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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Questioning Our Questions

The question I hear most frequently asked in churches is:
  
How can we attract more people to our church?

This is a challenging question with no easy answer. But sometimes before we can get an answer, we need to probe the question itself. We need to “question our questions,” as Warren Berger puts it in his great book A More Beautiful Question.

What are we really asking when we say, “How can we attract more people?” What if we dug beneath the surface of that question by putting to it another question: “Why?” Like this:

Why do you want to attract more people?
            “Because there are fewer of us and we’re all getting older.”

Why does that matter?
            “We need people to do the work and support the programs.”

Why?
           
“Because if we don’t have enough people, eventually we’ll have to close.”

Why does that matter?
            “I’d be heartbroken. I really love this church.”

Maybe you’ve had that conversation in your church. The thing to notice about it is that the answers are mostly about the church. They mostly have to do with our desire to sustain something that matters to us.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t come to your church. How would this conversation sound to them? It begs another question: “Why would they come? Why should they come?”  

Could we ask that question in a different way? Could we ask it so that it has more to do with them and less to do with us? Could we start by asking “Who are these people we wish would come to our church?” Who is moving into all those new houses being built? Where have they come from? Where do they work? What are their lives like? What are their hopes and fears? What gives them joy? What do they struggle with? How could we get to know them? How could we build a relationship with them?

The number one reason why people come to a church is because someone they know invites them. It’s not catchy signs or websites or flyers dropped in their mailbox. It’s a relationship. So instead of focusing on what they can do for us, what if we focused on how we can get to know them, how we can show them we care about them as more than just potential givers or volunteers?

A different version of this question is: “Why don’t people come to church?” We think about
our kids and grandkids, our neighbors and co-workers, and wonder why so few of them make time for church.

Common answers to that question are:

Too busy.
Sunday sports.
Working weekends.
Overprogrammed kids.
Not committed.
They just don’t care.

But that sounds a lot like blaming them for not caring about something we care about. It makes their absence from church their problem.

Could we ask that question in a different way? Could we reframe it so that it has more to do with us than with them? Could we ask it in such a way that it would move us to look at how we can become more welcoming? To look at whether we are putting up barriers that might be keeping people away? Instead of saying, in effect, “What’s wrong with them that they’re not coming to church?” could we ask how we could strengthen our practices of hospitality, spirituality, worship, community, service?

We can’t control the choices people make about their lives. We can only create the conditions that will make our church a more inviting place to be.

When we ask about attracting people, we should think first about them – who they are, what they need, what are seeking.

And when we ask why they don’t come, we should think first about ourselves – what we could do to make it easier for people to come to church and inviting enough that they’ll want to come back.

Sometimes these questions seem like dead-ends. But maybe we could reframe the questions themselves so they open us to new possibilities.

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