Quite a few local people have started attending our Sunday gatherings. We haven’t actually invited any of them. Here’s why.
1. It’s too easy for us and too difficult for them. We set up a meeting that we feel totally comfortable and happy with, which is chock-full of our ‘church’ culture, but which is quite foreign and unfamiliar to our neighbours: a church service. Why would we make that meeting the thing we invite new friends to? There’s a lot of work to be done building bridges to our local communities. But if people would just come to church, we wouldn’t have to build them! We dream of establishing a connection with people on our terms, from the start, not on theirs. It’s not kind or thoughtful.
2. We too easily use it as a shallow substitute for sacrificial, loving friendship. Entering into people’s lives, getting to know them on their own turf, meeting them where they are, serving them – all of this is costly. Time consuming. Messy. Exhausting, even. Much easier if we can just get them to come to our meeting. Not much self-giving involved in that. We impose our agenda on the friendship, instead of learning about their agenda. That’s not true friendship.
3. It tends to short-circuit or trample on the work of the Spirit. God is at work in our neighbours, drawing them to Jesus. Often he is doing this through us, through the Christians they know. But there is a pace to this. People’s hearts are changing bit by bit. Their thinking about Jesus, about themselves, is in transition. This calls for patience and sensitivity. Where is this person at now? What change has happened? What are they ready to engage with? What do they need from us at this point? Instead of asking these questions, we apply a one-size-fits-all treatment to them: ‘Come to church!’ As though God was not at work here, and we could do what we liked.
4. We’re trying to dispel the impression that church is an event, that being a Christian is about showing up there. That’s a bad impression which people already have: a version of Christian discipleship that’s essentially non-relational. We want people to learn that being a Christian is about trusting Jesus and joining his new community. The Sunday gathering is only one (important) expression of that, and it certainly doesn’t have to be the first one. So we invite them to all kinds of community stuff, whatever is going to work for them, where they are at the time. We give them plenty of ways to get to know us, give people a taste of Christian community.
5. Most people bring themselves along to church – when they are ready. A bunch of our neighbours have begun to attend our Sunday gatherings over the past two years. None, to my knowledge, have come because we’ve invited them. They’ve invited themselves. That really helps, when they eventually do come. They aren’t there to please us, or because they want our friendship. They already have that! They’re not feeling pushed. They’re there because they wanted to come – and they know it. That really makes a difference in how people experience our Sunday gathering once they come. People tend to love it, because they’ve come with such a positive mindset.
6. We actually do invite people to church, just not usually to our Sunday service. We’re always inviting people to our church – maybe to our home, in a hospitality setting. Maybe to the park. Or to our playgroup. Or wherever. They get to meet our people and see us sharing our lives together in real ways, they get to join in with that, they see us pray together, they hear people chatting about Jesus, they learn about our plans to bless our neighbourhood in practical ways, maybe they get involved in that, and experience serving alongside us. As they show interest, we get someone to open the bible with them, talk and pray with them, whatever they are receptive to. By the time people come to our Sunday gathering, they are generally pretty much part of the church community already.
(To clarify, we don’t have any rule against inviting people to our Sunday gathering – it’s just we don’t find it a helpful or effective way to reach people, in most cases).