I’m never surprised that some churches are not adding to their numbers. My beef is that we fail to tap into people’s real needs, to understand why they have bothered to turn up at our door, or to try to understand their spiritual search.
The cynical side of me sees the strangeness new arrivals can encounter in a typical church service. On arrival, we stuff a hymn book, a service book and a pew slip in their hands, plus a few loose sheets of paper about forthcoming events and volunteers needed for the rotas. The whole experience is now is starting to feel a bit like a trip to the library. They find some empty seats, only to be harrumphed at by a Mrs. Smithers who says she always sits there. And they have to move. Then the leaders appear in their robes and throw an unknown liturgy at them. Everyone seems to know when to stand and when to sit and when to utter the responses.
There is some relief for the newcomer when the end of the service and refreshments arrive. And then they stand around looking lost and feeling panicked whilst we gather round with our peer-group friends to catch up on last week’s gossip. But we do provide a tepid cup of instant coffee. And our expectation is for an instant Road to Emmaus experience for them. That’s not what the instant in instant coffee stands for. Their expectations have not been met at all.
Let’s all have a bit more empathy for the strangeness, the confusion and frustration that many newcomers feel when coming into contact with ‘organised religion.’ God is much bigger than the ceremony and we need to offer lots of other ways for them to meet God and to have their spiritual needs attended to, both during and after the service. Let’s face it, they didn’t come along for the free coffee and to admire our fine collection of ecclesiastical books and attire, they came looking for God. So we need to do a lot more creative thinking about reaching people’s spiritual sides and their immediate needs. Then we won’t be so surprised when they don’t come back next week.