I BELIEVE THE BIG HINDRANCE TO CHURCH GROWTH ISN’T TOO LITTLE EVANGELISM. IT’S HOW WE DO CHURCH. SOMETIMES WE DO CHURCH PROGRAM LIKE OUR CONGREGATION IS A PRIVATE CLUB - ONE THAT OTHERS AREN’T QUITE WELCOMED INTO WITHOUT A LOT OF INITIATION. HERE ARE FIVE INDICATIONS A CHURCH IS DOING ITS SABBATH MORNING PROGRAMMING FOR INSIDERS - AND POSSIBLY LEAVING OUT THOSE WHO AREN’T.
1.Canceling church services. You may be doing something good instead, like camp meeting or outdoor church. But assuming that everyone who would ever want to come to your church is in the circle that will know where to find you - or feel comfortable following you there just because you put a sign on the church door - is insider thinking. Some of my dearest friends came to church for the first time on a day when church was supposed to be officially canceled. Had an elder not decided to conduct an informal worship in case there were visitors, we’d never have known them.
2.No serious preaching. My friend took her new husband (a Christian of another denomination) to several of our churches, hoping to interest him. After a few visits, he asked “Don’t Seventh-day Adventists ever just have sermons from the Bible?” They’d been treated to a church school program, a choir recital, a promotional talk by a college president, an explanation of the new church budget, a slide program on archaeology - but hadn’t heard a serious Biblical sermon! Your church school is important, but a whole program by the kids, while delightful for their parents, doesn’t do as much for someone who’s walked in the first time to get spiritually fed.
3.Events or programs whose names mean nothing to the uninitiated. We assume a church bulletin is an asset for visitors, but if it lists undefined events by names only insiders know, it may make people feel even more left out. What does “Pathfinders” mean? Or “Ingathering”? Up-front announcements too: I once heard an elder say, “When your monthly visitor comes to your house, you will also have your review at the same time.” It sounded like an official from church came to your house monthly and conducted an audit of some private aspect of your life. Someone who didn’t know could have concluded we were the most intrusive kind of cult - but in fact he was only trying to explain that our union paper, the Visitor, came to the same mailing list as our official church magazine, the Review!
4.Unintuitive worship. I once preached in a small church that had accumulated so many worship bits and pieces that the service was nearly too complicated to follow. I found myself singing when others had stopped, then surprised by a tardy prayer response song when I’d already risen from my knees, and later I was still seated when others had stood. “But everyone knows we always stand for this song.” The regulars, maybe, but I got confused - and I’m more or less an insider.
5.Embarrassing or incomprehensible sermons. You’ve heard them, too, those sermons on topics that make you cringe. I’ve promised all my churches that I’ll never say anything from up front that they couldn’t invite anyone to hear, without fear of puzzling their visitors or being embarrassed themselves.
Of course, if nothing is happening anyway - if no one ever visits, and you don’t care if they do - then you might as well go on doing church for the regulars.
But if you want your church to be attractive to those who aren’t already part of it, you may have to start thinking differently.
Loren Seibold is the editor of Best Practices for Adventist Ministry
This was originally published in “Best Practices”, a free email newsletter from the North American Division Resource Center.