–Daniel S. Ferguson
I absolutely guarantee that nearly every person who is thinking of attending a church visits its website first. Even senior adults are doing it now. That’s because most people, even believers, are skeptical of new churches. They’ve all been burned by one or know someone who has.
A church’s website help new people to learn whether this church is worth their time. In determining this, the new person asks several questions.
Question 1: Is this church fresh?
First things first, they’re checking to see if that church’s website is attractive to make sure yours isn’t a church where they will choke to death on dust. Stodgy websites mean stodgy air vents. (Blech.)
But stodgy websites also mean stodgy people. An out-of-date website suggests a level of disengagement with culture and people that is a natural turn-off. (Digital blech.)
But assuming you’ve had the website done well, they’re going to click around on programs, service information, and–yes–your “What We Believe” link.
Why do they do that? Well, from my own experience and from those to whom I have spoken from a variety of faith backgrounds, they’re looking for clues on how that church functions.
Question 2: Will my first experience be a good one?
Going to a church for the first time on a Sunday morning is a big deal. You’re unsure of the directions. You’re unsure of the service times. You’re unsure what to wear. And you’re almost always asked to give your contact information away. It’s hard to say no to that when you said yes to Apple, so you’re likely to do it, which means dodging emails and phone calls and–gasp!–visitations for who knows how long, all with the relatively unlikely reward of this being the church you’ll eventually call home.
So new people will look at pictures, locations, and service times. They want to know what people are wearing, doing, and saying so they can fit in and not stand out. Nobody wants it to be known that they don’t belong.
Question 3: Is there anyone this church doesn’t love?
My guess is that this question doesn’t get asked consciously, but it’s certainly on people’s minds. With the hundreds of first-time guests I’ve met, many of them kind of sit with their arms crossed waiting to be offended. They have a history with church or with Christians, and they’re waiting for that history to repeat itself. Or they have a stereotype about church and Christians in their head that they’re looking to justify. This is only natural.
And let’s face it, the stereotype about church is that there are people we don’t love. That’s really our fault as Christians. We’ve had a big hand in creating that stereotype. There’s a reason people walk in our churches with that bias.
The biggest risk a new person takes at our church is getting connected only to get burned. Churches are so infamous about this that it seems nearly everyone has some version of this story. It’s practically cliché, even for people still in the church.
If you’re new, why risk all that? Why not thin the field of potential churches down to ones you know you could at least try? After all, this is what we do with dating now. Why not with church?
That’s where the Statement of Faith comes in.
Because like it or not, people don’t come to church on a truth quest. They come on a relationship quest. Truth is usually a church’s ultimate goal, but don’t kid yourself that it starts there. First-time guests are on a relationship quest, and they’re going to stay on that quest for a while, even if they join the church.
So rather than invest a whole lot of time and emotional energy in the first-time experience, people looking at a church will use its website as a litmus test for whether or not they can build relationships there without getting burned.
And the Statement of Faith has more information on how relationships in a church work than almost any other part of that church’s website, even parts about groups and teams.
It’s not because a Statement of Faith talks about relationships a lot (it doesn’t), but it does provide clues. The potential attendee’s primary question is “Will this church want to build a relationship with me?” Or, more simply, “Will this church love me?” A way of answering that question is by answering a negative form of it: “Is there anyone this church doesn’t love?”
Because church Statements of Faith are often doctrinal documents that enter into theological arguments and church debates that have been going on for millennia, even when they’re kindly worded, they often smack of some sort of distance between Church A and Church B.
Statements like “We believe that every word in the original writings [of Scripture] is inspired by God and without error” (excerpt from a real church’s “What We Believe” page) are clear entries into a debate over something. Even the totally unchurched who doesn’t know that there’s a debate over the autographs and the authority of translations can see that there’s something else going on there. That there’s someone with which this church disagrees and probably doesn’t like. Phrases like “every word,” “original writings,” and “without error” sound like fighting words that echo all too strongly the church’s public reputation as divisive and spiteful.
It didn’t matter that this Statement of Faith said something true. It mattered that the truth, as presented, suggested that you didn’t love people who disagreed.
