IKEA and the Large Church, Part 4: Not Actual Size

Until my first visit to IKEA, I never equated shopping and dining. Well, I usually eat a $1.50 hot dog and soda at Costco, but it hardly qualifies as haute cuisine. The Swedish home good store, however, features multiple epicurean opportunities .

The entrance features a full-service restaurant with Scandinavian-inspired dishes, including Swedish meatballs and salmon. A indiscriminate gourmand could consume a full breakfast, lunch, and supper for under $10.

The Swedish Food Market offers take-home options for those who just cannot get enough of roe sauce, sill dill, lax kallrokt, and sprat rolls. Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.

The dining experience continues with an exit café called the Bistro which features warm cinnamon rolls originally invented by—who-would-have-guessed-it—the Swedes!

IKEA Cinammon RollDuring my escape from IKEA, a large sign over the checkout counters caught my eye. The ten-foot-wide poster pictured a tantalizing breakfast roll oozing with sugar, cinnamon, and frosting. A disclaimer at the bottom read: “Not actual size.”

In my IKEA induced delirium, I giggled at the image of a customer ordering a one ton bun. However, some legal eagle must have felt a need for the proviso in our litigious society.

Perhaps the Large Church also needs a sign disclosing: “Not actual size.” With the exception of a single-cell, family chapel, every church contains multiple congregations. Natural divisions occur along worship services along with small group options and mission opportunities.

People misunderstand the concept of unity in church life. Christians disagree about traditional versus contemporary worship, Sunday School versus small groups, and local versus foreign missions.  Disciples debate theology, doctrine, polity, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

What unites the church, however, is so much greater than any worldly distinction that might divide us. Paul reminded the New Testament church that Christians share in one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

The Large Church: Not Actual Size.

The body of Christ is actually MUCH larger, comprising the saints of God throughout space and time.

IKEA and the Large Church, Part 3: Be the One

Last month I experienced IKEA for the first time. For those who have never visited the Swedish home store, words fail me. However, my counselor says I’m slowly recovering from the traumatic event . . . traumatic event . . . traumatic event.

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon along with half of the metro-Atlanta population. Imagine funneling into the Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Falcons home opener—only more so. Sniveling children and whining husbands reluctantly trailed scolding mothers and weary wives.

IKEA 2The IKEA employees wore canary yellow shirts which should have made them easy to spot. However, they disappeared chameleon-like into the background, reappearing at the high dollar design centers and crowded checkout counters.

After losing my wife to the mob, I asked a harried worker for directions to the Fabrics Department. He gestured vaguely and said, “Follow the signs around the perimeter of the store, or you can take a shortcut through the unmarked door in Seasonals.”

Then he dashed away like Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit, muttering: “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!”

By the time we reached the checkout counters, I had lost the remnants of both sanity and religion. My right eye twitched uncontrollably as I contemplated a mad dash towards the exit. An eternity later we finally reached the front of the line.

The young cashier greeted us with a dazzling smile and asked about our IKEA experience. I babbled an unintelligible response, and she seemed to understand. Then she engaged in a winsome conversation with my wife, including a charming story about her father who had immigrated to the United States.

She finished the transaction with another genuine smile, adding: “Come back soon.” I found myself nodding agreeably even as the cashier warmly greeted the next customer.

If the Large Church is like IKEA, then it’s the members’ responsibility to welcome first time guests. When a visitor says, “This sure is a friendly church,” does it mean that several hundred people overwhelmed the person with a flash-mob-welcome? No, it means that a few people greeted the newcomer as an honored guest.

Radical hospitality begins with each individual believer. One person can make an eternal difference.

Be the one.

IKEA and the Large Church, Part 2: A-maze-ing Grace

I recently made my first—and by heaven’s mercy, LAST—visit to IKEA. The home goods superstore overwhelmed the senses and dulled the soul. Reflecting on the experience, it struck me that the massive retailer and the large church share some characteristics in common.

IKEA mapIKEA customers park in a Stygian subbasement before a marathon trek to the entrance. The sprawling store occupies two immense floors that stretch beyond the horizon in all directions. Signage directs customers down zigzag corridors like mice through a maze. A bewildering array of home goods beckons on every side.

I reached the nadir of my retail experience after passing the same display for the third time in ten minutes. Legendary pioneer, Daniel Boone, once said: “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” My mental condition went way past confused—I was baffled, befuddled, perplexed, and perturbed!

