Last month I had the privilege of listening to a presentation by the Reverend Jim Downing, lead pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Sedalia, Missouri. Jim arrived at this old, downtown church in 1997 when the average worship attendance was 136. Over the course of the next 10 years the church established a second site about ten miles away and has taken in over 250 persons by profession of faith. Today the combined worship attendance of the two campuses is 750.
He shared his story with us and also talked about the seven things people look for in a church. I want to pass along the wisdom through this blog.
1. Does it fit my time schedule?
Time is often bully in today’s world. Time demands on a family’s schedule can send them in many directions at the same time and, as we all know, this includes Sunday morning. So, this question is a real one for many people. People who may be considering going to church ask, “Does the worship hour fit my busy schedule?” Remember, these people may not yet be fully devoted followers of Jesus. To get them into the door, the church is challenged to meet them part of the way by offering worship times that work. There are many stores open on Sundays and thus, many workers who have to work Sunday morning. Why not partner with neighboring United Methodist churches and together offer compatible schedules that include worship on Saturday and Sunday evenings as well as different hours on Sunday? Another aspect of this question is, “Will my time be well spent?” Will worship be alive, inspiring so that I will want to set aside the time to engage it?
2. Do you care more about me or my money?
There is a perception of many persons who do not attend church that all churches care about is the money I might give in an offering plate. This may not be a correct perception, but it’s there. Many of our churches are sensitive to this. At offering time they say, “If you are visiting with us today, we are honored by your presence. Please don’t feel obligated to make a contribution when the plate goes by.” Often, when given the freedom not to give, the visitor ends up giving because he or she wants to.
3. Are my kids really welcome?
Do congregants turn around and stare at crying infants? Are you giving newcomers with small children the unspoken message they are not welcomed by your body language? Is your nursery clean, bright and well-staffed such that a parent feels comfortable turning over their child for an hour? Do you provide Christian education for a child that keep their interest and nurtures them in the love and knowledge of Jesus Christ? Some of our churches say they welcome children but act quite differently.
4. Is this a place where, in time, I can make friends?
More than friendly churches, we need churches where newcomers can make friends. One of the questions in the back of the mind of visitor is, “Will I be able to make any friends here?” Church experts say that if a newcomer to a church does not make a friend within the first six months, he or she will likely stop attending. For many of us, we are challenged to be sensitive to the newcomer to include them in our small groups, our informal family gatherings—to invite them over for dinner.
5. Can I explore my faith without fear of being judged?
Many newcomers to the church these days have little knowledge of Jesus, the Bible or the Church. Sometimes they are made to feel ashamed by this. We cannot assume people know where to find II Chronicles, chapter 12. Some come to church with many doubts about Christianity. They want to find answers to deep spiritual questions. Can they come into our churches and find a safe and open enough environment where their questions can be explored without fear of judgment?
6. Is the church in-fighting?
It doesn’t take a newcomer long to find out if there is in-fighting in the church. Sometimes it is downright obvious. Rev. Downing explained that there are three kinds of church people in relation to in-fighting. There are complainers who tear down other people, including the pastor, without offering anything to build up. We need to declare to our churches: The Complaint Department is closed! There are also critics. We can and should accommodate critics. Critics can be helpful when they offer solutions to the problem they see. What we really need are champions. Champions see an issue or problem and not only offer solutions, but they offer themselves as well to be instruments for the solution. They have a spirit that says “Yes” to what God can do in our midst. We often joke that the seven last words of the church are, “We never did it that way before.” How different would it be if we remembered the first seven words: We can do all things in Christ (see Philippians 4:13).
7. Do the leaders ‘buy’ the vision?
Here we refer both to the pastoral leader and the lay leaders who buy the vision of making disciples of Jesus Christ, of reaching out to those in need. These leaders say, “Join me in this mission.” They are ready to put themselves on the line and invite others to join.
We might ask ourselves in our local churches how well prepared we are to respond to these seven questions people have regarding the church.
For questions you may have regarding church development, please visit our website at www.yourchurchcangrow.org or send an email to Druffle@gnjumc.org.