Isn’t one of a pastor’s unspoken fears that lurking about in the community are unknown people who have given your church—the place you sacrificially pour out your soul to grow—a preliminary examination and decided visiting wasn’t worth the bother?
Ouch, that’s harsh!
We can write off guests preferring a denomination of a different stripe. That’s understandable. As for those who didn’t realize you’re there, well, that’s a different issue.
I’m talking about someone else.
Consider people who approach who want to find a church. They’re hungry to connect and jump in, and could bring new life, energy, and resources as they begin growing with you as their new church family. People you’ve been praying for.
Yet they don’t walk through your door.
This quick synopsis of my recent church shopping experience may give you a picture of the “which church should I visit” dilemma your potential visitors face.
Upon learning that in a few months I would relocate in another state, I began a prayerful church hunt. Word of mouth was limited, but an internet search revealed 147 churches within 25 minutes of my new home. We were not looking for a specific church attendance size or physical structure. Other than basic doctrinal concerns, we were fairly open.
Narrowing our search down to 20 was easily accomplished simply based on denomination and church name. We purged that list further using web searches, websites, and streaming video. Finally we were down to our top 3 contenders: a small family church of about 150, a young mobile satellite campus from a 12K+ megachurch, and a 450-700 member congregation.
For several months we visited the contenders (virtually or live) until sensing God’s direction and making our final selection. The first time we walked through the foyer of the “winner,” we had already been attending for months. There the Lord opened doors for our involvement, and although I wasn’t looking for a job that may infringe upon with my time writing and ministry coaching, that’s where I serve today.
But consider that middle list. Of 20 churches, 17 never made it out of the “could be” stack to become a top contender. Do you share my sneaking suspicion that many—perhaps most—churches perpetually get stuck in the B list?
Wonder how your potential guests assess you?
We’re not talking here about what nuances influence people when picking between top contenders. We’re talking about factors that may prevent you from entering the final ring in the first place.
Consider this list of the top reasons why good churches keep guests away.
A self-aware church is comfortable in its own skin. We were uninterested in congregations afraid to show candid images of its people experiencing life together or unwilling to give us clues to its actual church size. For example, if your church auditorium is small, own it by showing a picture on your website of people connecting relationally and serving in the auditorium so we can understand this congregational strength and see you making the most of what resources you have. Rather than perfectly polished promotional material, potential guests value when you provide a sense of who you really are. That helps us determine whether we fit. If you’re comfortable giving us a peek, we might be comfortable giving you a visit. But why would we bother with a church that seems to be hiding something or pretending to be other than it really is? Jesus is at work in your congregation. Evidence of that will draw us. Guests want to know congregation size, average age, level of formality, and so on; if you fail to share this info up front, you’ll not become a top contender, especially with people who could quickly become high-impact participants.
We were disappointed to see in many churches a disparity between the diversity on the platform from the diversity in the congregation. If I saw all kinds of shapes, sizes, and ages in the congregation, I hoped to see that represented on the platform, otherwise there seemed to be a disconnect. Ultimately we were attracted to congregations with a diverse mix of age, race, socio-economic status, style, and formality. Lack of that communicated to us that the church may have difficulty connecting outside the church walls with the world.
It mattered to us that the church we selected already had a plan in place to answer our questions, show where we needed to go, teach us about the church, and guide us through the process of getting involved with church life. It didn’t matter whether the system was as simple as having someone with a name tag meet us and walk us through the day, or a full-fledged growth track program with all the bells and whistles. We just wanted to know that new people are important enough that something functional was in place to clarify and facilitate the process. We also wanted to see that the church had size-appropriate systems in place enabling it to function effectively.
Not only did we want to see qualified, skilled, and trained church staff people, we hoped for evidence that volunteers from the congregation did the work of the church, and that the job of staff was primarily to help volunteers be successful. Equipped congregants grow churches outside the church walls. Far more of my spiritual growth has come through serving than from being served by staff. Seeing that value at a church says the church is ready to grow and steward the investment I want to give of my resources, time, and energy.
We want a church where we can invite friends and neighbors without being embarrassed or feeling that we had to explain anything. So we looked for a sense of unity and of mutual concern for one another. We love to laugh, so we looked for a balance of friendly fun and truth. We looked for an environment and materials that paid attention to details and was free from glaring errors, neglect, or being out of date (like having announcements for upcoming events that were long gone). We wanted to be part of a group of people whose faces and body language said, “I’m glad to be here.”
What separated the potential churches from the contender churches was simple. Contenders risk revealing enough of themselves that potential guests could eliminate them if something suggests an awkward fit. Contenders have systems in place to enable people to move from one level of participation into the next. Contenders celebrate the good things God does without disguising their imitations. Contenders show that Jesus is alive, that they walk with Him, and that we’re invited to come along.
Be a contender!
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Timothy J Miller is a ministry coach and author who has served in small, medium, and multi-site congregations in volunteer, bivo, and full time staff roles. His 6-week free pilot discussion group, based upon his recent best-selling book Born For Worship: The Best You Can Be In Worship-Arts Ministry starts in June. He’d love to hear from you. Contact him at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.