Over the years I have heard countless painful stories about how people new to a congregation couldn’t get through the “gates” of the church–those implicit codes and requirements that those of us “inside” the church unwittingly embody and construct as barriers toward them. These include unspoken dress codes, being made to feel like intruders by the members of the church, the expectation that newcomers should be familiar with our creeds and prayers (I can’t tell you how many churches I visit that never print these in a bulletin or project them on a screen for folks to follow), and being inundated by words and expressions, especially in our sermons, that presuppose some greater theological knowledge and experience of the church than most newcomers would have.

I recently visited a new church trying to get established in our community. (As a church planter I am always interested in how other new church starts are getting established and make it a point to visit these new churches as often as I can.) At this particular church, I waited twenty-five minutes after the advertised start time before someone in the church’s band finally said, “I guess we ought to get started.” The pastor’s message went on for nearly an hour and focused on the “frequency and complexity of covenants throughout the Bible.” Ten minutes into his message and I was planning my exit strategy. Had it not been for the families blocking me in on either side, I would have bolted for the door.

My own experience of visiting with other churches has helped me realize what a huge step it is for “unaffiliated” people–the ones we say we are trying to reach–to show up, especially on Sunday mornings, and find their place among us. It has got to be about as uncomfortable for many of them to come and feel connected to what we are doing as it would be for us churched folk to show up at a Hindu shrine and be expected to jump right into the ritual.

Many of the unaffiliated people I relate to on a weekly basis would be open to visiting a church but often need an entry point like a baptism, wedding, or funeral to do so. I have found over and over again that these occasions can create opportunities for us to connect with the unaffiliated–to build a bridge to where they are. And I believe it is our responsibility as clergy and laity to build these bridges to them. As they begin to join us in the journey, we can then lead them to begin to take responsibility for themselves–to understand about our history, to study our traditions, to learn how to spiritually feed themselves. But the process begins with us in the church.

I am alarmed by the number of my clergy colleagues who respond antagonistically toward unaffiliated people, believing they “just want to use us” when they turn to the church with a need–be it a baptism, wedding, or funeral. My church-planting experience has shown me that these life events are incredible opportunities to build relationships with the unaffiliated. As an ordained clergy member of the church, I do require a pre-baptism counseling session for families who want to have their children baptized. I have been trained to provide premarital counseling sessions and I make this a part of my ministry with couples who want to get married by me–whether in the church, in a park, or on a beach. When I am officiating at a funeral for families–unaffiliated or otherwise–I make it a point to spend a significant amount of time with them before and after the service. This is really just good pastoral ministry. And I have never had an unaffiliated family come to me for a baptism, wedding, or funeral and decide not to use my “services” because I wanted to spend time with them. On the contrary, most of these families have been pleasantly surprised at the amount of time I have been willing to invest in their lives. Every church I have served has grown numerically through these encounters.

I think we have a huge problem when unaffiliated people turn to our churches for services and support and we respond to them in a way that conveys a kind of club mentality: “If you are not a member here, attend regularly, or support ‘us’ financially, your request for services will be denied or at least met with lengthy policies and hefty fees.” Such a response sends the message, “It’s not about you. We’re not about you!”

But who or what are we about?

In my thirty years of ministry I have watched the chasm between the church and our culture widen considerably. As leaders in the church, we are much too quick to place the blame for this on those outside of our faith communities: “If only they would come to us. If only they would place their butts in our seats. If only they would put their generous contributions in our collection plates. If only they… there would be no chasm between us.” Not so fast. If only we would go to be where they are. If only we would listen to their concerns. If only we would be attentive to their needs. If only we would stop treating people as a means to our ends. (How many times have I heard people in the church say, “Our financial problems would be over if we could only get more people in the seats!”)

It is not that people aren’t spiritually minded these days. Studies have shown that while church attendance is declining in North America, interest in spirituality is increasing. So where is the disconnect? As a leader in the church, I had better be asking this question a lot of myself and my church.

While we can expect clubs to provide services exclusively to their members (that is what the members pay for), the church is different. Because of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, service to others is something we who are already in the church pay for. While club members legitimately have a “serve us” mentality, church members should have a “service” mentality. When we first started HopeSpring Church I talked about this in one of my sermons. That week a member made a sign for my office. It read, “The church is the only organization that exists for its nonmembers.” That sign remains a good reminder to me about our purpose.

Years ago, as a classically trained “ministry professional,” I was caught up in my own gatekeeper style of leadership. I was hired to care for the flock already inside the gates and to make sure nothing got at them (including the stinging truth of the gospel). My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will keep breaking through my own propensity toward a gatekeeper approach of ministry to consider, again and again, another way–a more bridge-building way.


Adapted from Imagining Church: Seeing Hope in a World of Change by Gary and Kim Shockley, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

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AL373_SM Imagining Church: Seeing Hope in a World of Change by Gary and Kim Shockley

Drawing on their more than thirty years of pastoral and church consulting experience, the Shockleys illustrate the power of imagination using personal stories born of their own quest to be faithful in ministry. They also show readers that imagining church is a shared experience among God’s people. When we imagine the church–form a mental image of what we believe the church is and ought to be–we are co-creators with the Master Designer, Chief Architect, and Greatest Creator, and can help others imagine church. They remind leaders, “If you can’t see it, neither will anyone else.” 

AL332_SM The Meandering Way: Leading by Following the Spirit by Gary A. Shockley

The Meandering Way offers a contrarian take on the more popular practices of leadership found throughout the church today. Meandering leaders are attentive to the promptings of the Spirit. They are guides and mentors who patiently journey alongside those they love and lead. Ultimately, being a meandering leader is about being on a journey with God–personally and corporately slowing down the pace of our lives and following God’s Spirit.


AL368_SM Reaching Out in a Networked World: Expressing Your Congregation’s Heart and Soul by Lynne M. Baab

A congregation communicates its heart and soul through words, photos, actions, programs, architecture, decor, the arts, and countless other aspects of congregational life. In Reaching Out in a Networked World, communications expert and pastor Lynne Baab examines technologies such as websites, blogs, online communities, and desktop publishing. She demonstrates how a congregation can evaluate these tools and appropriately use them to communicate its heart and soul, to convey its identity and values both within and outside the congregation.