The Wrong Question

“How can we get more people to come to our church?” I am asked this question a lot.

Over the holidays I saw a story on the TV news, which was also reported in the Galveston County Daily News: A congregation in LaMarque was giving away a Saturn Ion to one lucky person who showed up for church on New Year’s Eve. That’s one answer.

My typical answer, no doubt, frustrates the questioner, because it doesn’t include hints or techniques or advertising secrets that will double worship attendance. No, I almost always respond, “It’s the wrong question.”
At best, the question implies we are operating out of 20th century assumptions: that if we plan the “right” worship service, people will come; that coming to church is the first step in becoming a Christian; that the Sunday worship experience is our primary service to the community.

At worst, the question reveals our hunger for people to join us to keep our congregations alive; reading between the lines, the question exposes a focus on ourselves and our own institutional survival over and above the needs, wants or desires of those we are called to serve. There are times, let’s face it, when we ask the question really wanting to know, “How can we get more people who like to worship just like we do, who will give money to our church budget, and share in the leadership of this congregation?”

The question isn’t how can we get people to come here, it’s how can we get our people to go there. We have to deploy our members into our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces to be witnesses of Christ in those places. In the 21st century, discipleship usually begins with an authentic friendship with a Christ-follower. Only after the interest in Christ is kindled, is a new-believer interested in attending a worship service. Typically, they will prefer to gather first with a small group in a friend’s home before venturing into a large worship gathering.

This sounds obvious, but people who don’t go to church are simply not interested in “going to church”. No matter how wonderful your pastor preaches or your choir sings, no matter how friendly your childcare workers or greeters are – un-churched people don’t want to give up their treasured time off to go to church. But, they are interested in building relationships with people whose lives model compassion and kindness; and, seeing the results of a Christ-centered life, they may be interested in getting to know Jesus and learning about living a worship-full life.

Meeting people where they are and building faithful relationships with them in such a way that their lives are made deeper, richer, healthier, and more loving – that’s what being the Church is about. If we merely want more people in worship, we should give a car away; if we want to make disciples, we need to give ourselves away.

to be published in the February 2007 issue of Connections, a publication of the Presbytery of New Covenant