Getting New Church Members Is Like Dating

DatingFor you married folks, think back to your dating years. You may have rose-colored memories of being free and unencumbered (especially some of you guys out there), but take off those chintzy pink glasses for a minute and look again. Admit it. It was a messy time filled with losers, wannabes, some good people and your share of “what in the world was I thinking” moments. You had to figure out, sometimes the hard way, who your soul mate was and what it took find him or her.

For you single and dating people, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Laugh or cry.

For you contentedly single, i.e. non-dating, folks, just laugh.

With most churches, finding and keeping new people, especially those fabled young people, is near the top of our priority list. It’s really about relevance and survival. If we’re numerically growing, we’re on to something. We’re good. We’re cool. We’re making a difference. God is blessing us. The world could be crumbling and going to hell, but all is good with us, thank you very much.

But if we’re not growing or shrinking- and both are really the same thing- then we’ve lost it. We’ve gotta get cool again. We need more bells and whistles, better advertising campaigns, MUCH better preaching and music, have more events that will get people into our doors, and then… hope beyond hope that they’ll stay. Then we need to quickly encourage any new person to join and pay up. And once that happens, finally, happy days will be once more. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord and all that jazz.

Needless to say, this kind of approach for churches in numerical decline is doomed to fail. Even if it did work once upon a time, it doesn’t have any chance of working now. The only people who this might attract are Christian church shoppers who are surveying the greatest show in town. If you’re not it, they’ll pass you up every time. Sorry.

In my years of pastoring and playing the game of attracting new people, I have finally discovered that finding and keeping new people is like dating, especially if you want to attract the right people or attract anyone at all!

How does this work? Put on your imagination cap for a minute and place yourselves in a singles party. You’re looking around the room and maybe people are looking at you. After a while, you realize that there are really five different kinds of people. I’m going to make an analogous leap and say that these also describe five types of churches. Let’s see who they are.

Specimen #1: The Midlife Crisis Dater
Midlife CrisisYou see him across the room and shudder- a pot-bellied middle age guy with combed over hair sporting a tight-fitting Aeropostale shirt. With his belly hanging over some Levis jeans he’s wearing a gold watch and matching chain necklace with an iPhone 4 in his hand. He saunters over and says, “Hey baby, what’s shaking with you? Can I get your digits because I’m a ratings machine and you’re a perfect 10. LOL, wasn’t that awesome? It’s a hashtag I’m cool!”

Most obviously, this guy is trying to be something he’s not because he’s not confident or content with who he is. He feels like he’s lost the cool factor he thinks he once had, and he needs it back. He’s seen the movies where the George Clooneys and Tom Cruises put on the charm and get any girl they want. But that’s not life and it is most definitely is not him.

Many churches attempt this only for it to be a tragicomic disaster. They think if they can put together a band, play hip music, buy and use a bunch of technology, and just try as hard as they can to be “culturally relevant” they’ll make it. More often than not it comes across as pathetically corny. But most of all, it’s not authentic or sincere. It’s more about trying to be something they’re not to get people they’re not so they can feel relevant and grow again.

I’ve seen this play out many times. Much to my chagrin I confess that I tried to get churches to do this. Never again.

Specimen #2: I’m Sexy and I Know It
Gaudy WomanYou walk over to her and get up the nerve to say something. She’s really flashy, super confident and has all the moves. Yet what you’re seeing doesn’t quite match what she thinks she is. She glances you over and with a wink and smile says, “You. Yes, you. Walk yourself over here and buy me a drink.” So you walk over and sit down next to her. She turns to you and turns it all on. She tells story after story of the high profile men she’s dated, the places she’s been, and her big-paying uptown job. An hour passes, and you haven’t spoken ten words! Then you realize that it’s all about her and hardly any about you… minus one exception: how much attention you can pay her.

A number of churches are like this, too. You go to visit and you’re immediately given a glossy folder outlining all their classes, ministry groups, mission groups, prayer groups, upcoming sermon series, and the women’s club bake sales. Their members come to you all aglow about this activity and that ministry they want you to come to. They clearly want to wow you with their stuff and their toys and their goings on. Surely, they got all the church goodies you could ever need.

