What else do you have on in the week?
That is the #1 question newcomers ask when wondering if they should stop off at your church.
Sometimes they’re asking: How can I be involved? Often they’re asking: How can I belong?
Community groups, Bible study groups, growth groups, small groups, youth groups, men’s groups, women’s groups etc. The more outwardly focussed might ask about evangelism teams or community service teams.
Pastors – especially pastors – feel the pressure at this point, and have a default answer designed to pull the person further in.
We start listing programs, events, activities, hoping to see that glimmer in the newcomer’s eyes.
We’re trying to give the impression:
“We’re on to this. We’re not just what you see in front of you, cos there weren’t many here today/the music wasn’t great/ the sermon was too long. We’ve got something for you that might make you stick.”
How about we don’t make that first cab off the rank? How about instead we take a deep breath, press the pause button, and reframe the conversation? How about we ask this:
Before I answer that, tell me what else you have on in the week? Before I give you a list of what else we do in the week, how about you come back next week with a list of what your average week looks like? And then we can take it from there.
The newcomer is first and foremost a worshipper – a person committed to “cultural liturgical practises”, as James Smith would say.
The newcomer is only a newcomer to us. They are a full-formed creature of habit already, shaped by, and shaped towards certain desires and practices.
And the practices of their lives outside of this one Sunday they turned up at your church; the places they frequent; the people they spend time with; the way they shape their week; how they spend their money; all indicate what they love, what they desire.
You need to know, first, what they are committed to and towards which things they will give the bulk of their time and attention. And, more importantly, what they consider to be negotiable liturgical practices and what are non-negotiable liturgical practices.
Now this is not to say that many of those practices and habits are not good or necessary things: vocations, family, leisure. There are many have-tos.
But it is to say that the role of the church is not to find a slot for someone who is seeking religious liturgical practices.
Rather it is the role of the church to first explore, and then expose, the liturgical practices that people are already engaged with, and then to put these under the scrutinising light of the gospel, in order to challenge them and call them to change if necessary.
If someone’s life is already full of unwitting cultural liturgical practices, then why would our default be to offer a pick-and-mix set of other liturgical practices to slot into the increasingly narrow timeframes?
That’s a recipe for frustration and busy-ness for churches. If all we are doing is trying to line up the program crosshairs to pick off increasingly frantic congregation members who are pulled in all sorts of directions, then we’ll be offering boutique programs for increasingly smaller cohorts with increasingly higher expectations of what we can do for them in the increasingly smaller slivers of time they make themselves available.
Oh, I see, you’re doing that already.
So instead of seeing that first question like a speed date query to which you have to give an impressive answer, how about taking a deep breath and playing just that little bit hard to get? How about asking that awkward question of them first.
It could be the point they take a backward step, take an inventory of their own lives, and come back to you either admitting they are too busy to be involved on a regular basis, or are willing to journey with you to change some liturgical practices of their own.
So my usual response to such people is this:
“Just turn up for a couple of months and see how it goes. Regularly. Just come along, week in, week out.”
Turning up regularly (at least three in every four weeks over an extended period of time), does two things.
First, it starts to shape their liturgical lives. The thick liturgical practice of meeting regularly with God’s people to hear his Word, praise him and become part of the local body of Christians, shapes people towards some liturgies and away from others.
Just “turning up” will shape them far beyond what they imagined, despite what the naysayers have been saying about “Sunday Christians” for the past couple of years.
I can tell you now, in this current hardening secular culture, if I see Christians turning up Sunday by Sunday, I know they are far more than Sunday Christians. I know that they have a level of commitment far beyond most. I know that their discipline in this area is the tip of an iceberg.
Rarely do I meet an ad hoc church attendee (things such as health and work notwithstanding) who is knocking it out of the park as a Christian in terms of serving, loving, giving, seeking after the welfare of others, having a gospel heart for the lost. Ad hoc attendance is a sign that other liturgies are filling the void.
It’s a myth plied to us by books that scorn regular church attendance as merely religious tokenism. Once upon a time maybe it was, but not in these days.
But secondly, as they turn up, the question of what else is going on in the week starts to answer itself.
Turning up embeds you with people and relationships over time, at least it does in a church whose people are having their hearts shaped by the gospel, and hence away from an inward focus. Newcomers will not so much be “signed up” as “drawn in” to the life of the church.
Do we really love the churn that we experience as churches? Do we really love the “ghosting” that goes on when we embed people into a group quickly, and then two months later they are gone? We do not. It’s not healthy. It’s time consuming. And, most importantly, it confirms, rather than challenges the consumer mentality that person had when they turned up.
And the next church they go to? They’ll do the same thing, ask the same question again.
Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath next time you are asked that question, and break an unhealthy worship pattern in someone’s life.