May 25, 2016

Not Daring to Join Church vs Not Bothering To Join Church

Hey church pastors/planters, would you rather that no one dared join your church in 2016, or that no one bothered to join your church  in 2016?

Now, I concede that many of us would prefer people to join our church community for the right reasons; conversions, starving sheep, seeing opportunities to serve etc, but what if, this year, no one joined for the right reasons?

If the end result is zero uptake in attendance over the space of a year, would the reason behind that zero be of any concern to you?

Let me explain what I mean.  When we read in Acts 5:13 that as the nascent Jewish church met in the Temple, “none of the rest dared join them” (meaning observant Jews), we assume that the fear of joining overcame the desire to join (and no wonder given the events of ch5).

So for example, when my son, who’s dabbling his toes in Parkour (Google it people), sees a particularly juicy set of steps to jump, his fear often outweighs his desire.  He’ll study those steps.  Watch them closely.  Count them. Take a run up and pull out.


Why?   Because those steps are a big call.  There’s one of him and he’s only eight, and there are ten of them and they’re steep.

But let’s say it was one feeble, low, slightly worn step.  “Hey, I dare you to jump that step!” I would say.  “Why would I bother doing that?” he’d shrug, and give me that strange look he does.

Which of the two do you think overwhelmingly describes the church in our late modern Western context?  Do people not dare to join us or not bother to join us?  It’s pretty much the latter isn’t it?

And the irony is that the lower the bar set by churches in relation to “terms and conditions”, the less bothered people seem to be to join.  The collapse of the  mainline denominations across the Western world is testament to that. The bar is so low for entry that it’s become an exercise in limbo.

Of course this is not to say that we do church gatherings poorly, or inaccessibly to the outsider. Nor is it to say that making church harder will suddenly encourage deeply secular post-Christian people to consider it.

But it is to say that the more we create a culture in our church under which people would “not dare join”, the more – ironically – people seem likely to join!  Even if that means not at the exciting pace we had envisaged.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his latest book David and Goliath,  employs the term “disfluent” to describe a process that is at first, counter-intuitive.  Making something harder, less fluent, has the effect of causing people to pause, push back against the disfluency, then ask deeper questions, before owning their responses more deeply.

He narrates the story of the world’s shortest intelligence test, The Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), which contains three short questions.  The questions were given to students at nine major US universities, ranging from elites such as MIT down to also-rans.

One of the three questions is:

If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?  

Together with the other two questions an average score out of three was given to each university.  You guessed it, the elites did better, far better, than the lower end of the spectrum. (The answer is 5 minutes, by the way).

But then they changed the rules. They decided to make it harder.  They asked the same three questions, only they wrote them like this (and you might need your glasses):

If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

End result?  The lower-scale universities equalled the higher ranked ones, and in some cases bested them.

Why? Because rather than test off-the-top-of-your-head instinct , students had to stop and wrestle with the disfluency in which the question was  presented to them.  They had to pore over it; make sure they read it properly; make sure they didn’t see a 6 instead of a 5.

When the process log-jammed their rapid response mechanisations, the tendency was to get it right more often than not.

Let’s take that to the church.  So Christians come along and they want to join you.  Good.  But what if we decided to make it disfluent at the outset; more like 6 point grey-italics than 72 point bold. More fat-marbled medium-rare steak than pureed soup.

For the average interested unbeliever who comes along, the clear presentation of the gospel message week in week out, in church, in life, in relationship is probably disfluent enough.  Or at least it will be if the word “repent” gets a look in!

But what about for the average Christian doing the rounds, or escaping the latest church implosion, or seeking somewhere that will at least open the Bible and teach it on a Sunday?  In truth, the statistics show that the de-churched seem to be the people that are coming back.  Our question is: What are they coming back to? My contention is that they didn’t leave church in the first place because it was too daring to go, but because they just couldn’t be bothered in the end, due to all sorts of reasons – none of them gospel.

So, what might disfluency look like in our setting, given that God is not likely to strike dead someone who lies about the sale price of their real estate. Here are but a few examples off the top of my head.

  1. We value the forgiveness bought for us in Christ in our church so much that should you fall out with someone we will pursue you with the need to reconcile with them, whatever the cost, rather than leave and go somewhere else.
  2. We are compelled to serve others in the same spirit that Jesus did so we encourage you to actively see yourselves as servants not consumers. We will actively provide you with opportunities to serve, and actively encourage you to move away from mere consumption.
  3. Our church has plans to plant again.  If you join we might ask you to prayerfully consider being part of the planting team.  The gospel overrides our desire for comfort and status quo.

I reckon disfluency at the start of the process is a whole lot easier – and clearer – than it is halfway through.  No one likes to feel played.

Granted the gospel will change consumers to servants over time, but log-jamming the process in other to make people pause to think right at the outset may keep your church – and your mental health – in a much better place in the long run.

The risk is, of course, that people baulk and walk. But better that no one dares join than no one, over time, bothers to join. For ironically, the church that no one dared to join in Acts 5 spread out across the world, while the churches that no one bothers to join collapse in on themselves and die.

Oh, and for your attention, here’s a second question from the CRT. See if you can get it right:

A bat and a ball cost $1:10 in total. The bat costs $1:00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

And if you think you’ve got it, try it again to make sure:

A bat and a ball cost $1:10 in total. The bat costs $1:00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?


Written by


Written by

Recent Posts

There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

Stay in the know

Receive content updates, new blog articles and upcoming events all to your inbox.