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.
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers