There’s scarcely a week that goes by that I don’t think about how wonderful our buildings are, and how grateful I am to be able to minister in such nice facilities. I feel very much my place as a steward of these resources, and I want to do my part in taking care of them for the next generation. I feel a responsibility for our buildings, and when I’m here by myself I take extra care to make sure that doors are locked, lights are off, and things are put back in their place.
Having said that, I have never been someone who had to have everything looking like a picture from a catalog in order to be happy. Sometimes people will point something out to me and comment on how worn it looks, how it needs to be repainted, or repaired, or re-carpeted, or redone in some way. Sometimes I’ll look at it and think, “Yeah, I hadn’t noticed that, but it certainly needs attention.” Other times, I’ll think, “I don’t know that it looks that bad.” It certainly doesn’t bother me like it seems to bother the person who pointed it out to me.
The thing is, if we’re going to have people in our buildings, things are going to get worn out. But we didn’t build these buildings to keep them looking brand-new. We built them for people. We built them for families. We built them for kids.
When we have our extended family over to our house, by the time they leave, things are kind of stirred up. Sometimes it’s a little messy. Sometimes it’s an absolute wreck. But we never say, “Oh, don’t come over! Things look pretty nice right now, and we don’t want you to mess it up.” We’re always delighted when our house is full of our kids. We may be tired when they leave. We may need to take a nap before we pick things up. But there’s never any question about whether we want a tidy house or a full house. “Come on over, come on in! We’ll pick it up later!”
We have to think in similar ways about our church’s buildings.
Ever since I became pastor here I’ve been acutely aware of the policy about no food or drinks in the sanctuary. Sometimes through the week I’ve walked around the building with a coffee cup in my hand. When I’ve entered the sanctuary, I’ve always set my coffee down on the sound desk with a paper underneath it. When I finished what I went in there to do, I picked my coffee up again on the way out. I’ve wanted to be respectful of the rules just like anybody else.
Over the years when our son has come home to visit I have seen him walk into the sanctuary for a morning service with a coffee tumbler in his hand. It gave me mixed emotions. On the one hand, I’m always delighted when he’s home, and I was the one who fixed the coffee for him. On the other hand, he was breaking the rule about no food or drink in the sanctuary. But I bit my tongue every time, because we’ve visited his church up in the Chicago area, and that’s exactly what they do there. They serve coffee in the foyer, and people routinely carry a coffee cup with them into the worship service.
I’ve seen other young adult children of our church do the same thing when they’re home to visit. And I’ve thought, “I bet the church they go to lets them bring coffee into the worship service.” And after some discreet inquiries, my suspicions have been proved correct. I’ve bit my tongue in those instances, too, because I’m so glad to see them. I’d rather have them with us with coffee in hand than not be there at all.
Please understand, none of them has ever said, “If I can’t bring my coffee in, I’m not coming!” In fact, I’m sure if I asked them, they would keep the coffee out of the sanctuary.
But I haven’t asked them. You know why? Because I’m glad they’re comfortable with us, and I want then to keep being comfortable. I want others to be comfortable, too. And that will probably mean an attitude-shift on our part if we want that to happen.
You see, things have changed an awful lot around us, and we haven’t really noticed. There are huge differences in the way younger generations see things and in what they think is important. One of the differences is if they think our buildings are more important to us than they are. If they get the impression that we’re thinking, “We’re glad you’re here, but don’t you mess up our pretty building!”, then they probably won’t come back. There are other differences, too.
When anybody younger than a “Baby Boomer” visits a church, what they’d like to do is come in, scope things out in a low-key way, and not have much attention called to them. They cringe if a “spotlight” is shined on them in the service. Remember when the pastor would have visitors stand up so the ushers could put a visitor’s card in their hands? The truth is, if we did that today, any visitors we have probably wouldn’t come back.
