The story begins in a familiar way—a very large and aging church building with a very small and aging church membership.
When I took my post as congregational development minister, I was given the task of bringing in more people who would consequently contribute more money, with the understanding that that’s what we needed to save the church. And this seemed obvious, because it was certainly not going to be able to sustain itself at its current membership or funding levels.
We made some changes to Sunday morning worship right away and put a little more effort into the planning of those services with the goal of creating the best worship experience we could. I also began to stand outside in front of the church before the service on Sunday mornings to welcome people and greet anyone passing by. I personally said hello to newcomers and tried to make them feel welcome. I encouraged members to invite friends to church.
I was doing everything I could think of to get more people to come to Sunday morning worship and trying as hard as I could to get them to return once they did. But it soon occurred to me that if only a quarter of the people who visited our church came back, we would be growing; maybe they weren’t coming back or weren’t coming in the first place because we didn’t have what they were looking for. So I took a break from thinking about trying to be more inviting, and I started to think more about what we were inviting them to.
This meant thinking about what we were there to do in the first place. We needed to think about our mission, about what church was and what church was for. My working definition of church is a place where we can become better people and build a better world together. This seems like something that people would almost universally appreciate. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? But I’ve often talked with people about Unitarian Universalism in a conversation that goes something like this:
People tell me that they don’t have any interest in church, and I say, “Our church is different. We don’t have a single doctrine. We think that there is some truth in all of the world’s faiths and philosophies and that people should be allowed to figure out for themselves what makes sense to them.”
They say something like, “Well, that’s what I think too.”
And I say, “We believe that everyone has inherent value and that we’re all connected. We should accept one another and encourage each other to grow.”
They say, “I totally agree!”
I say, “We come together as a community to support one another and live out our shared values.”
And they say, “That sounds awesome! Where do I sign up?!”
Then I say, “Great! Come to our big old building on Sunday morning to sing hymns and listen to a sermon.”
And they say, “Huh?” The look of excitement vanishes, immediately replaced with a look of disappointment because they had just become convinced that they had found something new and transformative to fill a very real need in their life, only to find that I was just talking about church after all.
We need to take a step back and distinguish between “church” and church. “Church” is candles and piano music and vestments and readings. Church is a community where people grow together and help each other create lives of meaning. “Church” is great if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s always been part of what we do, and it always will be, because it works for a lot of people. But church is what we’re really here for. “Church” is one way of doing church, but if it’s the only way, then we’re going to fail to reach a lot of people who don’t have any interest in “church” but are really longing for church and may not even know it.
We’re not in the business of getting people to sing hymns and listen to sermons. We’re in the business of transforming lives. And this is something that’s in demand. Many people want more meaning in their lives, want to make a difference in the world, and want to be part of a community that supports these endeavors. People genuinely desire this kind of community, but many don’t see any connection between this and a traditional Sunday morning church service. So why are we trying to squeeze everyone into that model?
When we realize that what we traditionally think of as “church” is only one way to carry out our mission, we can open our eyes to the opportunities we have to invite people into our community in new ways. Instead of trying to get more people to come to “church,” as in Sunday morning services, we can think about how to get more people to come to church, as in becoming part of a transformational community.
Once we were able to look at our church as a place for transformation, we started to look at what we had to offer beyond the Sunday service. The church had an enormous auditorium that was never filled for services, but musicians loved to play in it because of the excellent acoustics. We had an art gallery upstairs, and a dozen resident artists with studios throughout the building. We had a lunch program that served food to hungry people in our neighborhood six days a week. We also had other connections with the community that weren’t always apparent to people who visited on Sunday mornings. For example, we were part of an interfaith group that held informal discussions over lunch once a month, and we had a theater space that frequently hosted works with a social justice angle. Doing this spiritual audit allowed us to see that we had much more to offer than was obvious at first glance. We had a veritable buffet of different ways to feed the soul, and this was what we needed to invite people to.
So once we realized that we had all these assets, our invitation took a very different shape. We wanted to let people know about everything we had to offer without making them sit through a Sunday service, if that was going to be an obstacle for them. We started inviting people directly to the coffee hour after the Sunday service and made that hour a sort of open house and showcase of everything that was going on at church. We put art from the gallery on rotating display in the lobby. We invited musicians from the community to use the stage for an open jam or to promote their projects. Volunteers were able to simply show up and help out with serving lunch. We informed people about the various programs going on in the church at other times—an interfaith meditation group, a creative writing group, and so on. We also told them about events connected with the larger community around us, like a clean-up day at a nearby park, a social justice march, a street fair, and more. The idea was to create a sort of social gateway for personal growth and community connection of all kinds where people could find whatever we had to offer that might feed their soul.