Many church facilities rival IKEA’s bewildering floor plan. Additions added over decades create a labyrinth of twists and turns with multiple levels and nonsensical or nonexistent signs. First time visitors aimlessly wander the hallways like lost children.

Long-time church members may not recognize the problem. Everyone KNOWS that the third hallway on the left leads to a half staircase that ascends to the anteroom that funnels into another stairwell that descends two floors to the baby nursery—which is two levels away from the children’s department and sanctuary.

One pastoral colleague served a congregation that didn’t even have an exterior sign identifying the church. When asked, the Trustees responded incredulously: “Preacher, why would we need a sign? We all KNOW where the church is!”

Superior signs cost a lot of money; however, inadequate signage costs even more. Best practices from hospitals, airports, and hotels teach the church:

  • Invest in excellent exterior and interior signs—it’s a necessity and not a luxury
  • Signs should create “waypoints” that easily lead first-time guests step-by-step to their destination
  • Crowded hallways obscure wall and door signage—place signs above head-level
  • Avoid ecclesiastical code words like sacristy, chancel, narthex, and nave
  • If people appear lost, do NOT give directions; instead lead them to where they want to go

The church can be a maze. The church can also be a place where people experience God’s Amazing Grace.

Church, here’s your sign!

IKEA and the Large Church, Part 1: To Hell and Back

My wife and I recently visited IKEA for the first time. A team of counselors continues to treat my post-traumatic stress syndrome. We emerged an eternity later with a cart full of throw pillows. I would have gladly paid a premium to avoid the bargain.

IKEAIn Swedish, IKEA roughly translates as “Eternal Torment.” An occasional whiff of brimstone underlies the deli’s meatballs. Dante did not list the retailer in his nine circles of hell, but Hades’ entrance can be viewed from there.

The lurid blue and yellow store squats on 16th Street in Atlanta. The massive building purportedly occupies two floors, but it feels much larger. Like Hogwarts, moving staircases constantly rearrange themselves while false-backed wardrobes lead to Narnia. After inadvertently losing my wife, we finally reunited a continent and time zone later.

A full service restaurant provides provisions for lost souls. One child slept soundly under a down comforter in a bedroom display. Other weary souls sprawled on Swedish torture devices marketed as furniture.

It would be hyperbole to compare my afternoon’s trek through IKEA to Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. However, I found myself muttering “I want to go back to Egypt!”

Reflecting on the experience, the retailer and the church share some common attributes. So I’m writing a series of blogs entitled IKEA and the Large Church which will compare and contrast the two institutions.

Next week’s blog is entitled A-maze-ing Grace.


A Shoeless Soul

Sweltering in July’s heat and humidity, I recall childhood’s dog days of summer. Attic fans produced the only air conditioning. Cut-off shorts comprised the dress of the day. A carefree boyhood meant no shoes, no shirt, and no problems.

BarefeetBarefoot summers produced leather-tough soles. Dew drenched grass glided beneath feet. Brick red, bone dry Georgia clay powdered ankles. Following a thunderstorm, squishy mud squished between toes.

East of Eden even life’s blessings come with a price. Bare feet paid with the coin of stubbed toes, splintered heels, and thorn-pierced flesh. Hot tarmac seared tender insoles. The unwary trod where dog offerings hid in the grass.

In the journey from boy to man, I abandoned childish things. However, maturation can also forfeit a childlike innocence. Jesus said: “I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”

During this barefoot summer, let us cultivate a shoeless soul.

Toss aside socks, shoes, and sandals.  Feel the lush grass beneath naked feet. Wiggle toes deep into the dirt. Swish little piggies through cool water. Ground our spirits in the rich soil of the Spirit’s presence.

Sweltering in July’s heat and humidity, relive childhood’s dog days of summer.

Leaves of Three

During my childhood, I learned the doggerel in Cub Scouts: “Leaves of three, let them be!” Forewarned should be forearmed. However, experience always provides Poison Ivylife’s best-learned lessons. During childhood, it took several close encounters with plants of the three-leafed variety before I learned the importance of leaving the leaves alone.

People react in various ways to poison ivy along with its relatives, poison oak and poison sumac. The toxic plants do not affect some people. Others get a mild rash. A few react violently.

