Posts Tagged With: small church

Inviting (Not Welcoming) in Bite-Sized Chunks. Pt. 3

A few weeks ago, I posted on this site that my congregation is no longer going to emphasize “welcoming.” Instead, we are going to emphasize “inviting.” This is a move from passivity to activity, and must be done in keeping with God’s missional activity in our neighborhoods. I encourage you to get the vision, theology, and definitions that are foundational in the initial, Part 1 post at: We-Will-No-Longer-be-a-Welcoming-Church. There, I wrote that we are making this change with three emphases. The first of those, “Motivation for Inviting,” is available here. This, now, is the second emphasis, “Inviting (Not Welcoming) in Bite-Size Chunks.”

Let’s face it, change is hard. Most of us resist it, grudgingly accepting its reality only when it is forced upon us. Partly this is true because change is scary, and partly because it forces us to acknowledge we can’t always control it (well, actually, that’s scary too). So I guess when you come down to it, change is frightening. Is it any wonder, then, that we generally resist stepping way outside our comfort zone and established pattern of behavior to invite a friend to come to worship? This is terrifying! We are all afraid a) that our friend will laugh us out of the room, b) that they will tell all their friends that we’re narrow-minded, judgmental, hypocritical Bible-thumpers, or c) that they might actually come. Then what?

Because the change we are asking congregational members to make is too much, too big, too audacious, to frightening, we simply don’t ask, and they simply wouldn’t do it anyway. Let’s accept that reality and quit fighting it. Then, perhaps, we can make some progress.

You know the old joke, “Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One bite at a time.” OK, it’s not funny, but it is true. The same strategy holds true for inviting. It’s just too much for most people to risk or try. So how about breaking it down into bite-size chunks that people actually can do? Here’s the way we’re doing it in my congregation. See if something along these lines might work for you.

Month 1: We ask people to use the phrase “my church” in a conversation with one person each week. Really simple. “Just go two blocks past my church and you’ll see the grocery store.” “No, I can’t go camping this weekend; I’ve already made plans to be at my church.” “Yes, I saw the sunset last night. The view from my church  was amazing!” Just one person, one time each week during the month. Have them make up scenarios and practice with each other before worship on Sundays.

We purchased some promotional items with our church logo on them to aid in these conversations. Cloth grocery totes, string packs, water bottles, etc. Things that people will have with them in public. They aren’t all that expensive and you can pretty easily recoup the expense by selling them to your members at a reasonable price. So when you go to the bank, the bank teller may well ask, “What a handy back pack. Where’d you get that?” And we would answer, “I got this at (all together, now) my church.

Month 2: We ask people to consider one word or phrase that describes our church well. Then use that word to finish the phrase, “my church is _____.” Again, do this in conversation with one person per week during the month. “My church is struggling with that very issue.” “School violence? My church is hosting a forum about that next month.” “That’s a hard situation. I’ve found my church is very supportive in difficult times.”

When people are watching for opportunities to do these quick, relatively small steps toward invitation, it’s amazing how many opportunities there suddenly are to take them. Ask them to share their stories with each other of their experiences. You can even award prizes for the funniest, the most awkward, the most creative, etc. Make this fun, but keep it in front of them.

Month 3: We ask people to think about one thing our congregation does very well. Perhaps it’s children’s ministry, education, music, social activism, or making the parking lot available for ride-sharing. Then use that to finish the phrase, “My church is really good at _____.” Again, one time per week to one person in a conversation. By now, some of them are getting the hang of this. A few might even be eager! Let them roll with it. That enthusiasm can become contagious. Encourage them to practice on each other and share their impressions of what their church is good at. This can feed into the motivational part covered in the previous post.

Month 4: We ask people to invite one person to check out something in which our church is involved. “Check out our volunteer day at the food pantry.” “Check out my church’s Alcoholics Anonymous Group.” “Check out the hiking trip my church is sponsoring.” This is all done in appropriate conversations when an opening presents itself. People are understanding the organic nature of these statements, and that they shouldn’t be forced or manipulated. By this time, people are actually seeing appropriate openings and are better able to bring up their church in a way that is natural and not off-putting.

Month 5: We ask people to invite someone to come to worship with them. This seems to be the most frightening invitation for many to make. But when broken into bite-size pieces, it can be attained.

Worship attendance isn’t necessarily the most important invitation, but it seems to be the hardest—leaving people feeling the most vulnerable. So we include it. If folks can invite to worship, they can make appropriate invitations to pretty much anything.