And it worked! Slowly but surely, people who wouldn’t normally be interested in a Sunday morning church service began to come check us out. Some even stuck around. Ironically, a few decided to come early the following week to check out the worship service. The regulars tended to stay longer, too. More people came during the coffee hour than for the service, which helped us all build community together. The coffee hour became a social event for both members and newcomers where people could meet, experience community, and learn about all that we were doing in a way that was welcoming and specific to their needs.
What we ended up with didn’t look a whole lot different from our usual coffee hour. It was just a new and improved version—a little more vibrant, a little more welcoming, a little more deliberately connected with our larger mission, and consequently a little more like the Beloved Community that we strive for.
But it wasn’t magic, and it wasn’t perfect. I definitely learned a few things the hard way as I went along. First, it takes a team and the whole community to get on board. With a really small congregation, I thought I could just meet and greet all the newcomers myself, but that turned out not to be true. We needed a team of people who really understood the whole idea of welcoming others into the community in whatever way would speak to them. These aren’t the same brief conversations a good greeter might have with a newcomer. They require people who can go deep quickly and not only make others feel welcome but also help direct them toward whatever resources will help feed their soul. These people need to be something like a cross between a cocktail party host and a spiritual guide—someone who can really listen and make the connection between a person who wants to give back and an opportunity to volunteer in a meal program, or between a person who is looking for personal growth and a weekly meditation group, a person who needs connection and a small group ministry, and so on. It’s important to have as many of the ministries and opportunities as possible present so that people can find what speaks to them, but they will still need some help and guidance from a warm and knowledgeable guide; this isn’t a role that one person can take on alone.
There also needs to be a general welcome from the entire community, not just a small core of trained members. Early on in this experiment, someone showed up for coffee hour before the worship service had let out. As the visitor started to pour a cup of coffee, a longtime member told this visitor that coffee was for after the service and that they needed to wait. Not very welcoming! So it’s important to have a small group of people who are good, welcoming listeners and are well informed about all of the opportunities in the community. It’s also important to make sure that the whole church community knows that you are deliberately inviting people directly to the coffee hour. They are welcome guests.
We also created a Facebook page and a meet-up group to brand the coffee hour as its own weekly event and invited people to come and experience all we had to offer. This helped create the understanding that the coffee hour was an opportunity to invite people into our community and that it was more than an addition to the worship service. This little bit of marketing was valuable on its own, but it took more than that. You can invite people to an event with a little of everything, where they will find a community interested in helping them connect with whatever they need to feed their soul, but only a brave few will probably accept that invitation. We had a lot more success in getting new people through the door when we invited musicians to an open jam, artists to see a new exhibit, and volunteers to help feed people. Once they showed up, they could learn about everything else that was going on, but the idea of a one-stop shop for spiritual growth was just too general and too daunting for many. People need to have a much clearer and specific idea of what they are getting into before they take that first bold step into a building with strangers. They are much more likely to come when they know that there is something there that will speak to them.
You can probably do this in your community as well. The essential elements are a team clear on the overall concept and committed to supporting it; a spiritual audit of what the church has to offer people who are looking for community, connection, and greater meaning in their lives; an event at which to display those opportunities; and folks who help newcomers find their unique way to connect.
Your congregation will be an embodiment of your particular community, but some version of this effort could transfer to almost any congregation. What’s even more transferrable and ultimately more important is the process of getting in touch with your mission and asking yourself where your church’s assets meet the needs of those looking for a community. What obstacles might you inadvertently be putting in their way? What resources can you provide for people who want to have a fuller, more meaningful life? How can you invite them to be part of your community and connect with those resources? Think bigger or, rather, deeper about your mission and your offering. Because, as fewer people seem to be interested in “church,” their need for life-giving, transformative community is more relevant than ever. We have all that, and a cup of coffee.
Adapted with permission from Upcycle Your Congregation: Creative Ideas for Transforming Faith Communities, edited by Sarah Lammert (Skinner House, 2018).