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Your Church Must Choose: Window or Aisle Seat?

I had my choice between the window seat and the aisle seat on a recent flight.

Sitting by the window offers a great view, but it makes me feel cramped, if not trapped. There are benefits to the aisle seat. You have greater freedom to stand or move when you like. You can stretch at least one leg into the aisle.

I chose the aisle. I chose comfort. It is the decision many churches face.

Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw explore such thinking in their book, “The Externally Focused Quest – Becoming the Best Church FOR the Community.” It’s a good read on getting the church into the community.

They believe “incarnational churches” go to the people, not waiting for them to come to the church.

These churches are focused on helping all believers live out their calling, especially among people who do not yet follow Christ.

Such churches are window-seat churches. They are externally focused. They have an eye for others, not just themselves.

Such vision garners buy-in from its members. They see success not by the number of worshippers on Sunday but by the impact of time spent in the community offering love and hope to a world desperately searching.

As a result, they strive to be Christ beyond the walls. They pray for and care about what God’s doing in the world as they find creative ways to partner in it.

I haven’t walked into a church yet in which I’ve heard members willing to say it is a waste of time being incarnational (taking church to the people).

What I do hear people saying is that it is the role of the pastor to primarily care for the people inside, to meet their needs.

No doubt churches still need to be places where people are comforted, cared for as well as inspired. But it doesn’t have to be either/or.

Statisticians are all in agreement: The 21st century church in the U.S. is at a crossroad. We have a decision to make: Will we choose the window seat or the aisle seat?

The spiritual, emotional and organizational health of churches often comes when our attention is focused beyond ourselves. To continue the metaphor, choosing the window seat has a profound, positive impact on the local church.

In pure market terms, the church today has to be more socially aware and responsible.

The church must be more interested in making an impact in the community as opposed to almost exclusively focusing on increasing returns for insiders.

Both are essential for healthy congregations, but the outward focus is often neglected as pastoral care is given a higher priority by members than community engagement.

I have wondered what the church might be if a new leadership model emerged where the pastor becomes a coach, facilitator, even community organizer and not simply a person responsible for the church’s well-being?

What if congregations chose possible discomfort and started dreaming about what God’s doing in the world and joined him there?

What if our metrics focused more on impact outside the walls as opposed to simply “nickels and noses” within?

What if our communication strategies (social media, web presence and so on) were focused on those outside our normal patterns and relationships?

Healthy congregations in the 21st century gather around ministry not the minister, kingdom issues not comfort, on matters of justice not just us.

For the local church to thrive, its ministers, leadership teams and members must choose the window seat.

Bill Owen is the south central consultant at the Center for Healthy Churches. He recently retired as pastor of Mount Carmel Church in Cross Plains, Tennessee, after 32 years of ministry. A version of this article first appeared on the Center of Healthy Churches’ website and is used with permission. He blogs at Learning to Live Like Jesus, and you can follow him on Twitter @owenrevbill.