Seeking the Seekers: Its worth the risks

Do we really want visitors to our "church to come back?

What a silly question. Of course we do. We spend a lot of time talking about how to attract new people and make them feel welcome. Our evangelism committees discuss that challenge every month.

But talk is cheap. Are we really willing to pay the price for bringing new people into our church? Let's face it. It's tough to look at our church from an outsider's point of view. It feels strange to favor the uncommitted over the committed. It's threatening to acknowledge the needs and wants of the younger generations. It's scary to offer friendship to new persons. Seeking the seekers is risky business.

Few of us dare to admit what we're thinking, but often it sounds something like this:

"I have lots of friends at church. Its hard to start over and make new friends again.
"Sure, we need new people to keep the church alive, but I don't want anything to change. Let them adjust to the way we do things.
"Our circle has always been so close. If we included new people, things just wouldn't be the same."

Most of us have to admit that we have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake when it comes to encouraging visitors to attend our church. We're willing to do a few things to welcome them, and we hope they like us well enough to come back, but we're careful not to go too far. We're not willing to risk changes that are more than skin deep. We're not willing to do more than give lip service to the idea that our most important commission as a church is to reach out to all persons with the good news of Jesus Christ.

In Luke 15, Jesus uses the imagery of a shepherd who is so concerned about one sheep outside the fold that he leaves the other 99 sheep and searches for the lost one until he finds it. These days about 70 percent of the people in our country are unchurched. That means that 70 sheep are out of the fold. The magnitude of that number should force us to reevaluate our attitudes and actions toward unchurched, seeking persons. Jesus challenges us in that parable and throughout the gospel to have such a passion for seekers that we put their needs before our own, before the needs of the 30 percent already "in the fold." He challenges us to take risks.

Risk Looking at the Church from an Outsider's Viewpoint.

Most people who don't come to church aren't just sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Going to church never even occurs to them. Or maybe it was once part of their routine, but the aftertaste of a bad experience keeps them away.

When we were preparing for Monoca-cy Valley Church's first worship service in Frederick, Maryland, we did a telephone survey of several thousand county residents. We asked first if they were actively involved in a church. If not, we asked, "What has kept you from becoming involved in a church?" The most frequent answers were:

"It's boring"
"I've had a church."
"Churches are always asking for money."
"It's irrelevant."

If we are going to risk looking at our church from an outsider's viewpoint, we need to ask if what happens in worship is relevant to peoples' everyday lives.

Think back over your last few worship services. Was the Scripture made relevant to what you were facing at home, in the office, in the community? Now imagine that you had no Christian frame of reference and didn't speak the Christian "language." Would the worship service have made sense to you? Would it have seemed relevant?

What about the music? A person with no church background (or with a painful one) does not share our nostalgia for the old familiar hymns or the pipe organ that accompanies them. The music that opens his or her heart may be the music of the Top 40, the C & W SuperStation, Oldies but Goodies, or Rhythm and Blues. Humans make a joyful noise in many different musical languages and with many different instruments. Remember, even Bach was once in the Top 40 (and not in 30 A.D., either). Listen to the lyrics with a seeker's ears. Phrases like "the blood of the Lamb," or "here I raise my Ebenezer," heard by someone with no Bible background, are startling at best.

Take a careful look at the liturgy you used in those four services. When we have grown up in the church, we are made comfortable and perhaps comforted by the familiar liturgy. We know when to stand and when to sit and what to say and when to be silent. We've all occasionally attended churches with more complicated liturgies than our own. When we do, we're one step behind through the entire service, feeling awkward, conspicuous, and, perhaps, out of place. Newcomers to the church always feel that way in any worship service.

Consider the Lord's Prayer. Is it written out in your bulletin for persons who don't know it? Is there a brief explanation of how it came to be?

How about the Apostles' Creed? Is it clear that this is a summary of Christian beliefs? Seekers need to know they have permission not to participate in saying the Creed if it is not yet a personal statement of belief for them. At Monocacy Valley Church we make a point of having the worship leader explain the Creed just before we say it together in the service. We also print a brief description and explanation of the Creed in the bulletin.

Look at the attitude and atmosphere in your church. Does the behavior of pastors, staff, and committed laity say that persons seeking to know God are expected and encouraged to be here? Attitudes advertise themselves loudly to sensitive newcomers. Create an atmosphere in which it is O.K. to be seeking, where it is expected that all are in process and none have "arrived" in matters of faith.

Also consider the layout of the church building. Is the physical plant attractive? Are clear directions to important rooms and areas highly visible? A few simple signs can make a world of difference for a person who walks into your church building for the first time.