Now, one solution could be to remove Statements of Faith from websites, but I honestly can’t expect that of churches. These things are way too close to our identities not to include them on our websites. It’d be like me removing my relationship status with my wife on Facebook; I just can’t do it. It’s too close to who I am. I would rather not have a Facebook account than have one that didn’t show my marriage.
I imagine many churches are the same way: you don’t want anything with your name on it not to express your core beliefs. I understand that, and I have no intention of asking churches to remove their Statements of Faith. But if they want to have a lasting and observable spiritual impact on their community, their Statements of Faith might have to change.
These people who are reading your Statement of Faith are looking for certain things; they are scouring your beliefs to answer some questions about who you are as a church. The problem is that nearly every Statement of Faith is answering questions that were never asked by the people who actually read them.
This whole time, you thought that your Statement of Faith was a theological tool to settle the questions of church identity and belief, to say who are you as a church and why you’re not the same as some other church. But it’s not really used that way, not at all.
With how outsiders are looking at church right now, Statements of Faith, for probably the first time ever, are evangelistic tools.
And churches absolutely must frame them to match that use. In a conversation with a non-believer or prospective attendee of your church, you would likely never use the phrase “perfect treasure of divine instruction” (Baptist Faith and Message, 2000) to describe the Bible or enter into a discussion of the definitions of the Trinity.
You wouldn’t discuss that because if you’re really trying to save this person, you’re going to answer THEIR questions, not YOUR questions.
The problem with most Statements of Faith is that they answer the church’s questions about what it means to be a church, but after they’re produced, the church never really look at them again. The main people looking at them are non-believers and prospective attendees, who have completely different questions than the church did when they wrote it.
Outsiders are poring through its words looking for small answers about the church as people, not big answers about the church as theologians. They want to know the answer to the most crucial question on their minds:
Question 4: Will these people love me, or won’t they?
You see, too many have been burned too many times by too many people, so they aren’t going to waste their time. Not when your website can help them safely weed out any threats to emotional damage that they can avoid. After all, they’ve had enough of that.
So when they ask their crucial question–Will these people love me, or won’t they?–and read your church’s section on marriage, for example, they will almost categorically believe you have answered No.
It doesn’t matter that you’re writing what you believe to be true. It doesn’t really matter if it is true. It doesn’t even matter if this person already fits the mold of what that section on marriage says.
Thanks to culture, education, media, and the church itself, they have (rightly) connected that this church will preach against homosexuality and divorce, which in their mind partially answers their question. Because now they think they’ve found someone that church won’t love. And if there can be someone the church doesn’t love, there could be anyone. It could be them. It doesn’t matter how gracious your segment on marriage is. Its mere existence risks this result.
And for what? To gain points on evangelical martyr day? To seem like you’re strong on truth when you’re really just putting up a fence on purpose?
Not that I blame you. Marriage is a big and important topic right now, and the Church is right to include itself in that discussion. But when people read our Statements of Faith, they aren’t asking us any questions about marriage. I know of no one (and neither do you) who came to a church because of its beliefs about marriage. They came to a church and stayed there because of relationships, because of truth, because of grace, because of life change, because of hope, and because of love.
People who are thinking about coming to your church are asking whether or not they will find those things there, and we’re answering back with sentences like, “The Holy Bible, and only the Bible, is the authoritative Word of God”.
It’s not that this answer about the Bible is bad; it’s that it doesn’t immediately address the question that’s being asked by its most immediate audience. It’s like someone asking who your favorite team is, and you said, “Football is the greatest sport of all time.” It doesn’t matter that you spoke truth. It matters that you didn’t answer the question.
And therein lies the problem. It’s not that your church’s beliefs are bad or false. It’s that no one outside the church (and really very few people inside it) asked the questions that the Statement of Faith attempts to answers. And because there’s such a gap between what is asked and what is answered, your Statement of Faith creates a conflict merely by existing.
It doesn’t matter that it’s true. It matters that you didn’t answer the questions that you were asked.
It’s like if your professor assigned you an essay on butterflies, and you wrote one on volcanoes. It wouldn’t matter one bit how good, accurate, thorough, and well-cited your volcano essay is because this is Biology class, not Geology class.