Carry on baggage

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Independent churches tend to attract people with baggage. At least that’s been my experience, having pastored two of them and now attending another. I suspect most churches attract people with baggage, in the sense that everyone has baggage, but I think independent churches are especially ripe for the experience.

Why so? We live in an age of church shopping. People are seeking a church that’s just right for them. If they don’t like what they get in one place, then it’s not hard to shop for another. If you are living in the bush, where there is only one church for the next hundred kilometres, then this probably isn’t your experience, but it’s certainly common in cities and larger towns.

Some of our independent evangelical churches have arisen because of perceived needs in certain areas. Existing churches aren’t growing, or aren’t preaching the Scriptures, or aren’t reaching out to the community, or aren’t providing anything for children and youth, or keep stubbornly riding their ridiculous hobby-horses, or something. When a new church is planted it isn’t too long before people are leaking out of other churches. Drifters, who’ve left their churches some time back, dribble into the new church, aiming to give it another go. All these people bring baggage. They might recognise it or they might not, but it will surface soon enough.

The baggage comes in different shapes and forms. Firstly, there is the idealist. They’ve created a picture of what church is to be like. Sadly, their last church didn’t live up to the ideal. Neither did the one before, or the one before. There will be a honeymoon period where they give you time to impress them. You might even find that you are the best church they’ve ever been to. You’re a breath of fresh air; an oasis in the desert. You might start to hear stories of the horrors of the past, the problems of their previous church, the failings of the pastor. Beware—you might be next!

Secondly, people come with an attachment to how things have been done. They might have left their denomination, but they haven’t necessarily discarded what attracted them there in the first place. It won’t be long before you start hearing what you ought to be doing and how church should function. You see, there is a right way to do things. It’s stunning how often I’ve heard ex-Baptists tell us we must baptise for membership, or ex-Presbyterians insist we have a council of elders, or ex-Pentecostals tell us we need to be more open to the working of the Holy Spirit, or ex-Anglicans tell us we should follow a particular liturgical form, or ex-Salvos tell us we should all wear uniforms and play brass instruments. OK, I made the last one up.

People move because they are unhappy, but they may remain deeply attached to familiar practices, forms, structures, and values. The independent church is considered a clean slate to be filled. People with baggage cling to ways that things should be done and feel strongly about ways they shouldn’t. Transfer growth is usually accompanied by excess baggage. History is often the strongest predictor of the future, and discontent will likely lead to more discontent.

Thirdly, people move churches because they’ve had a bad experience with a previous church. More often than not, they feel hurt or grieved by things that have been said, or done, or not done. In reality, the pain is mainly about people—being treated poorly by someone, often in leadership. They’re likely leaving because they haven’t resolved the conflict or haven’t dealt with the pain. So if you are a leader, it’s possible that you will be tested. Are you going to be just like the perpetrators of previous pain? Can you be trusted? Will you repeat the patterns of the past? It’s too easy to get these things very tangled when we leave matters of the past unresolved. And maybe they tried to resolve things, and it didn’t end well, and they are broken, and seeking care and compassion. They are looking to your church to be a safe haven.

So what can independent (and other) churches learn? Here are a eight suggestions:

  1. If people come to you from another church, then have a conversation with them early. Listen to them. Where did you come from? What was it like? What happened? Have you worked through these things? Does the church know you have left? Have you spoken with the pastor or leadership? Do you think you need to go back and work on things? Maybe, let them know you will give a courtesy call to their previous pastor. Be strong, but gracious and caring. Don’t be bullied by people seeking a platform for themselves. Don’t become a bully to people who are seeking refuge and help.
  2. Communicate clearly what your church is on about. Speak to the things you value. Make clear what you won’t fight about and what you will. Share your theological convictions, your mission, and your vision. Don’t just tell people what you do, but how you do things, and why you do them. Excite people about gospel priorities. Aim for simplicity and clarity. Draw people into God’s agenda. Explain that your church is not a place for competing human agendas, but a place to draw together in the one Spirit.
  3. Invite people to become part of the church on the church’s terms. Tell them where the church is at currently and where you are hoping to get to. Let them decide if they want to go on the journey. Of course, this means you need to know where you’re headed and how to communicate it.
  4. Hold orientation meetings for newcomers where you can share the matters of importance. This might be an evening in the home of the pastor or a course over multiple weeks in small groups. Whatever it is, create an opportunity for people to know who the church is and who it’s not, so they can be clear about what they are joining. Some people will leave early, saving you and them the pain of breakup down the track. Others will join more enthusiastically because they love the vision and appreciate your communication.
  5. Have a clear website that outlines what you are on about. Websites are the noticeboards, the yellow pages, the advertising brochures of the past. The flavour of the church should be clear before someone visits. If people want to dig deeper then they should be able to find your beliefs, values, priorities, and other essentials. Or at least they should know where they can find out more.
  6. For those digging deeper, consider an FAQ page or link to position papers on matters that might divide. This is not shop window stuff, but it is what you keep on your shelves inside. If need be, spell out your beliefs about things like church governance, tithing, communion, baptism, spiritual gifts, roles of men and women, creation, predestination, or whatever hot button topics are relevant in your context. If you take a position, then explain why it matters, how much it matters, and what it looks like in practice. If you are inclusive of different views, then make it clear why you accept different views, and what this will mean for unity in your church. Most importantly, work out what you believe and be prepared to explain this to others. If you leave a vacuum, then someone else is going to fill it.
  7. Be clear on how people can get involved. If you need to be a ‘member’ before you can exercise caring ministries, then explain how and why? Some churches are quick to rope people into various ministries, either to make them feel involved or because they can fill a pressing need. If you need to join a small group before you join a serve team, then explain why and help people navigate the steps. Go slow. Not too slow, but go wisely and carefully. Take the time to get to know people. Let them know the pathway to involvement and walk with them.
  8. Most importantly, be motivated by love, not suspicion. Knowing that people have baggage that they carry around with them, gives you the opportunity to help them lighten their load. Everyone has a history and every history is burdened by pain. Remember that we are called to share one another’s burdens. It’s the gospel that frees us from every weight. So speak and act from the gospel of grace. Don’t add further burdens, but help people to find freedom that comes from Jesus.

