When I think of what it means to be a flourishing congregation, many images flood my mind. I think of a church that is growing, praying, on mission, united, and on the list goes.
The one aspect of being a flourishing church that has kept me intrigued over the past few months however, is how a flourishing congregation welcomes people to be part of their faith community. I am not talking about how a church transitions Christians disgruntled with their former church into new (down the block) pews/theatre seats/stacking chairs or whatever the church has chosen as their preferred seating option. I am talking about how flourishing congregations receive people who are exploring the very core and meaning of their life; their spiritual longings to know and be known by God.
I was recently part of a research project that studied churches in North America that were effective in transitioning the previously unchurched toward faith and church community life. As I spent time researching these churches there were a few common themes that surfaced. It seemed like when I talked to people who had recently transitioned into the Christian faith and community life, there were notable commonalities and shared experiences. Here are four things you should know about the people who are walking into your church for the first time:
They Are Afraid
If you ever wondered what the unchurched person is thinking as they drive onto your church property and pull open the door to your sacred space, you can summarize their emotions in one word, fear. People are terrified as they come through your doors. Church, as most of us realize, is one of the scariest places to enter. Although the unchurched may articulate it in different ways, they wonder if the people in the faith community will accept them.
They Are Navigating Major Life Experiences
People who are reaching out to the church are often reaching out because they are in the midst of a major life experience or transition. Relational stress, financial uncertainty, depression, addictions are but a few of the life experiences people are facing that push them toward reaching out to the church. They want help and the church is one of the places they reach out to for that help.
They Have A Longing To Fill the Empty Part of Their Soul
I recently sat with a group of people who had recently accepted Christ as their Savior. As each of them shared their stories of coming to faith, they all identified with each other’s declaration that there was something missing in their souls. Although they didn’t use the term, “God shaped vacuum”, they did describe it in a similar fashion.
They Have Already Had Christians Influence Them
As I have talked with people who were previously unchurched I was surprised as I talked with them about people in their lives who have connected them to the Christian faith. It seems like there is always a praying grandmother, aunt, or father who has shared spiritual truths of the Christian faith. When they step into your facility, it probably won’t be their first time at the rodeo and it should remind us of Paul’s words, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6 NIV).
The insights I have gained from studying the previously unchurched has changed the way I think of first time visitors to our church services. When I reach out and shake their hand for the first time, I think about what has brought them to our community of faith. I know they didn’t “just show up”, I know they have a story. By listening to peoples’ stories, it has helped shaped the way I see our front door ministries but, more importantly, it has shown me how to reach out and love those who are searching to find meaning and hope in their life.