Now the question becomes, “what happens when our folks start inviting others to worship? How will these people be received? Will it be worth their time?” That, my friends, is the next installment of this invitational series. I invite your comments and partnership along the journey.

Categories: Church in Context, Church in Transition, faith practices | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hospitality as a Beginning, but at the Heart of Worship

I went to the Service of Holy Communion at St. Andrew and St. George Parish Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, just off St. Andrew Square. It is a beautiful and historic building. Though small by Scotland standards, the building is significantly larger than most U.S. church buildings. As I walked in, I saw there were about a dozen chairs gathered in a circle around the altar in the chancel, half of them occupied. It looked like they were having a meeting, so I hung back in the tiny foyer area, waiting for the meeting to break up so people could gather for worship. I soon realized no one was talking up there–apparently there was no meeting; this was worship. So I went up and prepared to sit down. Though not in obvious prayer, no one looked up or said a word. It was rather uncomfortable, even for this church geek.

I noticed that they all had bulletins, so I asked someone–startling him, apparently, by speaking to him. He mumbled something, and pointed back out in the little foyer. I went back and found a small stack of bulletins, fairly well hidden on a table with several other flyers of sorts.

Returning to the circle of silence, I took an empty chair on the opposite side (the first 6 people had taken the closest 6 chairs, causing me to have to walk around behind them). From this vantage point I could see a few other people coming into the foyer area (unseen by the “members,” who, in taking the premium seats, had their backs to the door). These visitors saw our “meeting,” apparently assuming the same thing I did when I entered, so they turned around and left. I was actually embarrassed.

As I was trying to figure out what to do, recognizing I was a guest in their house, I saw a couple come into the foyer, look quizzically up front, and begin talking together–pointing toward us. I caught the woman’s eye, and waved them in. They smiled, and came up front–without bulletins. Now knowing where they were, I left my chair and went out into the foyer to get them some.

As I passed them in the aisle, they thanked me for welcoming them into my church. I just smiled and said, “You’re welcome.” I think my accent threw them off a bit, but they at least were inside. While I was back there, someone else came in, so I handed her a bulletin. Apparently, I’m now the host.

I returned to my seat, noticing that there were now only two chairs left. And sure enough, three people came in the door. What’s the practice in this place when there are more people than chairs? Do they move out into the regular worship area? Do they bring chairs up and start a second row? I waited to see what the members would do–though not really expecting anything. And I wasn’t disappointed. Finally, in frustration, I got up and grabbed a chair from the nave, bringing it up into the chancel area around the altar. The others scooted chairs around until there was room in the holy circle. Some of the other visitors (the ones who thanked me for welcoming them into my church), did the same when others came in. This process was repeated until there was a full complement of 20 people. Still, the members, though watching all this, hadn’t moved or spoken. The visitors were acting as hosts for one another.

The pastor came in through a back door and looked surprised at the “crowd.” Come to find out, he was a guest preacher, as the regular pastor was on vacation. He was welcoming, gracious, informal (“call me Tom”), and made sure we all knew that the communion table was open to everyone.

The service was wonderful, though only about twenty minutes total (no singing). The sermon alone was worth coming for. And communion was, in fact, for everyone who had gathered. Once the service was underway, I, with bulletin in hand, was fully able to participate. The only thing that seemed unusual to me during worship was that eye contact during the sharing of the peace is apparently prohibited. Either that, or everyone was noticing some unusual pattern in the carpet they hadn’t paid attention to before. Or perhaps that is simply Scottish cultural procedure. I’m open.

Afterward, I spoke with a couple of people who were slow to leave (most members bolted for the door as if the building were on fire–or maybe it was just their waiting breakfast that was burning). These dawdlers were somewhat interested in where I was from and why I was there. The pastor, who had gone to the back to try and greet the hasty retreaters, then joined us and continued to be gracious and hospitable. We spoke for a few minutes, until he had to get ready for the next service (someone had since quietly arranged chairs in a small circle down in the front of the nave).

Authentic worship is just that. It is open, it is inclusive, it is unifying when done with an awareness of its inclusive nature. It is, after all, reflective of the God we worship. But the very nature of its inclusivity cannot happen apart from those who gather for it. Corporate worship is public, therefore those on the “inside” of a particular congregation are obligated to be hospitable. It isn’t extra, it isn’t for the ushers and greeters, nor is it reserved for those with special gifts. It is mandated by the nature of this inclusive God. In the words of the hymn, “All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.” It is up to us, as the insiders of a local congregation, to make sure everyone who comes in the door knows this, and experiences this.