There’s one problem. They have no idea who you are or what you need because in reality it’s all about them and how they can woo you into their club.

Specimen #3: The Exclusive Chatty Groups
Group PartyYou see them gathered in a small circle laughing it up, talking non-stop, and enthralled with each other, so you walk over to see what’s up. They seem like great people. You get over to their group hoping that they’ll introduce themselves, ask for your name, ask you a little about yourself and invite you to join in.

Fifteen minutes later, no one has said boo to you. It’s like you’re a ghost. They don’t even see you. Finally, one person glances at you and waves a little, but no more. Clearly, they’re happy with each other but that’s about it.

Every church I’ve met- seriously, every single church– says they are a friendly church. They’re the nicest, sweetest people they can be. I’ve never heard a church tell me that they are a nasty hive of judgmental curmudgeons. They’re friendly, of course! Translation: we’re friendly and nice to each other.

I wish I could say this did not happen more often, but many times I would visit a church, see a group of people who are obviously quite happy in each other’s presence but don’t even pause to notice or speak to me. It’s like they don’t know what to do with me, or they simply don’t care.

There is a big difference between a “friendly church” and a truly hospitable church. Think on that one a bit.

Specimen #4: The Needy Dependent
lonely emo girlShe looks like Eeyore except her eyes never stop scanning the room. She’s kinda pretty so you walk on over. Delighted, she suddenly transforms before your eyes with a radiantly beaming smile, and she immediately engages you. It’s like you’re a cool drink in a barren desert. She wants to tell you everything, and wants to know your everything, too. She offers to buy you a drink and a snack. Flattered, you agree! “I am sooo glad we got to meet tonight. I think you’re the one person in this room I’ve been looking for, and now you’re here. I know it. I can see us together so perfectly. OMG, you are the man of my dreams. You complete me. Can I have your number?”

Suddenly you have to use the bathroom… downstairs at the end of the hall.

There are churches who are desperately lonely for new people, especially young people. They feel they need new, younger people to help them survive. So when a new person or a worse yet younger person ventures in, the church barrages them with, “It’s so wonderful to have you. Finally a new person! We really need someone like you to bring in more young people. I really do hope you come again. See you next Sunday, right?”

What do you think the chance of that person coming back is? Yup. You guessed it.

Specimen #5: The Happy and Fulfilled
After a long night of all the… interesting… people above, you finally see him.

He’s sitting with a few people casually talking. He looks cheerful and content. He’s no Brad Pitt, but he seems like a decent person. So you walk over to say hello, and wow… he doesn’t ignore you. He doesn’t try to soak you up like a dry sponge. He isn’t trying hard to impress you. He just is. He’s very open to talking with you and is interested in hearing what you have to say. He isn’t trying to flirt or make moves, but he’s genuinely glad to have your company.

As you both talk, you can tell he’s very happy with his life and where he is. He’s got good friends and a supportive family. He knows who he is and spends his time with anyone who wants to come along for the ride. You can tell he likes you, but it’s free and easy. After a while, you sense that he would treat anyone who made the time and effort in the same way. He just seems whole.

Church serving a free Christmas meal

Church serving a free Christmas meal

This is an ideal church, too and one who grows. They don’t sit around worrying about their numbers, anxiously trying to “fix the problem.” They don’t try to be who they’re not. They don’t try to impress people. They don’t smother new people. They just get on with being the church God has called them to be. They worship joyfully, expecting God to show up. They are always learning and growing. They enjoy each others company and willingly involve new people into who they are. They love to get out into their neighborhoods to bless people with Jesus in real, practical ways.

Are they the coolest, hippest group of people in town? Not at all. But they work hard at what they do. They believe that God is with them and that they are building Christ’s kingdom.They genuinely love God and people.

Yes, it’s that simple. Churches just need to get on with being the church, knowing who they are and what God has purposed them to be and do. Leave the dating game behind and God will grow the body of Christ in God’s way and in God’s time.


