Asked why they don’t attend church, the most common response unchurched people give is simply: “Because I don’t feel welcome.” Unfortunately, churches can be very unwelcoming and not even realize it. Sometimes dozens of little details church people don’t even see subtly communicate to the unchurched that they don’t belong.
At Nativity, we have worked hard to change that perception, and we know we have to keep working at it because the gravitational pull will always be towards insiders. Through the cultivation of an irresistible environment for “Timonium Tim” (the quintessential unchurched person in our zip code) we keep growing our congregation both in numbers and in discipleship.
Here are three things we focus on:
- Get the people out of the pews.
“A non-serving Christian is a contradiction in terms,” as our friend Rick Warren likes to point out. We encourage every parishioner to serve in a ministry. Serving helps those who serve grow closer to Jesus Christ who himself “did not come to be served, but to serve.” (Mt 20:28). But a culture of service that is driven throughout the life of the parish changes the culture of the parish and is extremely attractive to newcomers.
- Make the details count.
It is difficult for churchpeople to appreciate how difficult it is for unchurched people to come back to church, especially if they’ve had bad experiences in the past. They need encouragement from the start.
After parking their car – our message starts at the parking lot – they are welcomed by our parking ministers, our greeters, staff members and host ministers. Before they even sit down, they have had perhaps 4 or 5 pleasant exchanges. During Mass we project the lyrics, prayers and responses on screens so the unchurched don’t feel excluded by a language they do not yet speak. We even broadcast the Liturgy of the Word into the Café, for those who are not yet ready to even cross the threshold of the sanctuary. Probably the most impactful thing we do is also the easiest: we greet the unchurched, we acknowledge their presence. Each week at the end of Mass we always say some form of: “If you’re a newcomer or visitor, if this is your first time back to church in a long time, or your first time ever, welcome, we’re glad you’re here.”
- Be a community.
The early Church successfully attracted people to their community because they were such an attractive community. “The word of God continued to spread, and the community of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly.” (Acts 6:7) The Greek word for community is koinonia, which means “community through participation”. The early Christians shared everything they had, enjoyed worshipping together, spent their free time in fellowship and were open to anybody who wanted to join them. That is what made the early Church attractive to outsiders. If your congregation is a joyful koinonia, first timers will be attracted and come back the next week.