Do we stop to ask what people are looking for – or do we already know what we offer and do our best to package it to them? For most communities of faith I am willing to bet it is the latter – we know what our worship style is and why we like it, we know what ministry programs we offer to invite people to participate in and we hope people join us. We get it. We have a limited market share on Sunday mornings given not only other religious opportunities out there but the constant competition of other undertakings that vie for our attention and resources. The church is one activity among many. The sooner we realize this reality the sooner we can stop shaming ourselves or placing guilt and/or blame on others, and instead focus our energy. If we talk to our neighbors, friends and family members outside the church, we might get a better idea of what people are up to, thinking about, working on, worried about and where they see God at work in their lives. By building some conversation partners, we can become stronger communities of faith. People who are not church members are not objects to seek, control or possess. These are human beings we can respectfully learn from in a changing world. These are people who can help us be church better. They can help us ask better questions of ourselves and each other as we engage our surrounding community.
God Seeking Us
I’m glad to be part of a community that makes no illusions to being perfect. I make no concession that being “church” is ever solely about us – even when we think it is. We can be church together but are we are also church for the community around us too. Being church involves others. It involves God. I have come to realize that we’re not really seeking God, but God is really seeking us. That to me is what the Jesus movement is about: God seeking us; looking for us, finding us. Like a shepherd gathering his sheep. Not a brighter billboard or a fancier widget that points us to something we didn’t even know we “needed.”
“What are you looking for?” must be more than just a marketing strategy. It has to involve meeting people where they already are and inviting them into conversation. Asking this question also means listening to the response on its own terms. Then we can share what we have learned with each other – not to build a better widget, but to join God in the seeking. This is not a one directional interface, lest we believe we are the sole possessors of God. Through others, God is still seeking us too.
So how can we go about asking, “What are you looking for?”
Many of us probably have friends, neighbors and family members who have either moved-on from church or are simply not interested in participating in one. Let’s find out why. But let’s do it in a way that we are clear we are not marketing to them. People are smarter than that and deserve to be treated better than that.
1. Invite. Start by asking a non-church person you know well to meet you for a conversation. Meet in a public place like a coffee shop or someplace that feels safe. If you have a distant relationship you can do this over the phone or even online if that feels comfortable. Be clear in advance why you want to meet with them. Tell them your church is doing some field research and you would value their input. Be upfront and tell them you are not looking for them to join your church and that you are not going to get all Jesusy on them. Nor are you there to judge them. Tell them that you are actually looking for their help. Hold up your end of the bargain. Build trust.
2. Listen. Once you move past the small-talk, enter into a deeper discussion with your conversation partner. What are their passions? What worries or excites them? What makes it worth getting up in the morning and what really frustrates them? Share those about yourself too. Ask about church. What do they think happens there? Who goes to church? Were they ever part of one? (You probably already know this.) If so, why did they leave? Would they ever be part of one again? Can they name any good things that churches do? What are churches missing that they “don’t get”? Do your absolute best not to get defensive or to reply back, “but our church…” Listen. Say, “Tell me more about that,” and listen some more. Ask them if they ever pray, and if so, for what? There is a lot to learn. Take notes. Resist getting all Jesusy on them if you are to maintain any credibility, but answer their questions too. Thank them. Then thank them again. You can ask if you can pray for them, but seriously – don’t break the trust you have with them by making a sales pitch. The goal of this exercise is to listen. The “come and see” moment in this conversation is for you to discover what they are teaching you. God is moving there too. Listen for it. Open yourself to new insights. If the Spirit is blowing there might be another conversation that leads to an invitation or for you to share what you find so valuable about your faith and church. But that’s for another time and place. Now is our time to listen and learn.
3. Share. We’ll need to think about how we gather the information from these conversations. Find a few friends at church. Share it with me. Bring it to a small group. I believe that the more discussions we have like this the better job we can do of planning our ministry and articulating our own faith. Remember – the goal isn’t to “market” the church. The goal is to “be” the church. We are part of the church God has called together; given gifts for ministry; equipped for mission; and makes holy by calling us ever closer to Jesus and the cross. (Martin Luther, “Small Catechism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship. [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006], p. 1162.)
Invite. Listen. Share.
We are not here to market the church to unbelievers. We are here to live the good news of Jesus among all those around us. To be more effective in this calling we need to know what world we live in and the people in it. We can’t do that locked inside. We can’t be good news people if we are too timid to meet the people we already know and listen to them; or bash people over the head as religious know-it-alls. We must walk humbly among others and realize that God is seeking them just as much as God is seeking each of us. Engaging in respectful conversation with non-church folks can teach us to clear away that which is keeping us from God; so we “come and see” what God is up to in this world. We might even see it through them.
Which I believe is the Jesusy thing.
P.S. If you just read this and said, “WOAH! I COULD NEVER DO THIS?” Relax. Take a deep breath. Pray. Be of good courage and be of good cheer. I’ll be praying and having conversations too. We can do this. God is with us. God is with you. And you might discover that God is with the people you talk with too.
For Further Reading:
Laura Darling, “Listening to the ‘Nones’: an Interview with Elizabeth Drescher,” Confirm not Conform. Online Available: http://confirmnotconform.com/blog/listening-nones-interview-elizabeth-drescher
James Hazelwood, “Course or Coarse Correction,” Bishop on a Bike. Online Available: http://bishoponabike.squarespace.com/blog/2014/1/16/course-or-coarse-correction.html
James Hazelwood, “Engaging the ‘Nones’ in the Task of Preaching,” Bishop on A Bike. Online Available: http://bishoponabike.squarespace.com/blog/2014/1/6/engaging-the-nones-in-the-task-of-preaching.html
Pew Forum, “Nones on the Rise,” Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. Online Available: http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/
Bill Smalt, “Why People Leave the Church” Ministry Today. Online Available: http://ministrytodaymag.com/index.php/ministry-leadership/ethics/1068-why-people-leave-the-church
Ed Stetzer, “The Rise of the Nones: Some Reflections on the New Pew Forum Data,” Christianity Today: The Exchange. Online Available: http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2012/october/rise-of-nones-some-reflections-on-new-pew-forum-data.html
Sam Williamson, “Why Do Our Children Leave the Church?” Beliefs of the Heart. Online Available: http://beliefsoftheheart.com/2013/08/26/why-do-our-children-leave-the-church/