I’m Not Sure They Care

Throughout my years in ministry, the one constant question I hear is, “how do we reach unchurched people?” Often, what is truly being asked is, “how do we reach young people?”

To be honest, I don’t know! I’ve been in ministry since 1999. I’ve served several congregations. Each congregation has faithfully attempted to answer this question.

From adding “contemporary” worship services, to starting coffee shops, replacing pews with chairs, shifting the vision beyond the walls, beginning ministries in alternative locations, and having a “do whatever it takes” attitude, I’ve seen it all.

So, if I’m being honest, the results of the various attempts to reach unchurched folks did not produce rapid growth. In some cases, it slowed the rate of decline and led to a plateau (which, in many ways is a success). In some cases, it sped up the rate of decline (which, in some ways is also a success).

For years, the “experts” stressed starting contemporary services. (I’m putting “experts” in quotes because I’ve yet to see widespread success) While this has proven successful in some cases, it is not a foolproof fix. Depending on the research one reads, 70-84% of churches are plateaued or declining. So, maybe that’s not the answer?

The latest fad being pushed by the “experts” within my denominational structure is the launching of “fresh expressions”. What’s a “fresh expression”? Well, from what I can tell, it’s a new name for old stuff. Examples of fresh expressions are really just affinity groups (which was a fad in the 90’s). Dinner church, running church, knitting church, pub theology are all expressions being referred as “fresh”. Yet, let’s be honest, these things have been happening for a long time. We used to call them “small groups, discipleship groups, bands”. Now, we throw the tag “church” on it and it’s “fresh”. Seriously, I’ve yet to hear of a truly unique and new “fresh expression.” I always think of the South Park episode “The Simpson’s Already Did It” whenever I hear about this “new” program. Look, if it works for your congregation, awesome! But, to me, it’s just a new name on an ancient (and often great) product.

It reminds me of the trend in the early 2000’s when pastors started wearing jeans and untucked shirts. They promoted their gatherings as “not your grandma’s church.” However, they did all the same things my grandma’s church does.

If I were to suggest ways to reach unchurched people, here are some tips no one asked for:

1. In the words of Joe Maddon, “Try not to suck”! Whatever you do, do it well.

Part of the reason some worship gatherings don’t reach new people is because they stink. Unchurched folks will walk out of a bar or coffee shop if the band is awful. The same is true for church music. If your choir struggles or your band is less-than-stellar, don’t be surprised by a low rate of return. While church people will tolerate (and often celebrate) mediocrity, those we are trying to reach will not.

As more churches are offering online services, I find myself cringing. I try to be gracious and say, “Well, it’s probably the best they can do.” However, some of it only provides evidence as to why the Church is failing to connect with emerging generations.

Here’s a pro tip for worship leaders: develop a strong relationship with your sound tech. Once you have built a trusted relationship, you can ask the sound engineer to turn down (or even mute) certain voices or instruments. Or just do the hard work of redirecting folks to other areas of service. Not everyone should be given a microphone!

This is not just about the music either. Those of us who are preaching and leading in other aspects of worship need to be prepared and striving towards excellence. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it well.

2. Stop thinking like church people. Surprisingly enough, those outside the church are not really concerned with churchy things! What if I told you that unchurched folks don’t care as much about style as church people? What if I told you worship style is simply a preference and no one style is greater than another?

If an unchurched person becomes curious and decides to check out a church…1) they will check you out online first; 2) they won’t be hoping you’ll sing “How Great Thou Art” or “What a Beautiful Name”. If they are truly unchurched, they won’t be familiar with our hymns or praise songs. Also, let’s think about unchurched folks experience with churches…it’s most likely limited to funerals and weddings.

3. Be real. I believe this is more than being relevant. While cultural relevancy is important, some do so without authenticity. I saw a church doing a series playing off “Stranger Things”. In the first two minutes of the sermon, the pastor admitted that he had never watched the show. Now, that’s wrong on so many levels! But, at least he admitted it. I attended a church service where the pastor kept trying to drop hip references, but continually mispronounced names.

Being real means being true to yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not. If you are a traditional church, own that! If you are a contemporary church, own that. Then, lead with honesty, integrity, authenticity and transparency. The lack of these characteristics (accompanied by a lack of accountable leadership) has led to the downfall of many ministries.

4. Create a welcoming environment. This has to become part of the ethos of our churches. Every church considers itself to be friendly. In most cases, what that really means is, “we’re friendly with one another.” Do those walking through the doors for the first time feel safe, welcome, and more importantly, wanted. Let’s be honest, some churches are content to keep things “as is”. They don’t really want new people. A welcoming environment goes beyond friendliness and focuses on openness and inclusion. This is also something that has to go beyond the pastors, staff and hospitality team. A welcoming environment must permeate throughout the congregation.

So, no one asked…but, hey, this is my blog! Whatever you are doing, do it well!

Be Kind

The other day, I saw a t-shirt that contained a message that is desperately needed in our world today. No, it wasn’t another Wu-Tang Clan t-shirt that I feel needs to be added to my wardrobe! It was a simple shirt with a simple message…”Be Kind.”

When I read the paper, watch the news and venture out into the community, one of the characteristics I fear is lacking in our world today is kindness. I fear we need continual reminders to “be kind” because too many of us seem to gravitate towards unkind characteristics.

Rather than more videos of Walmart fights or “news” regarding the latest drama on “The Bachelor” or “Real Housewives of Wherever”, we need more stories of kindness.

But, rather than stories of random acts of kindness, we need to embrace an ethos of kindness. We need regular, sustained kindness. I get pretty cynical when I see people livestream their acts of kindness (while the acts are often kind, the motivation is a but suspect), but I would prefer that over learning that some “social media influencer” (what is that, anyway?) has challenged a UFC fighter to a dual.

So. Let’s be kind…and not just for a brief moment.

Mixed Message

The coronavirus pandemic has forced individuals, families, schools, businesses and churches to shift gears. We all have made adjustments to do our best to make it through these challenging days.

There are organizations that have been clear in regard to their response.

Some businesses have stated they will not enforce masks mandates, social distancing and other Covid-related restrictions. They have found a market with those who are comfortable with that policy. Those who are not on board with their response can take their business elsewhere.

Some organizations have been clear in stating strictly enforced guidelines. They have found a market with those comfortable with that approach. Those who disagree can take their business elsewhere.

What I find challenging are the businesses and churches who say they are taking a certain course of action, but fail to demonstrate it in practice.

For example, I visited a restaurant that had a “masks required, no exceptions” sign posted on the front door. When I walked in to pick up my order, 3 out of 4 employees were not wearing masks. So, what was the point of the sign?

Each week, I see churches posting pictures and videos of their staff and volunteers standing side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, indoors, unmasked…even though they say they are doing everything they can to keep their congregation and community safe. That’s hard to believe when you don’t do the simple things to keep your staff and volunteers safe. It’s hard to believe that you are doing all you can to keep others safe when you fail to lead by example. The inconsistency in messaging is not only lazy, it’s dangerous. If you’re not going to lead by example (especially when posting on the internet), stop saying you’re taking every precaution and start doing the “name it, claim it, faith over fear” approach.

I would prefer businesses and churches be upfront and honest, rather than offer confusing, mixed messages. I have more respect for those being clear and upfront about not following the guidelines than I do for those sending mixed messages. At least I know where they stand. There’s no room for confusion.

Integrity matters. It’s like the old saying, “if you’re going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk.”

So, here’s my pro-tip that no one asked for: churches who are only offering online worship or are limiting numbers and requiring social distancing and masks…stop posting pictures and videos of your staff members huddled together unmasked. Lead by example.