Roots and Fruits: Why People Come (But Don’t Return) to Church
Pssst…you want to know a secret?
The number one reason people come to church? Friends. They know somebody. They have found community. They are liked and loved. And guess what? The number one reason people leave a church? Relational issues. They’ve been hurt by somebody. They are in a divided camp. They feel abused and alone.
In a recent blog I argued today’s church suffers from ecclesiastical sleep apnea and the only solution was to CPAP our programs with creative, participatory, affirming, personal experiences. Apnea happens when the brain isn’t getting oxygen and I argued that today’s churches are largely asphyxiating because the oxygen of AUTHENTIC COMMUNITY is lacking.
In reality, a church has to be “sticky” or attractional to retain guests, irregular members, regular attenders and the long-term faithful. The key, I believe, is to continually create environments that feed what I call the GROWLS or the six basic human needs: Grace, Relationship, Ownership, Worth, Laughter and Security. Jesus actually helps us understand both the process of attraction and retention in his parable of the soils (Mark 4:1-20). In this parable, Jesus outlines four types of soils: hard, shallow, thorn-infested and good. One of the missed ironies of this parable is the responsibility (and stupidity) of the sower. I mean, it’s slightly inane to throw seeds on concrete, right? Or in shallow, rocky soil? Or even among thistles? And yet, this sower did just that! Which is why I think we miss a major point: it’s the sower’s responsibility to prepare the ground. We break up the hard, deepen the shallow and pull the weeds. Otherwise tossing seeds on ill-prepared soil only produces negative results.
In reality, Jesus gives a beautiful progression for how a church can be attractional in its ministry environments so that it produces “stickiness” and eventual fruit. After all, no roots and there’ll be no fruits.
HARD GROUND: Guests/first timers. NEEDS: Security, Laughter. Let’s be brutally honest, guests tend to be the most critical and “hard” (even if they intentionally come) of all Sunday morning attenders. Their “feeling” radars are on full alert. They have hard heads (ignorance) and hearts (insolence). They want to be seen, but not spotlighted. They want information, but not too much. They want to fit in, but not stick out. In general, first timers and return guests (up to 3 times) need to feel secure in their experience at church. They need to understand what’s happening, where to go, when to do it.
Consequently, they need to be able to easily spot people with answers (I suggest a team of community coaches who all wear the same shirt and enthusiastic smile!). Information and directions to restrooms, classrooms, community areas and auditorium need to be clearly visible. But, more than security, guests want to have FUN (I know this is counter-intuitive, so hold on!). Essentially, guests who walk away with a feeling of pleasure (“I enjoyed going”) and security (“I understand what’s happening”) will likely return. This is why you need pleasurable points of connection or “freemiums.” My church distributes a complimentary, foldable bag (with information and a coffee bar coupon) to all guests (where I live you have to pay for bags at stores). Attractive and fun visuals are also helpful. Smiles create interest.
SHALLOW GROUND: Regular guests/irregular attenders. NEED: Relationship. The issue here is finding root. A healthy plant wants to root but the ground is shallow and it eventually dies. Regular guests and irregular attenders have a relational problem. They want to have friends at church but don’t. They want to fit in at church, but don’t. They want to belong, but don’t…so it’s so long…or I’ll come every now and then. This is why I believe churches need interactive moments in the worship experience today, particularly during the traditional sermon time. People used to go to church AND Sunday School. Church was passive but Sunday School more interactive. Few churches have Sunday Schools anymore and most adults attend only one service hour in a Sunday. Consequently, they often leave relationally anorexic.
Many churches like to incorporate the “meat and greet” moment to say they promote relationships but these “Hi” or “Good morning” handshakes fail to create friendships. Everyone knows you need to give TIME to relationships and few churches intentionally create space in their largest gathering (Sunday morning) for relationships to spark and grow. Part of the problem are the two people running the show: preachers and worship leaders (who can be selfish with their allotted time). It’s difficult to persuade a worship guy to cut a song or a preacher to shave 5-10 minutes so interactive moments can be employed! And yet, I really believe we lose most people at this point. Like the plant in this parable, they were interested but can’t find a REAL friend (rooting) at church.
It’s safe to say if the average church invested in creating an environment that’s enjoyable, informative and interactive, from their front door to their back door, in both the lobby and the auditorium, whether people are praying, singing or experiencing God’s Word, that they’d attract and retain a lot more people. In fact, I’d guarantee it.
NEXT TIME: How some of our programs fail to produce mature (empowered and equipped) disciples.