What’s the primary portal by which people enter into the life of a congregation, and thereby take their first steps toward life in Christ?
I heard a consultant describe how the answer to this question has changed over the years. From the 1910’s to 1950’s, Sunday School was the primary way new people stepped into congregations. Remember all those great black-and-white photos of classrooms and fellowship halls full of men, women, couples, or children? Attendance at Sunday School often far exceeded attendance at worship! Adult Classes often had teachers who were well-renowned and well-respected in their communities, some of whom taught for decades. People invited their friends to come and see. Adult Classes cultivated social relationships of support and learning. Often one’s best life-long friends were people we came to know in Sunday School. And some adult classes took on huge projects. In fact, many Methodist hospitals, children’s homes, women’s shelters, food banks, and mission stations trace their roots to an Adult Sunday School Class that felt called to change the world. Sunday School was once the primary portal by which newcomers entered into the life of the church and the life of faith.
Beginning in the 1970’s, worship became the primary portal by which new people came into churches and into faith. In response, congregations became more intentional in offering alternative venues and times for worship. Excellence in preaching and music became more important. More churches moved from volunteer music leaders to paid leaders, and styles of music began to diversify. Outward-focused congregations developed elaborate systems to welcome visitors, follow-up with them, and assimilate them into the life of the church. Guests visited because their Christian friends were so positive about worship that they invited them to come and see. Word of mouth about preaching or music spread through a community. The goal of many visitor follow-up processes was to move persons beyond merely attending worship into other small-group ministries of the church. Worship continues to be an absolutely critical ministry that requires our best and highest to reach and welcome people into the first steps of the spiritual journey.
But the consultant shared the observation that the primary portal today has become mission projects and service ministries. Many people who have no church background and who feel suspicious about organized religion nevertheless value spirituality, and they desire to make a positive difference in the lives of people around them. People who would never consider attending a Sunday School class or visiting a worship service gladly give up a Saturday to help serve the poor, rebuild homes, feed the hungry, help children, or assist with the homeless. Growing churches often have a signature hands-on service project that really makes a difference in their community, which becomes so irresistibly and unexpectedly appealing that people in the congregation can’t help but tell their friends to “come and see” what it’s like to make a difference!
People are searching for a viable, sustainable, meaningful way of life. They may not know what they believe about God at the earliest point in their exploration of the spiritual life, but they know that they want to exercise a greater intentionality toward becoming a person whose service, generosity, and large-heartedness make a lasting difference. A surprising number of people who experience a sense of belonging in a congregation and are offered opportunities to explore their spiritual lives through service and mission discover some months later that they really are beginning to follow Jesus in ways they never expected.
In the first chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus asks potential followers, “What are you looking for?” As their interest in Jesus’ life is piqued, Jesus invites them to join him with the simple words, “Come and see.” Through the remainder of the chapter, disciples invite others among their families and friends with the same phrase. What is happening in the ministry of our congregations that so energizes our spiritual lives that we want to tell others, “Come and see!”?
What’s the primary doorway for your congregation by which new people begin to explore the spiritual life? How do people enter into your congregation, and thereby begin to explore the life of faith? How did you enter, and what made the spiritual life compelling to you? Are the portals changing, and how are your ministries adapting to this reality?
Yours in Christ,