Risk Favoring the Uncommitted over the Committed.

Pastors and church members quickly figure out who pays the bills. As church members we sometimes expect the church to cater to our needs and desires. As pastors we sometimes let budget and career considerations set our priorities. We all would like to design the ministry of the church in directions that help us, our families, and our friends. It runs against our instincts to do anything else.

But Jesus Christ calls us to a purpose greater than our instincts. The church is called to be the outstretched hand that reaches out to the "lost sheep," bringing to them his love and care. Church leadership must internalize and then pass along to the congregation the excitement of that vision and the means of realizing it.

This mission to share the good news of Jesus Christ and God's love with uncommitted persons directs all decisions. How should the pastor spend his or her time? Where and how are lay leaders using their gifts? Are small groups oriented toward nurturing long-standing friendships or toward warmly welcoming seekers? How is the budget allocated? Who is invited to participate in youth groups and other programs? Is the building a lighthouse or a mausoleum?

Risk Changing to Meet the Needs and Wants of the Next Generations.

Much has been written about the Baby Boomers and their successors, the Baby Busters. Culture, technology, politics— the times in which we live—shape each generation, even our own. If the church is to minister to persons now entering middle age, to persons who are now young adults, and to their children, it must continually refocus its vision.

For example, Baby Boomers often feel guilty about the limited time they spend with their children; therefore, they're highly protective of that time. They also insist upon high quality in child care and education. They will expect the nursery of a church to be attractive and clean, equipped with a variety of safe toys, and staffed by reliable, well-trained adults.

Baby Boomers and Busters have grown up in an age of polished media and marketing. The way we package information and prograrnming is as important as the actual content. "Excellence" and "professionalism" are favorite bywords. A last-minute flyer filled with typos and run off on the ditto machine will tell them, however unjustly that the program itself is slipshod and poorly run.

Boomers and Busters serve causes and communities well beyond traditional church boundaries. They are less willing than their parents to waste time in activities and meetings that are disorganized or serve no real purpose. On the other hand, they are more willing than their parents to drive a few miles to participate in programs and activities they support.

Risk Looking Like a Fool or Facing Rejection.

Most visitors, and some members, come in and go out of worship services barely noticed. If they're lucky, they receive a few smiles or a "Good morning." But yet, most church members enthusiastically testify that theirs is an extremely friendly church. How can this be?

Our family visited many churches in Frederick, Maryland, before we began holding our own worship services. Rarely did people talk to us or even notice we were there. And yet the buildings were full of loud, cheerful chatter, laughter, and smiling faces. Each church was an extremely friendly place—to members only.

Who can blame them? It's hard to figure out who the visitors are. It's embarrassing to go up to someone and say "Welcome! Are you new here?" and find out the person has been worshiping in your church for five years—or for a lifetime.

How can we accurately identify visitors without scaring them away forever with public introductions? Consider using a gimmick or two. In one church we had the ushers walk down the aisle during announcements, distributing information packets to those who nodded or raised their hands. The packets were too large to put in a pocket or purse, so persons carrying them after worship were easily identified as being fairly new.

However, we never can be totally sure. We have to risk personal embarrassment and/or rejection for the reward of recognizing a seeking person as an important individual who is genuinely welcome in the church.

A welcoming attitude must seem spontaneous, but cannot be left to chance. It has to be an intentional ministry. Greeters at each doorway (and perhaps in the hallways), wearing 'Ask Me" badges, let newcomers know that visitors always are expected and welcome. Greeters must be outgoing and well-informed about the ministries of the church, the location of nurseries, classes, restrooms, and handicapped facilities.

At Delmar Reformed Church, Delmar, New York, we stationed Visitors' Hosts near the pastor at the end of the service. When the pastor identified someone as a visitor, he or she would introduce them to a Host, who would welcome them to our church and accompany them to the coffee fellowship. At the coffee the Hosts would devote their attention to the visiting persons or families, answering questions about the church and introducing them to others.

Seeking the seekers who brave the front doors of our churches, perhaps for the first time in their lives, is risky business. It challenges what we do and how we do it. It changes our priorities, our budgets, and sometimes our buildings. But we take the risk for the reward of seeing lives change as searching persons discover that God does make a difference in their lives. We take the risk because we're convinced that our mission is to reach out to others in the name of Jesus Christ.

Mary Ann Wierks is a member of the Evangelism Development Team of the Reformed Church in America, and is serving as a pastor at the Monocracy Valley Church in Frederick, Maryland.