I’ve had an interesting experience in retirement of joining an affinity group. A few months ago I decided to follow through on a long, though casual, interest: join a rock and gem club.
My wonderful wife, given to wry humor at times, responded to me when I announced I was joining, “I didn’t know the gym had rocking chairs. You will probably enjoy it.”
So, with that bit of encouragement I searched out and joined the nearest club. My experience reminded me of how many churches claim to desire to grow, to have new members, but seem like they are doing all within their power to discourage growth. Perhaps some of the following describes your church in regard to potential new members.
1. Make it hard for new folks to know where and when you meet.
Aha, the rock club has a website with interesting information about what they do. Just what I want to see. But, alas, the time and place of the meeting was unclear.
It seems like a simple thing to let folks know your location and worship times but I’ve shown up at churches early because they changed their worship time and didn’t make that plain. It is uncomfortable to show up thirty minutes early for a worship service while most of the membership is in a Sunday School class. The sound guy and music minister might just look at you like you were a zombie or something. The same for being thirty minutes late because the new pastor moved the service time up to 10:30 while the church sign still said 11:00. The whole congregation will watch as you try and find a seat.
2. Make it hard to contact the church for clarification or any other question.
I’m a total novice in rocks and gems. I’ve chunked a few rocks, had rocks tossed at me from time to time, and have overpaid for a few gems. I’d like to have an idea of what a meeting is like and what to expect. So, I was pleased to see the email of someone who was a “membership chair.” I fire off an email. It’s returned, bad address. Heck, I’ll email the president of the club. It’s returned, bad address. There were several other contact addresses so I emailed them all as a group and, thankfully, a couple of these were good addresses and I got some responses.
It’s a pretty intimidating thing for some folks to show up for church on a Sunday where they aren’t a member and who hasn’t been to any church in a while, perhaps ever. Why not make it easier by providing current information and making it easy for someone who has gone to the trouble to look your church up and ask a question about your worship?
3. Act like you don’t care if there are new people in the worship service.
I show up at the club meeting. Never been to one of these. Hmmm, some of these folks brought rocks. They are talking to each other before the meeting. Name tags. I slap mine on and a lady recognizes me as the guy who emailed her. “Welcome.”
Here’s an axiom about our churches that I’ve heard a couple of well-traveled state convention staffers repeat: “Every church thinks they are friendly but probably are not.” Right as rain on that one.
Pastors will now trot out all those horror stories people have told them about visiting churches. Stuff like, “I was told I was in someone’s seat.” “Not a soul uttered a syllable to me the whole time.” “It was a small church and they all stared at us as if to say, ‘Why are you here?'” “Only the pastor spoke to me.” There are more.
I only had a single choice of rock clubs in my area, although I could commune with rocks in my back yard if that satisfied the need. There are, however, plenty of other churches and, while we might complain about ‘church shoppers,’ the treatment some churches give guests deserve moving on to the next church on the list.
4. Don’t give new people any opportunity to express, publicly or privately, why they came to your church.
After the club meeting a guy, a real rock zealot, came up and starting explaining a few things about some of the rock displays. I had a chance to share some of my interests and he was able to respond in kind. New folks at the club are asked at some point what their interests are (some are into field trips, others in creating jewelry, most are collectors).
Seems to me that the traditional church invitation is a pretty poor way to elicit responses from attendees, especially new ones. The church I attend forgoes the traditional invitation for a commitment card with all the response options. Many churches do both. Most experienced and sensible pastors know how to have a conversation that is appropriate without being intimidating and that attempts to establish a relationship. Most laypeople do not but can be trained. I’ve only run across a couple of church guests who didn’t want some level of discourse with me as the pastor.
If the church is interested in building the audience for the worship team then no need to connect individually with them – they come, we count them; they give, we add it up; they go, ‘see you next Sunday, maybe.’ If the church is interested in making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them then someone at some point has to connect personally and individually with new people.
5. Act as if joining by baptism or letter is no big deal.
Two months after I joined (filled out an info form and paid annual dues) my name was in the e-newsletter. Woo-hoo. It is probably unrealistic to expect any of the experts to make a personal contact with me – a phone call or email. I wasn’t particularly looking for that but such would have been good.
How many new members who join by statement or letter or are baptized are celebrated for a Sunday and then pretty much left to navigate church life on their own? Probably more than we think. This should be a scandal among us. We should despair that all of our churches do not have a formal plan of discipleship for folks who are saved.
6. Don’t make any effort at involving new people in the life of your church – hold the new member at arms length for a time.
I’ve been in the club for a few months but if I don’t wear a name tag at the meeting (it’s a small group, 15-20 people max) I don’t think anyone would know me by name, although they know I am the new guy, the total novice, and are friendly. No big deal but if this were a church it would be a big deal.
On occasion, my church has seen a prodigal return home or a person in the community with an unsavory reputation come to church, express repentance, and get saved. Guess what? I’ve seen church members hold such people at arms length, “Let’s wait and see if he means it, preacher.” This is a disgrace and an offense to Jesus. If some wish to act this way then perhaps the pastor could address it or at least make sure there were many who did not act this way.
7. Don’t whine about plateaued and declining membership if you convey to new people that they aren’t really wanted.
If you really want to do a good job of discouraging people from joining, visit around your area for a couple of months. You will get some good ideas.
Have a good Lord’s Day tomorrow.