I wish I could have been there to see it.
It was 7:51 a.m. on January 12, 2007. L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C., a busy subway station, had its usual morning rush of commuters.
A young man wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt, and faded jeans entered the plaza and quietly removed his violin from its case. He tossed in some seed money to bait the passersby then lifted the violin to his chin. The player? Joshua Bell, some would call the finest violinist of our generation. His instrument? The rare Gibson ex Huberman, handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari . . . one of the most coveted and expensive violins in existence. The music? Bell began with “Chaconne,” from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, hailed by some musicians as the one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed in history. The response? You will be surprised what was caught on camera.
Of the 1,097 commuters who passed Bell that morning, only seven stopped to listen. That’s right . . . seven. Just three days earlier, Bell had played to a sold-out crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall where the average seat cost $100. His earnings that morning in the subway? A little over $32. Bell usually earns around $1000 a minute. (I should have stayed with the violin!)
The Washington Post sponsored Bell’s incognito performance in order to evaluate the public’s taste, priorities, and perception. But for me, the experience remains a powerful lesson on the importance of something else.
No matter how beautifully Joshua Bell played his Stradivarius, and no matter how exquisite his musical selection was, it took more. His giftedness wasn’t enough. It took a context that was conducive and favorable to it.
I find the same true of preaching.
Excellent exposition of the Scriptures alone isn’t enough to cause people to continue attending and to stick together as a church. It takes more.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m certainly not diminishing the importance of preaching and teaching God’s Word. I simply mean that there are preachers all around the world who faithfully declare the truth . . . and yet their local church is not growing. In fact, many years ago I served at such a church. I preached just as passionately there as I do in my current ministry. But there wasn’t growth. The marks of an attractive church weren’t present. In fact, I remember one Fourth of July weekend when there were seven people in the entire congregation . . . and four of them were Swindolls! That was not an inviting context. I might as well have been preaching in a subway.
Why is it we will drive past any number of churches in order to worship at one particular church located farther from our house than all the rest? What is it that draws us in, causing us to stay excited about, invest our time and money in, and become an active participant of that church instead of some other? How can one ministry become so attractive, so meaningful to us, that we’re willing to adjust our lives to fit its schedule, rear our children in it, and even invite other people to come with us to it?
The best word to describe such an attraction is contagious. Webster defined the root word, contagion, as “an influence that spreads rapidly.” When a church is in this category, word quickly travels. People witness the passion in our enthusiasm as we talk together and listen well. They hear the excitement in our voices as we sing and laugh. They see characteristics that set our church apart. They finally become so curious that they can’t stay away; they have to come to see for themselves. One thing is for sure: they observe a set of distinctives being modeled like nothing the world around them has to offer. A contagious church is unique. It provides a magnetic context.
I’ll be sharing with you what makes a church contagious in the upcoming posts.
P.S. You can see Joshua Bell’s subway performance here.