolate us from the younger generation and can create a carelessness of what others are feeling or needing.
We, in Christian churches, who have so much of value to sell, of so much benefit to people out there, ignore Paul’s instructions. We take very little interest in what is important to other people. We prefer to tell them what is right, and what we believe, without linking that to what they believe and to what they think they need. We behave like little children or the failing elderly.
So, Paul’s explanation of his success in today’s lectionary is a wake-up call to those of us in churches. We have so much to offer to those outside. Love, certainly; the opportunity to reflect in a busy world; the beginnings of forgiving oneself and moving on; membership of a caring community encompassing all ages; where else can you find these things?
With so much to sell; with so many Unique Selling Points to offer; why are we not more successful? We have become too engrossed in our own church language. If we could become as interested in our neighbours as we are in the writings of the New Testament, we might start to see an increase in those coming through our doors.
Most people joining churches do so for social reasons. They go along with someone who shows an interest in them. People who leave churches often do so because they feel rejected or alienated in some way. The Gospel first becomes obvious to strangers through the love and interest shown in them by people like us, who can still remember the warm embrace of the church rather than its dogmatic assertions.