By Rev. Cathy Townley
Rev. Cathy Townley is lead church plant coach for the Minnesota Conference.
Invitation is how churches grow. An if-we-build-it-they-will-come approach does not work in our vastly unchurched culture in which church attendance is less than 17 percent on any given week in America. Church people must reach out to unchurched people to grow a church.
And therein lies the rub. Most of us good, committed, long-time church members are not exactly comfortable inviting people to participate in our churches. There are numerous reasons for that, the most difficult one being that those of us who have loved God and followed Christ all our lives have never had much experience not loving God and following Christ. For unchurched persons, it’s the opposite.
I heard a reference to this phenomenon in a church planter boot camp I attended with some Minnesota United Methodist church planters. We all related right away to the idea that we church people are under the dome. Just like the TV show of the same name, we have become cloistered in our way of thinking about church. We use insider language and jargon, and we don’t stop and realize that unchurched people have no clue what we’re talking about. They don’t get us, and we don’t get them.
And we’ve lost the art of conversation. We don’t ask leading questions of our hair stylist to get her to open up about her life. We don’t take the time to ask the barista how he’s doing today when we go there for the third time that week for our shot of espresso; we don’t offer to pray for him when he might falter. We don’t ask acquaintances at the dog park why they’re looking a little sad today as we sit next to them on the bench while our dogs play and run together. And we don’t know how to tell our own stories of faith in a short enough sound bite for people to hear some good news when God opens the door for it—and God does open that door when we dare to reach out.
When we start talking about real life with people, we start sharing God with them, and invitation follows. Of course it’s challenging. But God is leading the way, and God is definitely up to the task. All we need to do is follow God out of the dome!
Ideas for talking with people we encounter:
• Go to the same coffee shop, gas station, dog park, or gym at the same time each week to connect with the same workers there.
• Ask their name, write them a thank you note for their service, and ask if you can look them up on Facebook.
• Give them a card with your name on it and a brief description of what you do, with a tagline on the bottom that makes a spiritual connection—for example, “Hoping to be real about life and God.”
• If you’re a pastor, work on a lead-in line for when people ask you what you do—for example, “I’m a pastor trying to figure out how to do church in a way that would matter to people who mistrust organized religion.” Put your tagline on your business card.
• Practice your elevator testimony—that is, your story of how God has changed your life; the story must take less than one minute to tell, the time it takes to go from the ground floor to the top of a building in an elevator.
• Share your resources and ideas with others who want to “get out of the dome,” and hold each other accountable to making sure your language is relatable for unchurched persons.
• Ask others what they do for a living or what their hobbies are. Find out about their families, if they're married or partnered, if they have kids, what their kids like to do, etc. Make connections with your life, and tell them about your hobbies and family. Pray that God will lead the way to such connections!
A series of practical workshops for congregations of all sizes and locations will be offered this year through the Minnesota Conference and the Office of Congregational Development. We will be teaching about all the components of outreach, starting with prayer and getting to know your church’s neighborhood. Watch for a schedule coming up soon, and please plan to attend!
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church