Lately I’ve been thinking about similarities between churches and hair salons.
A woman in one of my former congregations was a hairdresser. She had co-op students from the local high school help her by washing customers’ hair. “It’s amazing,” she said. “If the girl is friendly and talks to the customers, they are always happier with their hair style. If the girl is unfriendly, they’re less satisfied”
I had a student minister at one of my churches. She said that when her internship was done, she was going to take a nail course. She had noticed that many older women lived alone, and often went days or weeks without anyone touching them. She thought it would enhance her ministry if she could do their nails.
Recently I went to get my hair cut. When I arrived, the young woman who cuts my hair said, “Sorry, I’m running a little behind.” As I waited, I listened to her talk patiently and kindly to the previous customer.
When I got in the chair, Phyllis said, “That is one really unhappy woman. She tries to find some meaning in her life by constantly changing her hair style. Because she’s so unhappy, she can be quite demanding. I see my role as more than coloring and styling her hair. I try to listen to her, to pay attention to her, and to gently talk her out of things that really aren’t going to look good.”
“Gee, Phyllis,” I said, “your job is like mine!”
Most churches say they need to reach out to new people. But they are genuinely puzzled by how to do that. “How do we find out what people out there in the community are thinking? What their needs are? What their lives are like?”
Which is ironic, because it involves doing things that most of us do every day. Talking. Asking questions. Listening. Making time for people. Find ways to touch them, either literally or metaphorically.
So why is it that something that happens so naturally at the hair salon – or the coffee shop, or across the back fence -- is so difficult for churches?
Why is it that churches say they no idea who even lives in the neighborhood around our church, much less knowing what are their needs and wants, their hopes and fears?
I think it has something to do with the underlying motive we start with. When a church says, “We need to get to know people in the community,” the unspoken conclusion to that sentence is, “so we can get them to come to church.”
Let’s be clear. Getting people to come to our churches is not a bad thing. Church is where we find belonging and friendship, joy and fulfillment. We want others to share that experience.
But nine out of ten people say that what brought them to a new church was that a) somebody asked them, and b) when they arrived they felt welcomed and cared for.
Conversely, people say they stopped going to church because they felt like nobody was really interested in them – or only interested in them for their time or their money.
It’s all about relationships. Before we can think about enticing people to come to church, we have to let them know that our first concern is them, not ourselves. We have to find ways to starting and sustaining relationships that aren’t simply a gimmick to get people to join in our activities and programs.
So, what if, instead of first thinking, “We have to get more people to come to our church,” we simply visualized Jesus sending us out to talk, to listen, to pay attention, to love?
What if we got to know our community by simply doing the kinds of things that our
If we are good at doing that, word will get around that our church is a place where people really care about you. We will create the conditions under which people might actually want to come and join us.