How should churches position themselves, optimally, to reach the nones? How do you "open the front door" of your church to someone you have invited who may actually come? Obviously, you must convey grace and truth through the message, but there is so much more.
Beginning with something as simple as friendliness.
In an interesting study, the Technical Assistance Research Program study for the White House Office of Consumer Affairs found that 96 percent of unhappy customers never complain about rude or unfriendly treatment, but 90 percent of those unhappy customers will not return to the place where that unfriendliness was manifest. Further, each one of those unhappy customers will tell nine other people about the lack of friendliness and courteousness, and 13 percent will tell more than twenty other people.
A later study by the same organization discovered that the number one reason individuals do not return to a particular establishment is an indifferent, unfriendly employee's attitude.
Now, we all know that every church thinks it's friendly. I've never met a church yet where the people said, "Yeah, we're mean and proud of it!"
No! Every church thinks it's friendly. But what that means is...
they are friendly to each other
they are friendly to people they know
they are friendly to people they like
they are friendly to people who are like them
That's not friendliness; that's a clique or, at best, a club.
To prove the point, another recent LifeWay Research survey found that while three out of every four churchgoers say they have significant relationships with people at their church, they admit they don't make an effort with new people. In fact, only one in every six even try.
That's not very friendly.
This needs to be a cultivated part of your DNA. At Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), where I serve as the senior pastor, we've worked very hard to be intentional about something that many may feel can only be left to chance. We've built an entire ministry around it called Guest Services, and it oversees greeters, ushers, hospitality and much more – all geared toward the experience of first impressions and friendliness. It's one of our largest and most strategic efforts.
But friendliness holds more than a smile and a welcome. It has to do with an atmosphere of acceptance. Two words are key here: atmosphere and acceptance.
First, atmosphere. Churches have cultures – their DNA. The goal is to cultivate one that is accepting. If you are going to reach the nones, they are going to come to you as a none. That means they will come as couples living together, as gay couples, pregnant outside of marriage, addicted, skeptical. Is that going to raise an eyebrow? Or is it taken in stride in a way that makes the person feel instantly at ease?
At Meck, it's just another day of normal.
But then there is the acceptance itself. Acceptance is not affirmation, but it is an embrace. It involves starting where someone actually is, warts and all, and then loving them, caring for them, and enveloping them into the community. This is more key than you may think.
It is one thing to create a welcoming atmosphere; it is another to actually wrap your arms around someone who is sin-stained and sin-soaked in an effort to lead him or her to the cross. In other words, it's ministry in the trenches. It means talking about marriage to those who are living together; it means helping teenagers involved in cutting or hooking up; it means working with a Christian wife who has a non-Christian husband who wants them to enter an "open" marriage; it means going as pastors to a house that seems to be demonically influenced because of the occupant's past occult activity; and so much more.
All to say, an atmosphere of acceptance is also a culture of involvement and investment in the trenches of lives that have been lived and ordered apart from Christ.
It's time to get a church life of little more than "potluck dinners" out of your head.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.
Ross Rankin, "Survey: Many at church not helping others grow," Baptist Press, April 25, 2013, read online.