Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
-Luke 15:1-2 (NIV)
A few years ago now, I attended Friday midday prayers at the mosque in my neighborhood. The group I was with was expected, and we were treated with hospitality and friendliness by members of the mosque. Even so, it was a slightly uncomfortable experience — not because of anything the members of the mosque did or didn’t do, but just because I was out of place.
The chief thing that made me uncomfortable, I suppose, is that we were dependent upon our hosts to tell us what to do. As we came in, we were asked to take off our shoes. The women in our group were expected to keep their heads covered, and they were taken to a place where they would be out of sight of the men in the congregation. The male members of our group were shown to a bench in the back of a large, mostly-empty room that gradually began to fill up with worshippers. Each worshipper had his own mat, which he unrolled on the floor. At noon the prayers started, and in unison 100 or more Muslim men made the correct movements and said the correct words to express their prayers to Allah. It was an amazing thing to witness. The sounds of all those worshippers moving in unison and speaking those Arabic words in unison was indescribable.
I couldn’t participate, of course. I was only there as a spectator.
I did understand the sermon, and could even agree with a lot of what the Imam said. I was treated with respect and kindness, and that made the whole thing easier to navigate. But the fact is that what went on in that mosque was clearly not for me. I was allowed to look in on it, but I was in no way a real participant.
Since then, I’ve often thought of that experience in reference to the worship services that I’m a part of and help lead each Sunday.
I’ve tried to imagine myself as a visitor with no direct knowledge of what church is like, only what she’s maybe heard from other people or seen in movies or TV or read in books. Is she going to know where to sit? What to do when she comes in? If she should speak to anyone or not? Should she pick up a Bible from the pew? Will she know which one the Bible is, and when she should use it? And what’s she going to think when (in normal times) metal trays with juice or crackers are passed to her?
Or I’ve tried to imagine myself as someone whose experience of church is very different from what happens in our service. How strange is it going to sound to not have musical instruments? Is he maybe confused because no one who leads in any aspect of worship is wearing distinctive clothing? Does he wonder why no one gets up and goes to the front to receive communion?
We’re used to it, of course, so we don’t feel this, but the worship services at your church are just as weird to someone as that Muslim prayer service was to me.
There’s no doubt that church attendance is down across the board, in all denominations, sects, and tribes of Christianity. I don’t think that’s because church services are weird. But the more attendance declines, and the longer the decline goes on, the more people are going to stay away for the same reasons I haven’t been back to the mosque: it’s unfamiliar, I don’t know what to do, and it really has nothing to do with me.
All that to say that if we want our churches to grow, we’re going to have to put a little more thought into it than just inviting people to come to church.
Hey, do that, OK? Definitely invite people to church. But keep in mind that a lot of people aren’t going to accept the invitation. And many who do are going to feel uncomfortable, even if we make every effort to make them comfortable. And many are going to come once and wonder, like me with the mosque, why I should go back.
So if we want our churches to grow, we have to create Entry Points.
It’s just what it sounds like; Entry Points are the places where we make church accessible to those who just want to check things out. It used to be that worship services were excellent Entry Points, at least in some churches. Unless we’re going to drastically change our worship services, though, the time has passed when they’ll be the primary Entry Points for most churches.
So what new Entry Points will we create in our churches?
How about service projects and social activism? A lot of people would feel strange in a worship service, but would love to serve in a food pantry or build a house with Habitat for Humanity or be part of a school supply drive for kids. And as they work in their community alongside Christians, they start to see your church as a group of people whose faith calls them to love in concrete ways. They have opportunities to talk to you and get to know you and hear what you believe. Look for ways to serve as a church, and invite others to join you.
Or how about small groups? Groups that get together in homes or coffee ships to discuss a book, read the Bible, share prayer needs, or talk over problems can be just what someone is looking for in our hectic, online, relationally-illiterate world. Once someone has heard about your kids and prayed for your needs, they’ll likely be much less resistant to being in church with you.
Baby boomers are aging into retirement, and also into some of the health problems of advanced age. Ministries to seniors and their family members who care for them could be an amazing Entry Point to your church. Ministries like these for elder care have been a blessing to my family recently. They tell the elderly and their caregivers that they are welcome in you church.
I’ve heard it said that your church’s online presence is its front door. Well, think of how most of us check anything out. Before we go or call, we check a website. Make sure your website has content on it that people who know little or nothing about you will find helpful. Use social media as a window through which “strangers” can see what life in your congregation is like, and maybe start to get the idea that they just might be welcome.
You can likely think of many more Entry Points. When you do, share it with someone. Ideally, a church would have many Entry Points, many places where someone who doesn’t know you can find their way to you. And, through you, to Jesus.
May we imitate Jesus by being welcoming churches.