by Ryan Gear
I am currently reading John Dorhauer’s new book Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World. In it, Rev. Dorhauer presents an exciting challenge to let go of some restrictive institutional structures and allow a “Church 2.0” to emerge and engage our postmodern world.
I find it incredibly refreshing that the new General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ is urging the use of new metrics in place of the old metrics of attendance and offering to measure church “success.” Instead of counting success in terms of heads and dollars, he advocates for the blossoming of new, adaptive expressions of faith that count people served. How blessed the UCC is to have a leader who understands the true mission of the church!
As congregations adopt this view of the church’s mission, lives will be changed, as John likes to say, “by the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” As hope is renewed, healing is found, and communities are served, people touched by the church’s mission will take notice… and something else will happen.
Ironically, as the church shifts its focus from heads and dollars to service and mission, the church attendance will likely increase. Please hear me, I don’t want to sound presumptuous, and serving is certainly not a means to an end. When churches serve their communities and allow new expressions of worship, however, new people will likely want to worship there. Love is attractive.
Although many congregations currently feel as though they’re struggling, if these churches re-imagine their mission and serve their communities, they will likely welcome many new people. Moreover, as our society continues to progress and evangelicals continue to double down on backward social stances, I believe that the United Church of Christ and other mainline denominations will attract a new wave of people looking for a mission-focused, thinking, and open-minded church.
Some of these folks will bring new ideas that will help you to reimagine church– creative worship, new music, poetry, video, and dialogical sermons, worship experiences that don’t fit the usual mold. Some will bring new life to church governance and budgeting with the newest leadership practices. Some will start new ministries and lead others to serve their communities in creative and inspiring ways.
In fact, I believe that one of the greatest challenges mainline denominations will face in the twenty-first century is how to welcome new people wisely. What do I mean by that?
Some congregations are not good at welcoming people at all. They almost make it difficult for a new family or unmarried person to join the church. They use insider language that newcomers don’t understand. They crush new ideas. They underfund ministry to children and students. They focus on pleasing the biggest givers rather than welcoming new blood. They cling to structures that no longer make sense. You get the idea.
The church I planted, One Church, is only two and a half years old, but we grew to 165 in worship after only 14 months. We focused on serving the disadvantaged in our community and on communicating what makes our church unique in our area. For example, we are one of the few churches in our community who welcome and affirm the LGBTQ community.
One Church also worships in a style to which a fair number of postmodern people can relate. We offer contemporary worship with lyrics on video screens. We present sermon series that address the questions thinking people have about faith. We used an up-to-date professional website, search engine optimization, Google Adwords, and Facebook advertising to promote the church and those sermons. We allow smart, capable people to create new ways of serving. At two years old, One Church would be considered a success by the old metrics and hopefully the new, as well.
Then after a year of growth, One Church paid dearly for a mistake. I placed someone into a leadership position without properly vetting him. Within a few months, I discovered that he secretly struggled with mental illness when it manifested itself in a church conflict. Acting in the only way he knew how, he created an incredible amount of hurt and distrust in the congregation. Putting someone not properly vetted into church leadership cost One Church both emotionally and numerically.
In contrast to churches who don’t really welcome new people, some congregations are so desperate for new leadership that they will place any new person into an influential position within weeks of arriving. Yes, you want to welcome new people, but you want to welcome them wisely.
As you welcome new people, you will also find that there are people who change churches frequently for various reasons that are less-than-healthy. As new people arrive in your church, you are bound to meet some of them in their continuing journey. They are often called “Church Hoppers.”
You can and should welcome each and every one of God’s children with open arms, but not everyone is ready for a position of influence in your church. While the mission of the church is to offer healing, the church you lead needs emotionally healthy, stable people in its core leadership. Again, God loves everyone, and every church should welcome hurting people. Not everyone, however, is emotionally healthy enough to have influence in a church.
Here are three ways to welcome new people well:
1. As John Dorhauer urges, “Reimagine” church.
New persons to your church will often bring new ideas about worship, be skeptical of hierarchy, and view faith as an ongoing conversation. Be open to their input, and be willing to adapt to new ways of being the church. The Center for Progressive Renewal (progressiverenewal.org) is a great resource.
2. Make church guest-friendly.
Eliminate insider language that new people will not understand. Install signage helpful to first-time guests. Use twenty-first century methods of communication like social media, video, and image-based communication that Americans are now accustomed to.
3. Enrich the lives of people with felt-need sermon and ministries.
Make it your goal to create the best progressive children’s and students’ ministry in your area. Preach sermons that speak to the felt-needs we all share, as well as answer questions thinking people ask. Then, allow room for dialogue, as intelligent people appreciate the space to process verbally and share their own experiences.
Here are three ways to welcome new people wisely:
1. Resist the temptation to give authority to everyone who flatters you.
It can be tempting to automatically trust someone who tells you how great your sermons are, always encourages you, and praises your pastoral prowess… but as good as it feels to believe the hype, behind flattery may lie a hidden agenda. Be discerning.
2. Vet people before entrusting them with influence.
Develop a policy that people new to the church wait for at least a year before putting them in any positions of leadership. Watch for signs of emotional distress. In addition, if the person was offended by a former pastor, why not contact the former pastor and get his or her side of the story? It might be quite revealing. Observe the way they interact with others, and do not ignore red flags.
3. There is strength in numbers.
Limit the amount of time you spend with people who have repeatedly left other churches, and when you meet with them, make sure other trusted members of the church are with you to prevent any he-said/she-said.
As congregations reimagine church and open themselves to Church 2.0, new people will come. In faith, you can prepare for them now. As you adopt new metrics of people served, and create new expressions of worship, your church will have the opportunity to welcome people well… and welcome them wisely.
Ryan Gear is the founding pastor of One Church, a progressive non-denominational church in Chandler, Arizona (onechurch.com) and the founder of openmindedchurch.org, a growing, national directory of churches willing to wrestle with questions and doubts.
He is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, OnFaith, Beliefnet, and Convergent Books and has been featured in Real Clear Religion.
Ryan also serves as an initiator in Convergence U.S., a movement bringing together forward-thinking Catholics, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants, along with ethnic and peace churches and other willing colleagues.
Follow Ryan on Twitter at twitter.com/ryangear77.