Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
Many a church leader is wringing his or her hands today about the steady decline in church membership. Others who are more knowledgeable than I am have written great pieces about this phenomenon. Here I’d like to render some opinions about what it is that might actually attract and keep those elusive new members we hope will beat a path to our door.
I’m setting aside the reality that if we want new members in our pews we have to leave the building and go meet them where they are. Some do dare open the doors to our churches for the first time. I was in that position many, many times before I went there because I was paid to do so. I remember. Oh, how I remember. Here’s some of what I remember.
- It’s intimidating. They all know one another. I know only the person I came with or worse, I have to go it alone. Please, say “Hello” to me. It makes me feel like a freak when I wander about the gathering area clutching a cup of coffee like a life preserver not knowing what’s going on or where to turn. Your heart-felt “Good morning” might make the difference between whether I stay or bolt before worship even starts.
- Take a chance that I might be a life-long member you haven’t met yet and say something like, “If we’ve met before I’m afraid I don’t remember. I’m So and So. I’ve been a member here X years. Tell me about yourself.”
- Ask me open-ended, but non-invasive, questions to help me find something to talk about. “How long have you lived in this area?” “How did you find out about our church?” “Do you know anyone else who attends here?”
- If I start coming back and you want me to actually join and get involved, help me get involved. Find one simple, low-commitment thing I can do so I have a reason to come to an event. “Could you help us out by bringing along a loaf of bread? We never seem to have enough.” “I heard you singing and I can tell you have a beautiful voice. Would you be willing to help out the choir once when they sing next time?”
- If I bring children with me, take us rather than point us, to where other children their age tend to hang out. Introduce me to the adult in charge and perhaps my children to a couple of the other children if you know them. If my children have a great time, they’ll be after me to bring them back. If they have a miserable time, they’ll beg me not to make them come back again.
- Ask me what I’m interested in and try to match me up with someone else with that interest. Bless the woman at one congregation who learned we’d had to stop piano lessons when we moved and introduced me to a member who taught them at her home.
- Don’t bombard me with requests too soon to do too much, and always give me a gracious out if it just doesn’t work. Some active, church-attending, mobile people can’t get engaged in the new congregation fast enough. When you meet one like that do get them involved even if you have to create a new task for them to do. However, most folks will be on overload adjusting to the new neighborhood, job or other situation that caused the move, and setting up a new home. Invite, but don’t pressure and make sure there’s a way to relinquish the task if it just isn’t working out for any reason.
- Start slow and see how it goes. An invitation to a regular visitor or new member to help set up snacks or make coffee is great. Asking that person to take over the annual pageant or rummage sale is a bit much unless they talk about having experience doing so and seem interested in doing so again.
- It is fair and reasonable to expect the pastor(s) to either know or be informed about the presence of new visitors through whatever system a congregation sets up to track such things. It is not reasonable or even realistic to expect the staff to be the official welcome mat for those visitors. Back in my mobile, church-searching days as a lay person, if I attended a church three times and the only people who spoke to me were people paid to be there, I wouldn’t return a forth time.
Guideline #7 for Relocating:
Welcoming newcomers is the best way to help them become the active co-partners in the mission you’ve been longing to have join you.