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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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'But we're such a friendly church'

The first parish I served had a slogan on being “the friendly little church on the corner.” But we had a problem — we weren’t. We were anxious about our future. Something didn’t have to be all that big to cause stress. I concluded that if we have to tell people we’re friendly, we probably aren’t.

Since then I’ve come to the conclusion that all this talk about friendly churches is a distraction. It’s the thing we rely on when we aren’t sure what to rely on. The sad thing is no one out there cares if you are friendly anyway!

People today are running on overload. Relationships with co-workers, neighbors, family, people in our activity circles (think soccer, football, band, etc.) threaten to overwhelm us with names, faces and stories to keep straight. Add Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and tons of other places to make “friends” and we could have hundreds more people to try to keep straight. The last thing a non-religious person is going to do is try to fit in with a bunch of religious people in the hope of finding more friends!

So is your church friendly? I hope so. But sadly, for the most part no one really cares.

What do they care about?

First, anyone who comes to your church is probably more on the lookout for God than friends. While church isn’t even the first place many people look in their search for God, those who do want to sense and know that somehow God is present and alive there. They want to believe this is a place they can connect (or reconnect) with that God. This is a spiritual quest for many. The key question is: “Is this a spiritual place?”

Second, anyone who believes God is present in this faith community wants to sense that the people here also know that God is in their midst. There is no sense in hanging around people who don’t “get it” and expecting them to help me in my search to somehow “get it.” This means participants in a congregation will need to be sure the people who already attend are growing in their faith, sensing the presence of an active God, and can communicate that to others. The key question is: “Are these spiritual people?”

In the congregation I serve, Zion Lutheran in Elgin, Ill., we recently had a dinner that included a guest speaker on Celtic spirituality. After dinner a member said, “I was raised to be able to teach about Jesus and the Bible (think teach Sunday school) but to keep my personal spirituality private. Now I see that I can’t talk about Jesus and the Bible unless I also talk about my spirituality. I have to be willing to share how this impacts my life.”

So if you are open to advice on this, I suggest that every one of us stop answering the question “Why should someone attend our church?” with “We are such a friendly place.” Because really, no one out there cares.

Instead, find ways to help people see and sense the presence of an active God. Cultivate a spiritually vibrant faith life among the people there. If people sense that these two things are there, they will want to stay. And if they stay for a while, they will also become your friends.


Comments

Greg Russell

Greg Russell

Posted at 4:22 pm (U.S. Eastern) 5/21/2013

Thank you! I absolutely agree and am so pleased to see this long held belief of mine in print. Well done.

Patricia Kennedy

Patricia Kennedy

Posted at 5:37 pm (U.S. Eastern) 5/21/2013

This subject came up in a discussion group I was in. Someone commented there is a difference in being friendly and being welcoming.  Most churches have someone at the door greeting people and offer coffee and donuts before or after the service.  This is being friendly.  Being welcoming is something entirely different.  I am on the board of the Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Northern Colorado.  We just approved, framed and prominately posted (18" x 26" beautifully framed poster) our welcoming statement: 

Lutheran Episcopal Campus Ministry is committed to being a loving and welcoming community of faith, centered in the Good News of Jesus Christ. All are welcome to our community in which we respect and nurture our differences including age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, family status, spirituality, religious background, physical and mental abilities, cultural, ethnic, socio-economic and educational background. We strive to live as a reconciling people in our life together and in our outreach to the world.
 
I believe every church today should have a welcoming statement prominantly displayed at the front entrance. Why? So people know if they reveal who they really are at church the folks around them won't want their donut back!  If you can't post such a statement because members of your congregation won't feel comfortable with someone there who is gay, or divorced, or of a different race, or whatever, then I strongly suggest closing your church doors and opening up as a coffee shop.  Jesus was not about shaking hands and passing out coffee and donuts.  His messge was one of radical love and acceptance and calling us to do the same.  If any individual or congregation would like to know more about developing a welcoming statement for your church, go to Reconciling Works at http://www.reconcilingworks.org/ for resources on developing a welcoming statement. It may take some work, but it is totally worth it.  The process of putting together a welcoming statement will cause controversy. People will be challenged in what they believe.  They may actually have to study the bible and discuss what they really do believe.  Pastors may have to spend time putting together classes and lessons on questions that they haven't had to answer before. Putting together a welcoming statement is a wake up call to most congregations and a great opportunity to grow and be alive in your faith--and actually follow Jesus.

Note: Patricia Kennedy edited this post at 5:59 pm on 5/21/2013.

Keith Gatling

Keith Gatling

Posted at 2:48 am (U.S. Eastern) 5/21/2013

I totally disagree, but maybe that's because I'm one of the insiders. When I graduated from college and moved to NYC, I looked for a church that was friendly...or at least that I felt comfortable in. I knew it was going to be a Lutheran church. I knew I was going to look for a Lutheran church, but one of the big criteria for that church was that it be friendly.

I visited one church in Manhattan pretty much the moment I arrived, just out of curiosity, and when I saw people there who I had met a few months earlier at a Lutheran Campus Ministry retreat, I was hooked.

Again, after grad school, when it was time to find a "real church" and leave Lutheran Campus Ministry, I did the "Lutheran Church Tour of Onondaga County," and again, I found a friendly church...although not on the first try.

Now...in all fairness, maybe the first church I visited was friendly, but there were just other things, things that you might consider inconsequential, that led me to not give it a 10.

And when we travel...well if it's to a place that we'll be returning to regularly, friendly is a big deal. But then again, so is familiarity...that's why we look for either a Lutheran or an Episcopal church (I grew up in the Episcopal Church).

We visit Pittsburgh a lot because our daughter's there. On one visit, we went to a beautiful non-Lutheran, non-Episcopal church that was near our motel and was a local landmark. It was friendly enough, but the theology was what made us decide that from then on in, we'd stick to the "brand names" whose "products" we were familiar with, and that's what led us to the little Episcopal church that we now visit when we're there. The service can be a little hard to follow (juggling hymnal, bulletin, and BCP), but they know us there, they remember us when we come back every three or four months, and we know what to expect. Had this church not seemed friendly when we made our initial visit, I doubt that we'd struggle through trying to follow the service.

So my point, and I do have one, is that "friendly" is important to a lot of people. It may be to people who are already "in" and are trying to narrow themselves down to one congregation or another when they move to a new area, but it is important.

Karin Johnson

Karin Johnson

Posted at 8:38 am (U.S. Eastern) 5/29/2013

Karin Johnson

Karin Johnson

Posted at 7:13 am (U.S. Eastern) 5/30/2013



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