“An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.”(1)
In Tove Jansson’s work, The Summer Book, six-year-old Sophia’s impression of the people on the island where she and her grandmother would spend the summer may well remind us of our feelings when venturing into a new community. Do you remember a time when you felt like an outsider? Have you ever been somewhere everyone else knew their place, had their routines, and lived as though they were the only ones on earth?
This is very similar to the experience of many outsiders who visit our churches. Maybe you can relate.
When a guest visits your church do they feel they are being welcomed home to a place where they are loved or to a jungle where they have to fend for themselves?
Even those places where there are smiles and handshakes one may still leave having not made a meaningfull connection with the church as a whole or any member as an individual.
It may be hard to believe for sincere church members who love God and genuinely want others to know Him, but many people don’t come and if they do, don’t stay at our churches because they think they will feel out-of-place not knowing anyone and not knowing what to do.
"Look out! The roof may fall in!"
Some of us pray for our friends to join us at church and when they finally do we may hinder God’s work in their lives by our own preferences and insensitivity. I still remember a man walking up while I was talking to a guest in the hallway of a church. He recognized the guest and loudly exclaimed, “Look out! The roof may fall in! Look who’s come to church!”
The guest never came back.
Yes, this is an extreme example, but only illustrates how insensitve we may be and how we often unintentionally make a guest feel unwelcome.
Most churches understand they would cease to be a church if they compromised the core, essential teachings of God’s word. That cannot happen. We simply do not have the right to misrepresent the Lord Jesus Christ and His message of salvation for any reason. To gain members by minimizing or omitting the identity of Christ, the authority of His word, or the gospel of grace would only give false assurance and undermine the mission of the church ultimately betrying Christ Himself!
Yet in my experience most evangelical churches are not leaning towards denying Christ or the gospel - at least yet. They err on the other extreme. Much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they “strain at a gnat and swallow a camel” (Mt. 23:24)! Often church members seem unable to distinguish between what is essential and what is non-essential. It may be they lean towards man-made rules and legalism or attentively guard their preferences and traditions, but either way it has the same effect. Barriers are erected making it more difficult for outsiders to understand, believe, repent, and follow Christ.
It is far easier to say, "Shame on them!" instead of getting to know our neighbors and showing the love of Christ by serving them.
One reason we so easily allow ourselves to actually interfere with the very thing we pray for - the salvation of the lost - is most of us have little interaction and understanding of those without Christ. It is far easier to say, "Shame on them!" instead of getting to know our neighbors and showing the love of Christ by serving. So very few Christians attempt to share the gospel it is no wonder we don’t know how to connect with outsiders.
When people do step out of their comfort zone and visit our churches more often than not they are met by people who are ill-equipped to understand them. Many well-meaning church members are caught-up in their own world, focused on their own traditions, and confused about what really matters because they haven’t made following Christ and “fishing for men” the passion of their lives.
Is it any wonder only an average of between 9 to 12 visitors out of 100 will be involved in most churches a year later? (2, 3)
Gary McIntosh says there is only a 16% chance guests will return a second time. But if by God’s grace we can have a meaningful connection with our guests and they return a second time, the chances of them returning more often becomes 85%! (4)
When the Lord Jesus said, "God so loved the world..." He meant it (Jn. 3:16)!
God was willing to do whatever it took to reveal Himself to us and meet us where we are. He did this so we might trust, follow, and be where He is.
If we say we follow Him, we must also be willing to do whatever it takes to connect with people for Jesus' sake.
As the Lord allows, I hope to continue to explore these critical issues affecting the high rate of decline among our churches. If you have suggestions or comments I would love to hear them. Be sure to sign up so you are among the first to know of free resources and opportunities.
Please let me know if you would like to discuss how we may come alongside you and your church family to seek revival and revitalization.
1 Tove Jansson, The Summer Book, New York Review: New York, 1972, p. 30.
2 Charles Arn. “When a church starts declining in membership, what are the questions it can ask to diagnose that decline?” http://www.buildingchurchleaders.com/discussion/asktheexperts/charlesarn/q3.html accessed by subscription January 31, 2015.
3 Win and Charles Arn, The Church Growth Ratio Book (Monrovia, CA.: Church Growth Inc. 2004), p.48.
4 Jordan Cramer. “Easter Aftermath: More Than a One-Time Visit,” Replicate Ministries Blog, April 2, 2018. https://replicate.org/easter-aftermath-more-than-a-one-time-visit/