Saturday, August 09, 2008

"Would it matter to anyone if I never came back?"

Yesterday the elder teen and I were discussing this question in the context of church. Some people feel that if one day they just stopped coming to church, it wouldn't matter to anyone else -- and they may be right. My daughter pointed out that someone's presence has to be noticeable in order to be missed when they're gone. This means they have to show up consistently -- and so do some others -- otherwise no one could possibly know when anyone else stops coming.

What else? Well, let me turn the question around: Who would I miss, and why? The preacher of course. The greeters and the ushers. Aha -- people with roles. That doesn't mean they have to have an actual job (paid or unpaid); I'd also miss people who don't have any "official" role -- people who know my name, or remember what I told them last week and ask about it, this sort of thing.

So, putting myself into the question of who hypothetically would miss me, here are some questions that come to mind:
  • Do I attend consistently?
  • What "job" or role do I have here? What team have I joined?
  • Who do I recognize and greet by name?
  • Whose concerns do I remember? Whose job or health or children or project have I asked about or prayed for?
  • In other words, who have I been a friend to?
If I contribute only money, if I don't have a role in anyone's life and haven't been a friend to anyone, then why on earth would anyone miss me if I quit showing up?

Let me now replace my "Republican" hat with a "Democratic" one.

Suppose "Robin" shows up a before the 9:30 service. What does Robin see? Everybody's rushing around, dropping their kids off or trying to get a good seat. Robin shrugs and goes in. After the 9:30 service? More rushing around, picking their kids up or dropping them off or trying to get a good seat for the 11:00 service. Robin tries a fellowship class, but it seems that people are either rushing around or focused on people they already know.

What happens next depends on Robin's external appearance, internal strength, or both. If Robin is physically attractive, wears the right kind of clothes, has no obvious quirks, and appears interesting and interested, people might initiate a conversation, invite Robin to lunch, or whatever. Otherwise Robin might feel shut out.

If Robin has enough inner strength, she or he might find someone in the room that seems to need a friend, and strike up a conversation there.

Well, isn't that the way it is at a cocktail party or singles' bar? Exactly the problem! If only the attractive and strong can "break in" to an existing group, where does that leave the rest of us? Doesn't that say that the church needs to change somehow?

I'm afraid it does, if we believe that the church should operate differently from a singles' bar. And that means each regular attender should make it a priority to welcome the newcomer. And not just "Hi, how are you doing, may the Lord bless you... NEXT!" But it's important that a lot of us reach out to the newcomer, and let some of them be our friends.
I'm not a big Steinbeck fan, but I think it might have been in Sweet Thursday that one of his characters is told, "Let people do things for you" -- so as not to be (seen as) aloof. This is an important way that we can honor people: if they want to pray for me, if they want to hear my story -- if they want to be a friend, then I ought to let them, at least sometimes. In other words, give them a chance to become important in my life so that I will miss them.
Of course we need to be willing to do that for them, too -- to pray for them and bear their burdens (as Paul tells us in Galatians 6), but if it's only one-sided then they'll start to miss us but nobody will miss them.

So for those of us wanting to facilitate growth and improve 'retention" -- we need to create an environment where people can become valuable to each other. We need to encourage and remind and prod our members to welcome the alien and the stranger. We need training -- but more than just training on skills; we need discipleship to help our members grow in Christlikeness.

And if I'm going to church and trying to break out of "permanent visitor" status, I've got to do those things above -- attend regularly and consistently, remember people's names, have real concern and show real concern for them, pray for them. Be their friend.

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