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Why They Come, Why They Stay: What draws visitors and keeps them coming back?

I've misplaced the survey . . . and it's driving me crazy! It was just one among the umpteen-dozen surveys we post-modern pastors are continually bombarded with—but it got my attention. And now I can't find it. Was it in The Christian Century or Christianity Today? Last year or three years ago? I can't remember, and that embarrasses me.

What I do remember is that the survey highlighted three crucial things that led visitors, in twenty-six mainline congregations across the U.S., to stay and eventually to join those particular churches. Those three things stay etched in my brain, despite my inability to give you a footnote as to where you can verify them. So... trust me. Or even if you don't, at least try looking at your congregation's typical Sunday service in light of what some visitors might be wrestling with as they occupy your pews.

Before we get to the three items, let's come clean and 'fess up that most of us pastor-types are interested in seeing our churches grow in worship attendance and membership—hopefully because we're ultimately concerned with seeing the kingdom grow. The church-growth gurus remind us to have adequate off-street parking, user-friendly buildings, bright, clean bathrooms, and so on. We debate over whether or not adding a "contemporary" service will draw the multitudes. Who knows?

At the same time, if we're truly Reformed (our theology centering around a strong doctrine of the sovereignty of God, unconditional election, dependence upon the Holy Spirit for authentic worship), we cannot help but question—or at least hold tentatively to—much of what we read and hear. The survey I mentioned earlier (the one I'm still searching for) reminded me that we can have all of the church-growth stuff in place and still potentially wind up as "all bun and no burger" unless there is something of substance beneath what could be merely a consumer-oriented veneer. The three things that make a visitor come back and then finally take the plunge of membership are these:

  • The congregation acts like it really believes Jesus is alive.
  • The pastor seems to believe what he/she preaches.
  • The pastor seems personable and approachable.

What are the implications of these three criteria for us as we think about, plan, and lead worship in the Reformed tradition?

The congregation acts like it really believes Jesus is alive.

According to the survey, this is the most influential aspect of worship—the one that draws visitors back and then into the fold.

I find it interesting and refreshing that it's the congregation, not the pastor, that provides the most compelling reason for a visitor to return and stay. If we pastors really believe it's up to us, the temptation is always there to play to the crowd. But the authenticity of a congregation is something that obviously cannot be manufactured.

How does a congregation communicate that they really believe Jesus is alive? In my experience, congregations who act this way are made up of people who know Jesus Christ firsthand, who realize that they are nothing less than temples of the Holy Spirit—evidence of God's presence. When you get a bunch of folks like that together, the uniqueness of Jesus' promise in Matthew 18:20 becomes a reality: a "collective effervescence" begins to snowball; an "elan" or animating force that moves people's hearts begins to emerge.

This ethos of worship as an act of being in the unique presence of God begins to permeate the congregation over a period of time. It results in a passion that fuels the elements of a typical service of worship: there is passionate singing, passionate praying. Such an ethos is cultivated over time by a lot of prayer coupled with intentional emphasis on the Reformed concept of the "real presence" of Christ in both Word and sacrament. And it's fed by continual reminders to the congregation that we are not just gathered to remember Someone who once lived. We are gathered to celebrate the fact that the tomb is really empty, and that He is here in our midst and by our sides in every step of the journey from womb to tomb—but particularly and uniquely in corporate worship.

So we need to take an honest look at our congregations. And we need to ask some tough questions: "What kind of worship ethos are we intentionally or unintentionally creating in our congregations? Does the ethos of our congregation encourage or inhibit passionate worship?"

One thing I've noticed: congregations who act like Jesus is alive tend to view worship as part of a reorientation to Reality, rather than an escape from the real world. Occasionally, members of the congregation will say to me at the door, "Well, Ron, it's back out into the real world." I always quickly correct them and remind them that they've been in the Real world—now it's back out into a world that largely denies the presence and lordship of Christ and substitutes its glitzy plastic idols for what is Real.

The pastor seems to believe what he/she preaches.

This second point suggests that the theological authenticity and integrity of the pastor is what people are next looking for in a church home. I was once in a gathering of clergy who were discussing how they went about the task of preaching. One pastor was asked how she "survived" since she was in a congregation more theologically "conservative" than she was. She replied, "Oh, I just tell 'em what I know they want to hear—but I don't believe much of it." Predictably, that church is on the decline.