On the other hand, they’re looking for a friendly welcome that they feel is genuine. Interviews with people who’ve visited churches and not gone back have revealed that people who visit a new church really feel uncomfortable with the traditional “stand up and shake hands” time. They feel that it’s “forced” and not necessarily genuine…especially if nobody talks to them or shakes their hand at any time besides the “meet and greet” time. And too many visitors have had just that experience: people will shake their hands when the pastor tells them to, but not spontaneously before or after the service. Sometimes even during the “meet and greet” time church members shake hands with each other and ignore the visitors. I have seen that happen from the platform, and I’ve prayed, “Oh, Lord, please let someone go over and shake their hands!”
People today younger than 65 or so really don’t like it when you show up on their doorstep unannounced, either. More often than not, they see such a visit as an unwelcome intrusion into their busy lives. Making a cold-call, unannounced visit on someone who has visited your church is often one of the best ways to ensure they don’t come back.
So what do we do? How do we reach people who view things like this?
The key is connection. When people visit a church, what they’re really looking for is a place to connect with other people, in a way that won’t make them feel uncomfortable. They want to feel that the church is welcoming and friendly in a way that won’t make them feel self-conscious or embarrassed. And they want the chance to have real, unforced conversations with other people that will make them feel glad they came.
So what churches need to do is create opportunities for people outside of the church to connect with people inside the church. The idea is to create situations that make friendly, unforced conversations possible.
Some of these events need to take place off of the church’s property, maybe a special activity in the park that we can invite unchurched people to, that doesn’t feel overly “religious”. You always have a spiritual component to the event, and you always promote something else that you can invite them to. But the idea is to have something that is appealing and attractive to people, something that your church people will come to and feel comfortable inviting others to.
Then you invite them to the most unthreatening small group possible at someone’s home. There’s an idea called “Friday Nights for Jesus” in which you invite 6 to 8 people over to your house for desserts and maybe a game or two. And you always invite 2 or 3 unchurched people to these get-togethers. One church found that about 75% of the unchurched people they invited to these informal Friday night gatherings ended up joining the church within 1-2 years.
Then you invite them to some kind of small gathering on the church property, in the Fellowship Hall or a Sunday School room.
Then you invite them to a church service.
And all along the way you’ve created opportunities for conversations and chances to get to know them better. If they’re coming to a church group it’s because they have a spiritual “itch” or hunger, and as they come to believe that you are “safe” people to talk to, spiritual topics will come up. That’s where you can give your own testimony about your spiritual journey: how you came to faith in Christ and the difference it’s made in your life.
And if they ask you a question you don’t know the answer to, just tell them: “That’s a really good question. Let’s ask the pastor.” And if I don’t know the answer to their question, I’ll look for the answer and get back to them.
But do you see what that makes happen? All along the way we’re talking to people we wouldn’t have talked to otherwise. We’re letting them see that Christians aren’t weird: we laugh and like dessert, too. (Note to Christians: don’t be weird!) And hopefully we’re making them feel that it’s safe to talk about God and Jesus and life and death and what happens next. Because that’s the whole point.
And that’s the whole point of having coffee and donuts before and after the morning worship service, too. We want to make a place for us to have friendly, unforced conversations with people who visit our church services. If they visit our church services, we’re already ahead of the game. But we need to be able to connect with them in a way that will make them want to come back. These days that doesn’t happen when the preacher makes everybody shake hands in the service. It happens before and after the service. And the coffee and donuts just make it easier.
That’s why the Deacons and I have discussed this whole thing, and then asked the Trustees to revisit the policy of not allowing food and drinks in the sanctuary. It’s not that we don’t have any respect for the sanctuary anymore, or the church members who have sacrificed dearly in order to see it built and paid off. Rather, it’s that we really want to see the sanctuary filled with people, for something besides a wedding or a funeral.
We know there will be spills. But we asked ourselves this question: “Which is more important to us, keeping our sanctuary pristine or trying to fill it with people?” And the answer is obvious. Jesus didn’t die for buildings.
So when you come in on Sunday morning, grab a donut hole and a cup of coffee. Say “hi” to someone you don’t know. And if a visitor walks into the sanctuary with a cup of coffee, don’t glare at them or tell them they can’t do that. Just be glad they’re here, and shake their hands and tell them so after the service.
And maybe invite them over to your house on Friday night.
And the master said to the servant, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” (Luke 14:23)
Soli Deo Gloria!