Filed under Church Culture and Leadership

5 Responses to Getting New Church Members Is Like Dating

  1. markwalt

    If you read and believe the polls, you’ll find that declining numbers is inevitable. Churches won’t go away completely, but in the coming decades, more and more will close up, leaving very few behind.
    There will probably always be church goers, but we will see in our lifetime (I think we’re about the same age) where the number of folks who have faith and the number of folks who don’t will hit equal numbers. In the United States right now, the faithful outnumber the faithless 80% to 20% (more or less). But an awful lot of those 80% aren’t entirely sure of their faith, and very few of them are young.
    The churches that survive, and there will be churches that survive, will be the ones that don’t try to recruit and play the dating game, as you so eloquently put it.
    The Archbishop of Centerbury thinks that Brittain may be a generation away from becoming an atheist country. I don’t think he’s quite right. I think there will always be believers. But atheists will certainly outnumber the faithful 100 years hence. It’s cultural evolution.
    Churches need to change with the times, if they wish to stick around, and be centers of community first and foremost, and centers of faith secondarily. I know that doesn’t exactly jibe with the mission of the church, which is to spread the word of God. But I think the church’s mission should change, and instead become one of spreading goodness and community and charity whether faith is part of that or not.
    God won’t mind. If He really does exist, He will appreciate the good being done, whether it’s in His name or not. And if He doesn’t exist, then you’ve still done good things and helped improve the lot of man on Earth.

  2. Hey Mark, I definitely agree that the largest growing religious demographic is unaffiliated. What I’m finding is an increased suspicion and dislike of religion, hence the common phrase, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” And a lot of it is our fault. We’ve taken a highly relational reality of a God made known through Jesus the Messiah and have packaged into a religious system. Thankfully, I’m beginning to see churches rethinking some of that.
    I definitely do see a rapid decline in congregational style churches, if that’s what you mean by church. Congregations are most definitely hardy communities. They’re not going to disappear entirely in our lifetime, but yes, they are shrinking in size and influence.
    But the church as a community of Christ’s disciples- that will never disappear. Admittedly, that’s a theological belief of mine, but in sociological terms, we’ll see communities of Jesus followers being more organically worked into the culture, meeting in homes and public places, largely lay led. In other words, they’ll be like they started in the first century.
    I don’t believe we need to abandon our message and just become a charity. That is simply unnecessary. But the changing demographics of our time will challenge congregations to adapt, as you say, or quit. But I’m convinced the message of Jesus will always have a hearing. I’ve seen it too many times to believe otherwise.
    Thanks as always, Mark. I thoroughly enjoy the time and thought you put into your comments. 🙂 They help me a lot.

  3. Ken

    Hi Pastor, I’m a converted Seventh Day Adventist and one of the things I like so much about my church is that it is what it is. It isn’t trying to be the hippest…and we sure aren’t lol. We sing old hymns and sit in pews. We say “Amen” together rather than clap. We greet each other by saying “happy Sabbath”. We are a friendly welcoming group, although my church is small in number. One of the things I like about being an Adventist (aside from my belief in our theological concepts) is that we aren’t like the world, we don’t change our music and have strobe lights and smoke coming up from behind the drum set (in fact, we don’t have a drum set!). I want my time at church to be something different than the rest of my life…and it is and that makes it a special time. Maybe that’s just me but that’s my two cents anyway.

    • Ken, that’s a wonderful attitude. You are who you are without trying to be something you’re not. While we can always do a better job speaking in the way people today understand and designing our ministry to meet the lives of the people we serve, we can never be fully culturally relevant. And that’s a good thing. The gospel is always counter-cultural and sometimes even counter-religious!
      Keep on keep on being Christ’s church, Ken. God bless and keep you always!

  4. Ken

    Btw, I also agree the church will always exist and I think our Adventist founder, Ellen G White, put it perfectly “We meet together to edify one another by an interchange of thoughts and feelings, to gather strength and light, and courage by becoming acquainted with one another’s hopes and aspirations; and by our earnest, heartfelt prayers, offered up in faith, we receive refreshment and vigor from the Source of our strength.” That need will never change…we will always seek each other and our God.

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