Unfortunately, I am highly allergic to all plants with the first name “poison.” Just standing downwind of the toxic vines makes me itch.

During my boyhood, I could count on a bad case of poison ivy every summer. In the days before air conditioning, video games, cable television, or computers, we actually stayed outside during the day and most of the evening. The boys in the neighborhood often played in the woods across the street. Inevitably, I suffered from a brush with poison ivy or one of its noxious cousins.

For those who have never suffered from the malady, words do not suffice. The angry red rash causes an infernal itch. Scratching the inflammation aggravates the itch.

Back in the day before cortisone lotions and shots, Calamine Lotion provided the only temporary relief. However, it felt like fighting a forest fire with a water pistol. The creamy salve barely treated the symptoms. Time proved to be the only cure.

Despite medical advances during the past decades, prevention remains the best cure. Over the years, I have become quite adept at spotting “leaves of three” from a long distance. It doesn’t matter if the plant disguises itself as vine, shrub, or sapling.

During walks in the woods, I constantly scan the ground for any form of poison ivy. I keep a supply of herbicide on hand for any toxic plant that dares raise its ugly head in our yard.

In my spiritual journey, I have found that temptation shares many characteristics with poison ivy. Both can be beautiful to the eye and nonthreatening to the touch. Each easily blends with its background and gives no hint of potential harm.

It requires diligence and vigilance to note poison’s proximity. Sometimes it takes time before the consequences of our actions are revealed. The best antidote is to avoid what causes the ailment.

In 1749, Charles Wesley wrote the words of the hymn “I Want a Principle Within.” The first stanza declares: “I want a principle within of watchful, godly fear, a sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near. I want the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire, to catch the wandering of my will, and quench the kindling fire.”

When it comes to three-leafed plants and alluring temptation, the same principle applies: LEAVE THEM BE!

Air Conditioning

During my childhood, I grew up in the suburbs of Decatur, Georgia. Our humble home on McAfee Road contained two bedrooms and a single bath. My father eventually converted the carport into a family room. The original den became a third bedroom for yours truly.

A few upscale houses in the neighborhood possessed central air conditioning. However, my friends and I never knew to miss it. We did not have AC in our cars or schools. During summer vacation, we actually played outside during the day and most of the evening.

We cooled our house in warmer weather with an attic fan. The belt-driven mechanism rumbled like the propeller on a plane during takeoff. Standing under the vents in the hallway produced a wind tunnel effect. Propped open windows welcomed any cool breeze blowing by.

During my ninth grade year, we moved to Woodstock, Georgia. My parents neglected to include central air conditioning in the new home they built. I attended Cherokee High School where the only air conditioned building (well, other than the front offices where the principal and secretaries ruled supreme) was the library.

Then  I went to Berry College for undergraduate work. My freshman dorm room featured radiator heat and paint-stuck windows. The next dorm I occupied had been built decades later with central heat but no air. My roommate and I felt like gypsies in the palace when we finally scrounged a box fan for the one window.

After seminary, the bishop appointed me to two churches outside Newnan, Georgia. A wood stove heated the parsonage IF the preacher cut enough wood. An all too familiar attic fan in the hallway provided the only source for cooling. During my fourth year at the church, my wife and I married. THEN the church installed a dish washer and a single window air conditioning unit.

The next church we served owned a parsonage complete with “central” heat. Well, at least the heat source was located in the center of the house—a gas fed furnace shot torrid blasts of heat from a waffle-pattern floor grate. This particular home didn’t even boast an attic fan.

After three years of committee meetings, the church eventually installed a new heat and air system. At 32 years of age, I finally enjoyed the comforts of central air conditioning for the first time in my life.

Only a few decades ago country congregations vehemently argued whether to install air conditioning. The progressive elements argued that people wanted to enjoy the same degree of comfort at church as they did in homes and malls. The fiscally conservative countered that the money could be better used for missions and funeral home fans.

Seriously, I’m not making this stuff up. Today no one would even consider building a church facility without all the modern amenities.

We live in a prosperous era. What were once luxuries are now considered to be necessities. I am certainly not advocating a return to the past. Years later I still recall how hot, humid, sticky, and muggy those “good old days” of the summer truly were.

However, it wouldn’t hurt to be thankful for our present blessings that past generations never even imagined. Thank God for the hot summer weather outside, AND praise the Lord for the air conditioning inside.