Radical Welcome: Why would people want to attend church?

I took a break last night from reading tweets about General Convention and went to a dinner party with neighbors. None of them are churchgoers. There was a young couple, a gay couple, a divorced woman. Some were “recovering” Roman Catholics. I asked at one point if any of them wanted to participate in church. Only one said yes, and he was primarily interested in the community created by a church. That got me thinking about evangelism, hospitality and the like. Of course, my mind turned back to what’s taking place at General Convention. Is any of it relevant, even potentially relevant, to the neighbors with whom I dined last night?

There’s a lively and passionate debate taking place about communion without baptism. I’ve blogged about it before and made my position quite clear. Supporters often put the practice in terms of hospitality and welcome. There’s an important theological conversation that is taking place. But radical hospitality and welcome is not just about what we do in our liturgy. It begins with our buildings and with our attitudes. What messages do we convey with our physical space?

What visitors see first (ranked in order of priority). #1 is women’s restrooms.

The Episcopal Church welcomes you, if you can find your way in. This is an excellent discussion about how our architecture deceives and misleads. What looks like the main entrance into the church is often unused or blocked.

Of course, there are other questions we should be asking about welcoming and hospitality. Often, the question is, “Why don’t people come to church?” And we ask it, not of those who don’t attend, but of those in our congregations. A better question might be, Why would you attend church?

The same is likely true for the unchurched. If you want to attract groups in your community, don’t immediately wave a survey in front of your congregation about what you believe will draw the unchurched into your community.  And don’t begin by investing in a program that tells you what people want and how to get them.  Instead, start by asking your neighbors, “Why don’t you attend?” Or, positively expressed, “Why would you attend church?”

By shifting from how to why, you will garner a more-honest assessment of what prevents people from attending. The answers may surprise you. They may not. But in either case, you will be able to design your outreach on solid information about the people you are trying to reach.


Rachel Held Evans tells us why she didn’t go to church last Sunday:

What I feel these days is not guilt, but something far more nefarious:  dull resignation. There are nearly 200 churches near my small, Southern town, and hundreds more if we make the long drive to Chattanooga, so the fact that I can’t seem to make it through a single service without questioning the existence of God says a lot more about me than it does about church, now doesn’t it?

Do I want a church that fits me, or a me that fits the church?

God makes sense to me under the trees, and God makes sense to me in poetry and prayer, and God makes sense to me in Eucharist and Baptism and community and even creeds…but not in the offering plate, not in the building campaign, not in the pastor-who-shall-not-be-questioned, not in the politics, not in the assumptions about what a good Christian girl ought to be.

What can we do to reach out to her, and to all those others who have given up in “dull resignation”?

2 thoughts on “Radical Welcome: Why would people want to attend church?

  1. McDonald’s puts a playground out front and gives my kids a toy with their meal. But then, McDonald’s wants to create a lifelong relationship with my kids and they know that my kids will evangelize me every time we pass by.

    Likewise soccer on Sunday mornings. Start with the children and they will bring their parents into a life long relationship with the organization. What could churches do better to create lifelong relationships with children?

  2. John has a point that is well taken. McDonald’s is also open for ‘at-will’ visits.

    But there are other reasons for church. And one the Episcopal church can take to heart is the fact that they are rationale human beings, who can live large without getting sucked into fundamental literalism. Seriously, the biggest problem I see out there as a teacher and mom is that people tell me that they ‘talk to God each day’. And the difficulty is that when you talk to God,, but don’t listen, it seems hollow. There is no one to bounce an idea off. The church could build on that…constant conversations.

    My thought is that the church building is for one who already feels welcomed. Many of the people who need Jesus need to feel they are WANTED in a church before they will ever cross the doorsill.

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