In every church group I’ve ever worked with in any capacity, there is always someone who raises the question of those who don’t attend. Sometimes the tone is quite militant and aggressive, but more frequently it’s sad and wistful. Often the speaker is coming from a place of deep affection for both the church and the “other person.” The community of faith is important to them, perhaps even central. They wonder how the other gets through life in the absence of the nurture, fellowship and support they have found in the gathered community. In the circles in which I travel, there’s generally no condemnation attached. The exception is only when “the other” seems to take the presence and services of the church for granted, when the members see themselves working endlessly to keep the location and ministries going. Sometimes the term “unchurched” is employed in a judgmental way, that carries a lot of freight up to and including eternal punishment! So, what about those who don’t attend? Can those inside the church understand them a little more clearly for everyone’s sake? How can folks like me – on the inside of the church – think more clearly and faithfully about our neighbours?
The first thing I have to declare on behalf of the nonattender is that, much of the time, it’s not about us (insiders)! What I mean is that, in Canada today, nonattendance does not require a decision against the church. In previous generations, where church attendance was the norm and enforced by a variety of social forces, deciding not to attend required some effort of will. The nonattender had to calculate the possible costs of their choice. Not so today. If anything, the commitment to prioritize church attendance may involve social and economic penalties. The insight from this realization is that, if someone’s nonattendance has nothing to do with church folk, then we need to be very careful about changes that are designed to overcome imagined problems. I’ve seen any number of situations where well-intentioned church folk, began programs or made changes to address imagined needs, only to have few results. Why – because the changes were addressing a non-existent issue. Do you feel guilty about not being in the mosque on Friday? Your local nonattender feels the same way about not being in church on Sunday.
I often hear folk use the language of getting people to “come back to church.” That phrase has at least two problems. It often overlooks the reality that if people left church they may have done so with very good and specific reasons. There’s some work to be done to identify and address those causes, and church folk are often reluctant to take those reasons seriously (or else get really defensive about them). More significantly, however, you can’t get people to “come back to” something they never knew. Many of the nonattenders you are concerned for may never have participated in church at all. Nor did their parents or grandparents. That church that you love so much is absolutely foreign and unknown territory. They are often intelligent but uneducated in the language and practices we may take for granted.
In a crisis, there are always people who will seek God and we want to be ready and willing to extend loving hospitality. Which is why I would never refuse to conduct a funeral, regardless of the status of the deceased or their family. Extending the hospitality of Christ is what we do – particularly in times of need. That’s its own reward, regardless of anything that might follow. But nonattenders are simply not all wandering around with big problems. So, if we’re waiting for that to be a spur, we’ll wait a long time. Some very successful people are quite happy in their lives without God. So, if we can only address crisis, we may miss many of them.
For a lot of very good reasons, they wonder about this “Christian” thing. I’m sure you’re aware of the many examples of “Christian” and “church” in society that you want nothing to do with! At least you have something to contrast those negative examples with. For many nonattenders it’s all lumped together under one label. So, establishing a different content for the very label “Christian” is a large hurdle. So, be clear about that. Don’t assume that any faith language you employ communicates useful content. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the nonattender is a nonbeliever. They might be deeply offended if you treat them that way. Spiritual but not religious is a real thing, not just an excuse.
Looking at the lives of self-identified church attenders is not always that pleasant for nonattenders. They don’t always see faith making a big difference in our daily behaviour. Every day you are a walking advertisement for the values you claim and people are watching. Hypocrisy is poison, genuine transparency is inviting. The flip side is equally true: a life of genuine Christian love and honesty is a powerful attracter.
Let’s assume they do start coming. Be ready for the fact that occasional attendance may equal regular participation in their minds. Folk live complicated lives. An increasing number may be required to work on Sunday. Shared custody arrangements may be a normal disruption for them. Single parents face their own barriers and challenges and may even imagine they will be unwelcome. In most places in Canada, the accepted norm is for Sunday to be open season for any number of community, cultural, social, and sporting events. The key for the genuinely hospitable church is to find ways for these folks to connect at their own level of participation. Remember that one size definitely doesn’t fit all. Some will jump right in, others won’t. Some will want to jump in the deep end, others will be testing the water for quite a while. Be welcoming to all.
If your congregation genuinely wants to be welcoming and connect with nonattenders you may have to have a hard conversation about “why?” Be honest. Do you genuinely care about them and want them to experience the good things you know from being part of a loving community of Christ or do you really want to get “new blood” to support you in doing what you already love to do? My skepticism arises from the significant number of times talk about attracting newcomers arises in the midst of a conversation about what a congregation lacks that newcomers can supply – generally energy or money. That’s dishonest and nonattenders can smell that coming a mile away. Either you care about people for their own sake or you are using them for your own ends. Genuinely welcomed newcomers bring change – are you up for that?
©2020 I Ross Bartlett