why we stay, why we go

Why do some people choose one church and not another? Why do people decide to leave a church they’ve attended a long time? What is it about a church that attracts, and perhaps later repels, a Christian looking for a spiritual home? In my early days I would have answered the questions this way; analytical people join churches that connect to their values and more emotionally driven people join churches where they feel affirmed and cared for. But several things have poked holes in those theories. I have met countless women and men who could only be described as analytical, cerebral, and what they wanted more than anything was to be in a church that felt like family. And likewise I have met countless emotive people who will join or leave a church solely on the basis of that church’s stand on one specific issue.

Early on in my Ministry I would ask prospective members what they were looking for from church and then proceed to tell them what our church stood for and how the church makes each other feel special and loved. Missing from all of that was the way the church absorbed people into our community. And that turned out, in many cases, to be the most important piece in drawing the newcomer into the fold. Less that the ideology or theology of the church, less than the “friendliness” of the church, how persons are drawn into the circle, become part of the community, that seems key to whether they go elsewhere or stay and invest in this community of faith.

If people see their way into this community, if people can begin to be part of something, if they are welcome to participate in an organic community where they are offering what they bring to the table, the chances of a deep and lasting connection get better and better. Now to state the obvious if a church begins to express values that are antithetical to those of the newcomer no pathway to community is going to be able to compensate for that source of division. Likewise if the church is downright unwelcoming, telling people they can’t sit in that pew because it belongs to someone else, then the seeker is going to search elsewhere. These are given. But the underlying reality of churches and other non-profit groups is this, if you want to make a home for new people there has to be a way for those persons to feel connected to the existing community. The more gatherings where this new person is actively involved in being part of this community the more likely s/he will stay and thrive.

That does not mean I have stopped trying to insist upon a friendly and welcoming greeting at church or that I have stopped being transparent about the values of the church and how they can speak to those who walk in the door, but it does mean I have focused a lot more energy these days on getting the new person involved, right away. The minute someone tells me they like to sing is the minute s/he and I are standing new to the Ministry of Music asking when the next choir practice is. And lay people need to absorb this message too. All too often a small band of faithful volunteers have struggled for years doing one important task. The song they sing is familiar, “No one will help us, we are all alone.” But when I share with them all the new faces who are coming and how they could be approached not all of the familiar faces are as eager for new blood as you might expect. That has to change, these community-building experiences are crucial to remaining a vibrant place where new people feel a part of something. And they will likely stay until that feeling no longer remains. Community cannot be underestimated.