What does it mean to be authentic in the pulpit in the Reformed tradition? Does it mean we preach whatever we want? Or that we never raise important questions of faith? No. Authenticity and integrity do have to do with preaching the biblical/apostolic gospel according to Scripture, defined by confessional standards. When I took ordination vows in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I promised to do just that.

Pastors are not ordained to preach private interpretations of the gospel, or their current doubts or unbelief, no matter how creative. In the Reformed tradition the pastor is called to preach the whole counsel of God—the whole of the Scriptures—not what can be swallowed at any given moment. When I talk with seminarians about preaching, I always tell them that real authenticity and integrity in the pulpit emerge when you strive to "believe what you preach, not just preach what you believe." In other words, move away from preaching from your comfortable "canon within the Canon" and toward submitting your theology to the molding and shaping of the entire counsel of God, as uncomfortable and painful as that may be. Ask— plead—with God to help you believe his Word rather than conveniently changing many of the periods in Scripture to question marks.

This does not mean that we cease to question and wrestle with the text. Just the opposite. It means we are willing to hang with a text and battle it—even to the point of it possibly winning the match. It doesn't mean we cease to have real doubts, but it does mean that we do not make the pulpit a public forum for expressing doubt. After all, our calling is to preach the full-orbed apostolic gospel of the church, not a muted, truncated "gospel" arising out of our most recent crisis of faith. I think that's what Paul is getting at in 2 Timothy 4:2 when he exhorts Timothy to preach the Word "in season and out of season."

I discussed these ideas once with a pastor who violently disagreed with me and who took great pride in using his pulpit to mobilize his congregation past the outdated and obscurantist theological backwaters of Scripture and into the promised land of whatever novelties had currently captivated his thinking. I asked him what would happen if he woke up on the morning of a funeral not believing in an afterlife. Would he proclaim that "cutting-edge" thinking to the congregation? "Of course not," he said. Yet, in the Reformed tradition, a funeral service really is no different than any other service. Every service is a witness to the resurrection, and authenticity means that we don't preach something on Sunday that we wouldn't preach at a funeral.

Integrity of the pulpit doesn't mean we don't have doubts, or pretend we don't (hypocrisy), but that we honestly struggle to conform our theology and our doubts to the revealed Word of God as interpreted by the larger community of faith, rather than vice-versa. A congregation soon senses which direction we're heading as they look primarily for authenticity and integrity in the context of faithfulness, not in the context of unbelief.

The pastor seems personable/approachable.

The survey indicated that another factor in whether a visitor returns and finally joins the church is the personality of the pastor. The first place a visitor usually encounters a pastor's personality is in worship. And the message from the survey is that people want a pastor, not just a worship leader.

What messages do we pastors convey about the gospel and about ourselves as ambassadors for Christ by the way we conduct worship? Does it make a difference if we smile or look stern? If we read everything by rote or work at making eye contact? If we use humor appropriately or are dead serious? Are there valid ways to communicate to people in worship that we take the gospel seriously but ourselves not so seriously? Which moments in worship are authentic avenues for letting people know that we love Christ, and we love them? What are we communicating when we greet at the door and take a genuine interest in what people are saying, work hard at remembering and speaking names, express genuine joy at a visitor's presence, and let her know that we hope she will come back? What difference might it make if we quickly and personally (by phone or letter) respond to any visitor who leaves an indication of her presence on Sunday?

The Lord has gifted us with different personality types—and we are not all built in the mold of bubbly extroverts. But is that ever a valid excuse for not being personable and approachable? Sometimes it may mean that God wants us to intentionally work hard to move outside our comfort zone so that others might move toward Jesus Christ.

A Healthy Church

To me, these three survey findings are not in any way a formula for church growth. Instead they are symptoms of a healthy congregation. They represent three areas of our worship life that are under greatest scrutiny by those visitors who bless us with their presence; three areas worth investing some serious thought, time, energy, and prayer on if we are truly concerned about our congregations becoming ever more viable entry points into the kingdom of God.

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For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.