Beyond the first visit

Welcoming is a gospel issue. Our God is a welcoming God. Jesus died so as to welcome people into relationship with God and with each other. He calls his followers to show hospitality to others as an expression of God’s love and grace. So how can we make this a vital feature of our congregations? One way is to be genuinely friendly when people come to our church. Next is to take the initiative in welcoming, follow-up, hospitality, and inviting people to join with us in what we are doing. Nearly every church assumes it is friendly and welcoming, but it’s not what the insiders think that really matters. We need to learn to see things from the outside in. How do we come across to visitors and guests? This book invites us to take a look.

Beyond the First Visit: The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to your Church by Gary McIntosh is a book worth reading. I’d advise following the author’s suggestion:

To get the most out of this book, as you read each chapter, make notes in the margin of the book, scribbling your thoughts and ideas. Then make a list of action steps that you want your church to take during the next year to get ready for company. (p14)

McIntosh begins by suggesting we review our terminology – stop speaking about visitors and think of guests instead. We don’t always want visitors, but guests are expected. Visitors are expected to leave, but we plan for guests to stay and we make arrangements so they can. A guest mindset is what we need in our churches. This book encourages people in our churches to become great hosts. The following checklist is a good way to assess how and where we can improve:

  1. Invite your guests with a personal invitation.
  2. Arrive early to make sure everything is ready for the guests’ arrival.
  3. Greet the guests warmly at the entrance and escort them to their seats.
  4. Assist guests in understanding what is taking place.
  5. Anticipate and answer as many questions as possible in advance, so guests do not have to ask.
  6. Do something extra to make your guests’ visit special.
  7. Walk guests to the door and invite them back. (p17)

Welcoming guests doesn’t always happen naturally. We need to plan for it to be done well and it’s the responsibility of the church, not the guest. It’s worth thinking about how we’d treat a guest in our home, and applying this to church. We’d invite them in, offer to take their coat, show them where they can put their bag, take them into the appropriate room, invite them to take a seat, offer them a drink, ask them how they’re doing, engage in conversation, invite them to the table for a meal, let them know where the bathroom is, and more… And yet, when it comes to church, so often we expect people to work everything out for themselves. Healthy churches will take the responsibility for welcoming people and helping them to get involved in the life of their church.

People will sometimes make assessments of your church on the basis of a single impression. The long grass surrounding the old stone building makes it look abandoned and unused. The out of date website communicates that nothing much happens anymore. The paint on the sign, making it hard to read the service times, indicates that they don’t want me to come. Whereas the attractive brochure describing the Christmas Carols, with pictures of families, and a warm invitation to come along, makes me think my family could fit in here. It’s worth considering all the first impressions we make as a church. What assessments are people making about what we’re like? If we can’t work it out ourselves, then ask others – those who’ve come and those who haven’t.

Churches who have their own properties are urged to think of the impact their facilities have on others. Are they welcoming or alienating? McIntosh suggests a stroll around, examining everything that people will come into contact with when they check out your church. A mother with a couple of young kids isn’t likely to return if her first experience of the bathroom is a gloomy, smelly, dirty, inadequate facility. If all the parking spaces near the building are reserved for church staff, then you get the message of who’s most important. If things are bright and clean, if directions are clear, if people say ‘Hi’ and smile and offer to help, then second visits become much more likely.

The book contains many ideas on letting people know about church. I nearly gagged at the direct marketing/phoning suggestion! The best idea was simply word of mouth! Spread good rumours! If your church matters to you, if it encourages you, if it’s great for your kids, if you love getting to know God with others, if Sunday is a highlight of your week… then spread the rumour! But be warned. Don’t talk things up too highly. People like their expectations to be exceeded – not let down.

Getting Beyond the First Visit helps churches to examine the pathways for people getting involved and belonging. This can be very simple in a church of 100 or so, but may require much more organisation and communication in larger churches. There is no one size fits all. Some smaller churches may be small because they’re not good at letting others in. The danger for large churches is that people come and go and no one notices or cares. This book helps us not to take it for granted.

At one level this is very light book. It’s not big on theology and there’s not much Bible. It devotes a lot of attention to surface issues and impressions, and a few of the suggestions made me cringe. But overall, it’s full of helpful analysis and practical suggestions that will get us thinking about how we can do better. The central issue is so vitally important. At a time when our churches are becoming more and more marginalised, we need to make every effort to connect with people. People need to know God today, as much as they did in our parents’ generation, and as much as they did in Biblical times. Our churches shouldn’t make it hard for people to get to know God. There’s no excuse for unfriendliness. It’s not up to our guests to ‘make themselves at home’ while we go about our own business. It’s our job to welcome, introduce, connect, and build genuine relationships.

I bought this book last year, so as to examine the issues afresh as we began to plant a new church. If you think about the principles being discussed, rather than simply looking for practices to adopt, then I believe you will find it a useful tool. Church planters should get a copy, but so too should existing pastors and church leaders. How long since we reviewed this area of church life? Have we ever? Maybe things are in need of a tune up, or even a serious rebuild. This book can help you to think it through, without spending $1000s on a consultant – unless, of course, you want me to come! 😉