I wonder how many people have to come to this or other churches this Sunday needing the community of believers gathered in Word and sacrament, and were turned away by the “members'” unawareness of their role as acting hosts? Hospitality isn’t added on or plugged in, nor is it everything God calls God’s church to be. But it is at the heart of worship.

Categories: church growth, Church in Context, hospitality, medium church, small church, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How Do You Measure Church Success?

How do you measure success in the church, especially in the neighborhood congregation? In my denomination we fill out annual parochial reports, which reveal members gained (or lost), worship attendance increase (or decrease), a larger (or smaller) our budget, and so on. Good, measureable numbers. Solid. Up or down. Growth or decline. And—the message becomes readily apparent—success or failure.

We talk about congregations with increasing numbers of people and dollars as models for the rest of the church to follow (the faster the better), and we spend considerable time in print and in attitude trying to figure out the secret to this “kingdom of God” achievement. In contrast, the congregations that maintain similar numbers over the last five years are referred to as “stagnant,” and those whose numbers are more than five percent lower are “in decline.” These are hardly complementary adjectives.

Pastors of churches with increasing numbers often frown on those with decreasing and steady numbers, cluck their tongues, and offer self-righteous advice on how to become more statistically triumphant. These successful clergy can be somewhat sanctimonious toward their neighboring congregations and colleagues. They gather together in victorious cohorts, congratulating each other and sharing success stories.

I know, I was one of them. It was temptingly easy to fall into. Many looked on my ministry with a bit of awe and/or envy because my congregation’s budget increased by a factor of three in a few years and worship attendance was swelling by double digit percentage points annually. I enjoyed being included in the victory circle, a model of success. I accepted the accolades and offered advice. I knew, inwardly, what the declining congregations were doing wrong, and was greatly relieved that I wasn’t still stuck in that “old” model of doing church. I was riding the wave. Surely God was pleased with my statistics!

So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, if you buy into a business model of success. You know the catchphrases: bigger is better, if you’re not growing you’re dying, stuff like that. But is that all there is to God’s mission? Is the reign of God measured in such detached terms?

Let’s face it; this is the culturally accepted measure of success for pretty much everything. Sales, clients, market shares, bank accounts, properties, listeners, viewers, revenue streams, billable hours, and yes, even church members. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem to nestle into Jesus’ life, ministry, or teaching quite as comfortably as I would have liked. Love God, love your neighbor. Sell your property and give the money to the poor. The last shall be first. Humans do not live by bread alone. One’s life does not consist in the wealth of possessions. On and on, you pick the texts. Jesus came proclaiming the presence of the long-awaited reign of God. Those with eyes to see it, will. Those with ears to hear it, will.

And then there’s the whole cross thing: what was accepted by everyone as absolute, utter defeat was the crowing glory in the kingdom.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with growth. We are, of course, to invite people into communities that reveal the kingdom of God. We are to participate in God’s mission in the world, sharing the good news of forgiveness, hope, and life, and bidding others to be part of that mission too. But I’m calling into question the primary (and sometimes the only) standard of being the body of Christ as the number of hash marks in the “new member” column. In what ways can you numerically report love, mercy, compassion, and grace incarnated through relationships in the neighborhood? Where is the column to check the number of times that forgiveness was freely given and relationships restored? How do you measure lives changed by the power of the gospel? How do you categorize the movement of the Holy Spirit?

If our energy is funneled into numerical growth in order to appear successful, it probably isn’t going into joining what God is up to in the neighborhood in order to be truly successful. The neighborhood isn’t put around the church in order to bolster the church’s numbers. Rather, the church is placed in the neighborhood to reveal the reign of God, proclaim it, and join in its activity there. Numerical growth may or may not be related to that; therefore ought not to be the primary measure of success.

Congregational rate of growth has little to do with being equipped to participate in missional relationships in the neighborhood. This is good news for congregations that get beat up on their parochial reports. So-called “stagnant” and “declining” congregations might actually be more successful in God’s mission than the neighborhood’s fast-growing church. The principal question can’t be how many new members have joined the church, but how the church has joined God’s mission of care and reconciliation.

Being clear about who God is and what God is doing (and trying to do) needs to be the standard in missional success, not the number of chairs used in the worship space on an average Sunday.

Categories: church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, medium church, small church | Tags: , , , , , , | 13 Comments

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