I love my clerical collar. Even though it is a little itchy, it has opened many conversations about God and my life with the people I encounter around town. And what I have noticed thru these bump-into’s is that people are longing to know God.
Churches on the other hand long for people to enter their doors. But no longer can churches rely on the attraction model of “build it and they will come”. Nor can churches force or obligate people to respond to their hospitality.
(Photo credits – the Visual Faith Project with Vibrant Faith.)
What happens then is the church gazes out the window wondering how do we reach people. And if left, the gap between the congregation and its surrounding community grows wider and wider.
So, how do we close the gap between our churches and communities? My work as a former missionary and my love for story has me thinking about what happens when you put the two together. Right now, I have narrowed it done to three things:
Stop inviting. Work first internally by developing a memorable vision statement. Give pop quizzes to the staff and council to help them learn it. Make it visible around the church. Teach it to the congregation. People will happily invite neighbors if they know what they are inviting them into. For example, Good Shepherd’s vision statement is Where Love Comes to Life. People know it and people reach out using that statement.
Teach story. Ever wondered why the scope and sequence in Sunday School moves from the Old Testament to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus then into the early church? Because it makes sense. Take time to teach people the arc of the story and how it connects to daily life. Use repetition, illustrations and images. Give people space and time to talk about their story in the midst of God’s story. Practice, practice, practice. Ask yourself ‘what do you let go of’ so that the practice of story can permeate the building on a Sunday morning.
Measure success. Numbers do tell a story. How many people are in worship or kids in Sunday School help us keep count of growth. But they don’t tell us everything. I learned this first hand a couple of years ago. It was fall and I was leading a Sunday School teacher training. Our topic was discussing different ways to measure success. Numerically, of course, was the most obvious as we reviewed the color-coded class lists. But another way was could the teachers say “yes” to this question: Would you be willing to bring a friend to church? (My good friend Mary Pechauer taught me this question!) One woman was so moved by our conversation, that she stood up and said, “Yes!” Immediately, she felt called to go see her friend and to invite them to Rally Day. It’s a win.
Through my experience these three intentional moves have led to church growth. A clear vision helps with congregational buy-in. Storytelling develops biblical fluency and confidence in faith storying. And measuring non-numerical success encourages invitation.
As a church, we have work to do that does not involve window gazing. It’s work that may take us outside our church doors and into the community of the unknown. But it is our work to do. It’s our calling to close the gap.