Pretty much every church leader I talk to says they long to reach their community. After all, the church is one of the only missions on the planet that exists for the sake of its non-members.
But there’s a strange tension to which leaders are often blind: as much as they say they want to reach outsiders, their services and the entire organization are geared toward insiders. As a result, when someone they’re trying to reach shows up, it’s easy for them to feel like they don’t fit in or like this church simply isn’t for them. And most leaders simply miss the signs that this is the case. So they scratch their heads and wonder why outsiders don’t flock toward their church.
The truth is there’s a gravitational pull inside almost every church to sacrifice the church’s mission by catering to the church’s members.
And while you can’t ignore the needs of your members, there’s a strange paradox that’s true about spiritual maturity: the best way to become spiritually mature is to stop focusing on your needs and begin focusing on Christ and others. Some church leaders drown in the sink-hole of trying to satisfy the escalating demands of their unpleasable members while they watch the real mission go up in flames.
Worse, others think they’re geared to outsiders when in reality, they’re not. At least not really. They’ve given in to the subtle but relentless pull of the needs of insiders.
With that in mind, here are 5 tell-tale signs your church is geared to insiders, not outsiders, despite your best intentions.
1. Long announcements
I know this is a weird one to start with, but really, how long are your announcements?
If they’re longer than 3 minutes, you’re probably geared toward insiders more than you realize.
The purpose of a welcome is to welcome people, not announce 18 things.
Churches often feel the tension of announcements as their church grows. If you have a church of 30, there’s probably not much going on. But if you’re a church of 300, you feel the pressure of everyone trying to get their message across.
What about really big churches, you ask? Well, you’ll likely never get to 3,000 if you don’t solve this problem first.
Why is this such a trap for smaller and mid-sized churches? Here’s why. Leaders feel torn, trying to please everyone, and so they cave to the ‘one more announcement’ syndrome because they fear the wrath of whoever they left out.
But think about it. If you’re coming to church for the first time, the last thing you want to hear is a long laundry list of things you’re not interested in. You want to meet Jesus, or at least learn more about him.
And if the welcome isn’t geared toward that, you’ve missed the opportunity to connect your first-time guest with their most important objective: what to do to take a next step in their journey.
And the answer to taking a next step is not to do 18 things. It’s to do one thing.
If you don’t know what that one thing is, you’re not geared to outsiders. You’re likely just catering to the needs and wants of insiders.
2. Trying to get everyone to do everything
All of this leads us to the second issue insider-focused churches struggle with in their bulletin and announcements: trying to get everyone to do everything.
I remember when our church was at this stage. We had about 400 or 500 attending and we were a program based church at the time.
Every group was fighting for new members, so the pressure was on to get people to join. The people who led each group were also convinced that their group was the best thing for people, so it deserved a prime spot. And if you left them out, they got mad because their program didn’t grow.
That creates this strange dynamic where you’re trying to get everyone who attends your church to do everything.
Look, people can’t do 20 things. They can probably do one thing, or maybe two.
And if you don’t tell new guests what the one thing is they need to do, guess what they’ll do? That’s right—nothing.
Ditto with asking regular attenders to a lot of things. If you ask people to do 20 things, most people will do nothing.
So—just to be clear— if you want most people at your church to do nothing, keep suggesting they do everything.
As we prepared to break the 500 mark, I actually led the church through a year-long rethink which led to us shutting down most of our ministries and our Wednesday night service so that we could focus on a few key strategic steps that led the greatest number of people (including new people) into spiritual growth: serving, giving, inviting friends and groups. And we run an orientation called Next for new people and invite them to take Starting Point before joining a group. The goal? To find a few strategic engagement points for people that would help them find faith and grow in their faith.
When it comes to leading people into transformation, simplicity is your friend.
If you want more on this, read Tony Morgan’s guest post about programs v. path, and this piece I wrote on why engagement is the new church attendance.
3. Saved seats
This is a small thing that’s actually a big thing. I was at a church last year where no one on the guest services team ushered me and my wife to our seats. We were just handed a bulletin and made our way down.
When I got a row that looked quite open, I headed in and asked the elderly woman a few seats in whether they empty seats were taken, she said “Not yet.”
I had no idea what she meant.
So I asked if I could sit a few over from her. She just looked at me, didn’t say a word and moved further away by two seats. Welcome to church.
Nothing says church is for insiders quite as loudly as ‘you can’t sit in my seat.’
Interestingly enough, her friends did show up halfway through the service one by one. None of them smiled at us…they just kind of brustled past and sat even further away.
No idea what that was about, but I doubt I’d go back if that was my first time.
You should train your guest services team to walk people into a seat and let them do the work of cheesing off your grumpy members.
4. Insider speak
Christians often talk weird—from the front and with each other.
Too often, we use unnecessarily strange language—like this:
“This is good coffee, brother.”
“Let’s fellowship together.”
Um, none of this is good. Why not just talk at church the way you talk at the office or at a football game or on a Saturday by the pool? (Actually, if you talk like that normally, you probably don’t get invited out too often.)
Here’s what’s actually at stake: if someone has to learn code to join your church, you likely won’t have many people joining your church.
Our challenge is to reduce the human barriers that keep people from Jesus, not to erect new ones.
And, no, being weird does not mean you’re being faithful. It just means you’re being weird.
5. Music That Lacks Guts
Many churches have made the move toward a more contemporary style of music. But most churches haven’t moved far enough. The reason? Fear.
Your church is too contemporary to make insiders happy, and your approach is still too dated, irrelevant and unengaging to capture the imagination of unchurched people. You’ve made as many changes as you think you can navigate without alienating your existing membership, but not brought about nearly enough change to really engage outsiders.
As a result, you are in no man’s land. In an attempt to please everyone, you have pleased no one.
A lot of leaders often compromise what they want to do because of fear of the backlash of their core members. So we convince ourselves we’re contemporary, even if we’re not. We’re just holding off the war over music as best we can.
If you think your church is contemporary, just check out the current Top 40. My guess? Your definition of what sounds contemporary and the the average 30-year-old unchurched’s person’s understanding of what sounds contemporary are world’s apart.
I’m not saying we need to sound exactly like today’s top 40, I’m just saying don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re culturally engaged when you’re nowhere near it.
If your church is still feeling the tension over music, here’s a piece that might help.
The problems facing church leaders are real, and while they’re not easy to address, they’re definitely solvable.
If you want a detailed account of changes churches need to make to reach the next generation, you may find my book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow helpful. You can get the book here.
In addition, I’ve created a video guide for the book that will take your entire leadership team through the book and help you create a strategic plan to help your church make the changes you need to make.
On the other hand, if your church is growing but having a hard time pushing through growth barriers (like I did as we pushed past 200, 500 and even 1,000 in attendance), Breaking 200 Without Breaking You can help.
Any Other Signs?
Any other signs you see that churches are geared for insiders?
Scroll down and leave a comment!