Breakthrough: Why you and your church need to be friendlier

What made you want to grow your church?

People usually want to grow their churches because they want to keep their congregation alive.

That used to be me. And I’m not proud of myself for that.

For all the possible good things that my church could do in my community, I wanted to grow my church … well … uh … to keep the lights on.

It wasn’t about giving people hope, or maintaining a center to help the public in times of need, or being a community place where we can get our heads out of our navels and refresh our hearts with a spirit that dwarfs any 24-hour news cycle.

Keeping the lights on. Shame on me.

There are better reasons for growing your church than just keeping the lights on.

Here’s a better reason — a powerful one. Any church, of any size, can do it. It costs nothing. There are no committees to set up. No program to announce. One hundred people, or just you, can do this because it is about making a person-to-person connection.

People are lonely

We’ve kept religion as a private thing. People come into churches — around the world — and leave without talking to a soul. In fact most people speak more, and experience more social interaction, on a trip to the grocery store than in a typical church.

But it’s not surprising — our experience in church is reflecting our lives.

Our weekday lives are isolated, too.

We put on our coats. We go to an indoor garage; we drive to work alone. Work in a cubicle. Eat alone in a food court, scrolling through Facebook. Want to talk to someone at the gym? Maybe not; after all, they’ve got their headphones in. After work, we drive home alone, our automatic doors open the way to our garages — we never even have to get out of our cars.

Is it surprising how lonely we are?

People need human connection so much that entrepreneurs are working to make money off of it. There are apps out to help you find friends. One app had more than 100,000 signups in its first week. If you’re a new mom looking to meet other new moms, there’s an app for that. Love your dog and want to make friends with other dog owners? The app makers are ready for you.

They’re all promising connection.

Loneliness in North America

North American urban life is set up so if you want to be with people, you can do it — but you have to spend money, or at least look like you have money.

Isn’t there somewhere you could go and just be? You could just hang out? Share in some group value system, besides consumerism and the love of low prices?

Here’s where your church comes in.

At church, the first question usually isn’t, “What do you do?” Rather it’s, “Have been coming here for awhile?” In a church, there is an assumption that by entering the building there are different rules in effect.

In church, we can strike up conversations with total strangers and not be seen as a predator, or a needy person. In fact, being in church implies that we all have needs and that’s OK. As Jesus said, only those who are sick need a physician. Alan de Botton writes about this in his book Religion for Atheists:

  • In an art gallery you can stand and look at an image for five minutes and no one will think you need psychiatric help.
  • At a rock concert you can sway back and forth and that’s OK.
  • In church you can say hello to a complete stranger and not arouse suspicion.

Even the composition of a church congregation implies that a social mixing is going on. There is more diversity than you’ll find at say, a cocktail party. Some people have business cards. Some don’t. Some are known to the police. Some are the police. Some have real diamonds on their fingers, others, cubic zirconium. And still others have no jewellery at all. All mixed together.

In the sanctuary, all power is left behind. We’re all weak. We’re all needy. We are all poor in the presence of God’s power and love.

Social connections are vital

Susan Pinker’s TED talk looks at the factors that lead to a longer life. She refers to the research of Julianne Holt-Lunstad who studied tens of thousands of middle-aged people and looked at several facets of their lifestyle: diet, exercise, marital status, frequency of doctor visits, smoking, drinking, among others. Holt-Lunstad waited for seven years to see who would still be alive.

What reduced their chances of dying the most? What features of peoples’ lives — if they did it, or stopped doing it — would have them more likely to still be alive in seven years?

First up is “social integration”, followed by its close cousin, “close relationships”. (Next up were quitting smoking, quitting drinking, and getting a flu vaccine.)

The researchers defined “social integration” as simply the number of people you talk to in a day — both your weak and your strong bonds. This includes everyone from your life partner to your book club to the person next in line at the coffee shop. By the way, you can’t get this from online interaction. Our bodies are from the Stone Age and getting a Facebook Like doesn’t reduce our stress and give us the same pleasure as connecting with people in person.

 A close second in determining your longevity is “close relationships”.

So how many close relationships do you have?

Do you have someone in your life that you could ask for a $1000 loan? Do you have someone who could take you to the hospital? Do you have anyone who could see through your smokescreen if you were clinically depressed and denying it?

One-quarter of Canadians have no such relationships.

So having a social life isn’t just nice-to-have. It’s not a luxury item. It’s vital to living longer. You know that women live longer than men. And have you also noticed that women have larger social networks? Hmmm. Just saying.

We are looking for this social stuff because on some level we know that it’s vital to staying alive.

People don’t keep going to unfriendly churches

And so these lonely people are coming to your church, looking for social connection.

But when people stop coming to your church because it’s unfriendly, maybe that’s God’s way of saying that maybe your church is getting fired. It’s deadwood. It’s not helping show love to the world. Like the people who used to go to your church, God would rather go to Starbucks than feel hollow sitting in your congregation that never gets even a little bit personal.

Being a welcoming place is not about church growth

Being welcoming is not about growing your church. It’s not about getting more people. It’s about you and me becoming different people. It’s about being better soil for your relationships with people to take root in. It’s about you opening up your life. Connecting with people during church. Seeing people for coffee during the week. Inviting them to your parties. 

Church growth will happen — but it is never the goal. Carey Nieuwhof talks about nine reasons why churches don’t grow. It’s ironic, but your church isn’t growing because it’s focused on itself. In his book Lasting Impact, he says, “if a person is self-focused, we call him or her selfish. If a church is self-focused, we call it normal.”[1]

Becoming a welcoming congregation is a measure of how you are growing spiritually as a body. Part of growing deeper in Christ is an awareness that the world is not entirely about you. There is a growth in the awareness of others.

Jesus said, “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19) Who knew you didn’t need to go any further than the pew behind you to do that?

[1] Nieuwhof, Carey. Lasting Impact. Location 201.

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