So . . . this has the potential to be a SCANDALOUS. Those of weak heart and easily prone to fits of fit throwing might want to avoid reading any further.
The truth is, there is a reason people don’t come to your church, and it’s probably not that they’re super sinners, capes and all.
In fact, given my own experience with those outside the church, as well as great research done by many very well respected men in ministry [see Andy Stanley’s Deep & Wide, George Barna’s Grow Your Church From The Outside In and Ed Stetzer’s Comeback Churches] the reasons are significantly more crushing and guilt inducing for those who would consider themselves “insiders” in the church today.
WHAT’S THE REASON(S)?
Wouldn’t it be great if there was just one simple answer. The problem is, the “reason” is most likely different for everyone. That makes things a tad bit more difficult, for sure. Add to this— generational gaps, personal preference issues, bad past experiences and the general perception of the church as gifted to us by the media . . . now it’s downright hopeless.
However, if you’re paying attention to culture and asking the right questions, you’ll find that some recurring themes begin to emerge. I’m not talking, here, about excuses that people give for not being able to attend church. I’m talking about the real reason behind the excuse.
While the list could be significant, I have discovered the top 5 most frequent “under the excuse to the real reason” reasons that people outside of your walls will never, on their own, come into your church.
1. THEY FEEL LIKE OUTSIDERS
Consider the language we use to describe the unchurched and/or unsaved. I’ve heard the following words/phrases used: “lost,” “blind,” “fools,” “sinners,” “those people,” “poor, unfortunate souls” (although I may have stole that one from The Little Mermaid) and, of course, “OUTSIDERS.”
Now, this might not be too shocking inside the four walls of a church sanctuary, but that’s not where I heard these descriptions used. Each of the designations listed above came from well meaning church people who were apparently unaware of their public surroundings and the volume of their voice.
This is problematic, and not just from a marketing point-of-view. I believe, as I have seen, that the language that we use on the inside of our church concerning the unchurched has bleed outside our walls and into the context of our hearts, minds and language towards the world.
Listen, we’ve been adopted into a unique, set-apart, blessed family. The truth is, we don’t belong in this family, we don’t deserve to be sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. While language that expresses this truth is powerful to our message of changed living, it can and does project a sense of “us” vs. “them.”
I’m not saying, “stop making any verbal distinction between the saved and the lost.” I’m saying, instead, that words, tone and body language speak volumes to the people “outside.” [see Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink] so be cautious . . . dare I say, intentional with the words you use in public.
2. THE “INSIDERS” DON’T SEEM EXCITED ABOUT CHURCH
What’s the last thing you remember being so excited about that you had to tell pretty much anyone that made eye contact with you? For me it was the last time we found out my wife was pregnant . . . with TWINS!!!
I don’t think there was one conversation I had with strangers where I didn’t somehow find a way to mention that my wife and I were expecting twins.
[At the checkout] – Cashier, “Did you find everything you needed?” Me, “Yeah, but pretty soon I’m going to need a bigger cart . . . I’ve got twins on the way.”
[At a coffee house] – Barista, “Do you want your ___________ [fill in the blank with pretentious coffee beverage] with cream?” Me, “No thanks! Black and strong for me. The stronger the better . . . I’m doing research on caffeine for when my twins are born.”
[In the mall] – Vendor, “This cream will change your life. Would you like a sample?” Me, “1 + 1 = 2, which is how many babies my wife and I are expecting . . . did you say something about cream?” I may have forced this last one.
When was the last time you were so excited about something that God was doing through His church that it was just “naturally” part of your general conversations? There could be two problems here: 1 – Nothing exciting is happening, which makes me wonder if you have the Gospel in any sort of substantial way —or— 2 – Exciting stuff is happening, you just don’t get excited by it anymore.
Truth is, change is exciting. Lives being changed, families being changed, communities being changed. The life of the Christ-one is defined by change. We might use fancy church words for it, like progressive sanctification or repentance, but the simplest way to say it is CHANGE.
This translates to almost every aspect of the things that are not nailed down, metaphorically speaking, in the church. Things like sound doctrine, Biblical preaching and God-honoring worship are fixtures that, if removed, turn a church into a public hall. Even these things change in terms of presentation. It’s the content that needs to remain.
If church doesn’t excite you, perhaps it’s time for a change. The change may be in you, the change may be in your church, the change may be in your going to that church. But if you no longer get excited enough about what God is doing in the life of His church, why would you expect anyone on the “outside” to want to be part of it?
3. NO ONE KNOWS WHO YOU ARE
Brand identity is a thing. I know we’ve marked the prospect of church marketing as something that’s come directly from the prince of darkness (not Ozzy, that other guy) himself.
What if we’re wrong?
What if we have a gospel-centered, kingdom-focused responsibility to go out of our way to proclaim the fact that we have THE WAY, THE TRUTH and THE LIFE. What if the way that we want people to see us and the way people actually see us can be effected by intentional marketing strategies.
I’m not suggesting that you need to install a Starbucks © in every church auditorium and change your name from “________ church” to “Partytown USA.” But, what if you created a logo for your church (please get professional help with this and don’t use anything that could be considered “clip-art”) and started to put that logo on everything that you produced. Every bulletin, every handout, every e-mail, every business card, every . . . everything.
Then, what if you made that logo the primary demarcation of the church by making it a key feature, if not just right out replacing, the outdoor sign. In theory, every time someone would see this logo on a notebook, on a slip of paper, on a bumper sticker (probably not a good idea if you, like me, are ministering in NJ) they would immediately be able to identify where it came from and who produced it. This really isn’t that ground-breaking and there are about 20 more things just like this that can be done, with a little planning.
Of course, I can’t speak for your content on these printed materials. If you’re producing awful content then it’s better not to take credit for it.
Be creative and be intentional. It’s alright to try to get people to notice that you exist.
4. THE “OUTSIDERS” WHO KNOW YOU DON’T LIKE YOU
You know that cranky old guy who lives alone and has 50 cats. The neighborhood kids know him as Catman (insert appropriate “na-na-na-na na-na-na-na” sounds here). He has a bad reputation.
What’s your church’s reputation? Do you know how you are generally perceived in your city? Do you know if you are even a visible presence in your city?
Chances are, people have some opinion about your church. Sometimes this opinion is shaped by a denominational name. I pastor a Baptist church and that can hold some negative connotations to many “outsiders.” Other times people may have an opinion about who you are based on the look of your facilities and grounds. If you look old and dead, chances are people believe you’re an old and dead religious group.
In a much more heartbreaking scenario, some people might have had a bad experience with someone from your church or perhaps, historically, your church has been unwelcoming to the community utilizing it’s facilities.
Reputation is a big thing, especially since it’s not technically your reputation but Jesus’.
While you may be stuck blessed with your current facilities and while you denominational name might be the unfortunate recipient of bad press, the truth is that you don’t need to tear everything down and re-build the temple (complete with bounce house and ball pit for relevant children’s ministry). A lot can be accomplished by equipping and sending out your church family into the community to be a blessing. If your town has a “work day” then fill the roster up with your people. Encourage one member to join the volunteer fire department, have someone join the environmental committee for the town, creating a “building fund” for some of the broken down homes in your area (a few buckets of paint won’t break the bank).
Go be part of the community where your church owns property. Go with a smile and a heart to serve. Go prayerfully, pleading with God to give you an opportunity to talk about Jesus. Don’t just sit there… GO!
5. THEY’VE NEVER BEEN PROPERLY INVITED
“Hey Bill, you need Jesus and I got ’em. Want to come to church to me ya sinner?”
Ok . . . so hopefully no one would actually try this as an outreach strategy. A lot of the outreach strategies that are tried, however, aren’t really all that much better.
Leaving a tract with a bad tip for a waitress that you were rude to – NOT GOOD.
Having a float in your towns summer parade that highlights how your church has been around for 50 years longer than most people have been alive – BETTER, STILL NOT GOOD.
Wearing a sandwich board that reads, “REPENT OR BURN!!!” with, “Come learn more at our church” in smaller letters on the bottom – LORD, PLEASE RETURN TO STOP THIS.
Just as there are wrong ways to invite someone to church, there are properly ways to do it. More often than not it’s going to require a relationship that extends beyond the first encounter. You may need to become a regular at a local diner, sit at the same table and converse with the same waitress (whom you will tip well) for 6 months before the Holy Spirit will give you the green light to invite her to church.
There are a number of proper ways to invite “outsiders” to come inside and be part of your church. Detailing that is a topic for a whole other post (which I’ll link when I write it).
In the meantime, don’t assume that the people outside of your church have ever actually been invited by someone in a way that communicates that Jesus loves them. Take a note from the apostles and the first church, ask God for boldness and then deliver the invitation.