Your church: 13 reasons why it's drowning in emptiness

I love summers at church because we don’t have a choir during the summer.

Not that I hate choirs — not at all — but rather than sit at the front of our church behind the pastor, the choir joins the rest of us in the pews.

So I love summers at church because, for ten weeks or so, we can kid ourselves into thinking that our church is full. Well, kind of full. There are still those gaps — okay, expanses — in the first four or five rows where almost nobody sits.

The tumbleweed zone

I call those first five empty rows the tumbleweed zone.

I live in the heart of farming country on the Canadian prairies, and tumbleweeds — big, dry, prickly bushes rolling along in the wind — bring catastrophic drought to mind. Back in the 1930s, the lack of rain killed the plants holding down the soil until the plants and soil blew away. And with no soil, there were no crops.

No crops = devastating poverty.

But if no crops meant poverty, newcomers to your church could be likened to seeds brought in by the wind. They’re looking for a place to take root. They could take root in your church. And you could be the rain that makes that happen.

Now, most churches get newcomers. I bet your church gets newcomers. But you don’t see them. Or you see them, but you … don’t. Not really. Not in any way that translates into making a connection with them.

There’s always some reason you have to not actually reach out and engage them so they might return. And because of that, you’re turning your church into a tumbleweed zone.

13 ways your church is killing itself

I’ve got a list of 13 reasons why you don’t actively welcome people — and seven of them are here. Remember the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why? It’s about suicide. I could call this 13 ways your church is killing itself.

It’s not actively killing itself. It’s more insidious than that.

There is nothing about ignoring visitors to your services that is anywhere near being "smooth" and socially smart.

You and your church are hooked on some bad habits. You and everyone in your congregation have ways of thinking that — while comfortable now — won’t be your friends in the long run.

It’s like my father who joked that a life without his cigarette habit wasn’t really worth living. Near what turned out to be the end of his life, he finally quit smoking because it held no more pleasure for him. Up to that point, it was more comfortable to smoke than quit, so he just kept smoking until the hacking cough and the angina made quitting the more comfortable option.

And then he died the next month from a heart attack.

So …

What are the habits you have for not welcoming people?

What are the comfortable traps you’re ensnared in?

What are the lofty reasons you have for doing nothing?

 …

Let’s take a look at some popular excuses.

While you still have time.

The shyness family of reasons

Shyness is a hurdle most often faced by those who want to connect with newcomers but aren’t doing it yet. Here are some popular reasons why.

“It’s enough if I just smile at them”

You might think smiling at people is enough. You might be afraid that newcomers will run away if too many people talk to them. You say to yourself, “What if everybody did that?” But studies show that people evaluate the friendliness of a congregation not by whether anyone smiled, but by how many people said hello and engaged them in conversation.

Personal story: As a young adult I went alone to grad school in Texas. Being from Canada, at first blush, Texas seems very friendly. Servers in restaurants were pleasant. People at the checkouts would call me, “Darlin’”. Total strangers would walk past me on campus and say, “How y’all doin’ today?”

I lived there for two and a half years surrounded by this friendliness, and they were the loneliest years of my life. If Texas was so friendly, why was I spending yet another Saturday night alone?

Now here’s the kicker. That school was a theological seminary. I was surrounded by people who felt called by God to minister to others. And I was drowning in loneliness.

Smiling at people is not enough.

“It feels forced”

Everything feels forced at first. Ballroom dancing felt forced at first. I’m going to bet that the first time you used a knife and fork didn’t seem natural either — or chopsticks. As a man, standing when a woman visits my table in a restaurant used to feel forced. But it soon started to feel nice. And if you’re like me, it will give you no end of joy and you will start to live for good etiquette.

Here’s what I say when I sit by newcomers to my church: “Hi, I haven’t met you yet. My name is Dan. It’s so nice to have you here with us today. Thank you for coming.”

Did that sound forced?

It felt forced the first few times. But it doesn’t feel forced now. It feels intelligent and courteous.

“It might get awkward”

Actually no. Awkward is where you are right now. There is nothing about ignoring visitors to your services that is anywhere near being "smooth" and socially smart. Do you remember the Newhart show with Larry, Daryl, and his other brother Daryl? Daryl and Daryl never spoke. They weren’t good with visitors. That’s awkward.

“I might say something I’ll regret”

We all say things we regret. Do you ever come home from a party and review what you said and kick yourself for it sometimes? Of course you do. We all do. Therapists call this a “mental filter”; we focus on the part that didn’t go right and forget the 99.99% of the stuff that was fine. Don’t let the possibility of a gaffe, which might happen, rob you of all the good things that will happen.

“Some people don’t want to be talked to.”

That’s true. They’re the ones hurrying out just before the end of the service. Let them go. Good on them for coming. God loves people with social anxiety, too.

Your social ineptitude

Some problems you may have with connecting with newcomers to your church may stem from your inability to navigate some social situations. Congratulations! — You’ve moved beyond shyness into some deeper waters.

“It feels like an interview”

Talking with some people does feel like an interview. If the conversation were a ball, some people just don’t know how to roll it back.

They might be terribly self-absorbed. Or they’re just not curious. Or they won’t ask about you because you’re the host and to ask you questions upsets who’s in charge here. They might also feel that if they ask about you, then they will have to get involved in your life and they’ve already got more than they can handle.

People evaluate the friendliness of a congregation not by whether anyone smiled, but by how many people said hello and engaged them in conversation.

So if you feel like it’s an interview, put up with it. When people go deeper with God — and when people feel more relaxed with you on subsequent visits — they learn to get over themselves.

So you may be doing most of the talking, but please don’t let it become a speech.

If you feel a monologue coming on, fight the urge and instead speak for about 20 seconds — 30 seconds at most. Then let there be a gap. As Khalil Gibran said, let there be spaces in your togetherness.

“I have trouble getting out of conversations”

Sometimes you don’t get into an exchange because you’re not very good at getting out of a conversation. You’re talking to a perfectly fine person, but you’re starting to get antsy about some things on your to-do list. Or maybe you think the chat is going on too long. Or you’re not really sensing a connection. That is when you use the phrase “I need to …”. For example, you might say,

“I need to …

  • Go check with someone about a project.”
  • Get downstairs and help with coffee.”
  • Meet that other newcomer.”
  • Go find my wife.”
  • Speak with our pastor.”

A great idea is to mention something from the conversation as you go away, such as, “I enjoyed talking with you about our dogs. Let’s do this again.”

Get the tumbleweed zone out of your church

A growing church fills the expanses of your front rows and moves the tumbleweed zone out of the building.

And it’s not that hard to do to grow your church by connecting with people — one newcomer at a time.

But it’s something that cannot be done by the minister. It can’t actually be a job of some committee. It has to be an orientation of individuals in the congregation who open their lives to newcomers and reach out to that totally nice person in the pew behind them. Read more about how that happened when just one person started to reach out to the newcomers at their church.

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