Tell Me What You Want (What You Really, Really Want)

–Daniel S. Ferguson

So there’s a weird part to talking to so many de-churched individuals. They all seem to still want church in many ways.

They just don’t call it church.

Holly wanted to form a community of like-souled people. Alex has been his own walking spiritual group for a decade. Taylor talks about standing side by side with other spiritual journeymen. Kristina is adamant that church won’t keep her away from God. Jenny still seeks God’s presence every day.

While I know that there are many who have left the church for good, there’s a surprising number of people who have left the church but still want key aspects of church in their life.

They even have specific requests.

I didn’t include it in her story, but Caroline wants solid liturgy in her church experience. Some emails I’ve gotten have mentioned stained glass specifically. Others want expository preaching. A lot of people said they wanted hymns. A de-churched relative of mine is adamant that all churches should have pews and not individual chairs.

My relative’s insistence comes with a fascinating explanation: chairs lead to separation; pews lead to integration.

Even though he’s probably permanently done with church, he still insists that church be a community, even if he’s no longer part of it.

His notion is like so many I’ve heard that I thought it was worth discussing the issue. So much of what I’ve heard about why people leave church forms an odd paradox:

So often, those who leave church don’t just want authenticity. They don’t just want tradition. They want BOTH.

There’s a certain comfort in tradition, along with the (often frail) hope of a renewed sense of the joy former believers had in their childhood faith. This is especially demonstrated in the dozens of parents I know who go to church only for their children’s sake and try to stay out of the way the rest of the time.

But they also want things to be real. My relative’s suggestion might have sounded traditional in form, but it also belies his real craving for authenticity. He doesn’t want to just talk about community. He wants to be a community, all the way down to the seating.

This paradox is hard for churches to live with. They really are trying to provide excellent environments. So many people told them that they wanted authenticity, so they tried to produce relevant elements that would satisfy that need. But now churches are being told that audiences, even de-churched audiences, want a certain element of tradition.

What a mess.

How do churches provide excellence to the fluctuating desires of the those they want to reach? It’s not hard: ASK them. (Click to Tweet)

The thing that keeps getting in church’s way is relying on data and consultants instead of relationships. I’m not saying don’t use consultants or data. I’m saying use them to help you contextualize what you learn from the real people around you.

Get all the data and consultants you can afford, but if you don’t connect that information to real people, it’s bupkis. (Click to Tweet)

So you’ve got to build relationships with the de-churched and ask them what they want.

But don’t just ask them what. Ask them why. My relative wants pews, and he’s not likely to get them. But it’s not really pews he wants. He wants a sense of physical connectivity to other people in the church community. He wants a natural sense of belonging. I’m not going to build pews into my church, but I can build belonging into my church.

Maybe the people who want stained glass don’t really want stained glass. Maybe they want a sense of wonder about God, and they lean on architecture to provide that. I’m not going to replace all my church’s windows. But I can definitely help to provide an environment that’s in awe of God’s wonder.

Maybe the people who want expository preaching don’t really want that. Maybe they want to hear the Bible like a story that happened to real people instead of as a disconnected set of truths that may or may not apply to them right now. I may not ever preach purely expositorily (it’s just not my style), but I can certainly help bring the Bible to life.

As for the growing number of people who left church but still want Christian community? That’s a different problem that I’ll discuss tomorrow.

But as for today, Christians, here’s some advice. Invite people to church. Your whole perspective of your church will change when you invite people.

You won’t care one bit what’s comfortable to you. You’ll care what’s comfortable to them. Inviters make the very best kinds of complaints about church elements because they’re not thinking in the abstract. It’s not data and consultants to them. It’s a real person with a real name with a real eternity on the line.

So invite some folk to church. Build relationships. Ask them what they want and why. And see what happens.

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