by Terry Wilhite
Can one die at a church social? While no diagnostic instruments were handy, I believe I just about flat-lined at a recent Sunday school affair. Last month, I described experiences relating to a recent move that put my family and me in the pursuit of a church, in a town where we knew no one. In our search for a church, we decided to accept an offer to attend a social function at the home of one of the members whose church we had visited. It was there-right there near the pigs-in-a-blanket and the seven layer salad-that I thought it might be time to check out. Unquestionably, the experience ranks as one of my most uncomfortable church moments, if not one of my most awkward experiences ever.
After briefly welcoming us, the host-the man of the house-abandoned us and there we were, my spouse and I talking with each other in a living room where we knew not a soul. As we gazed around, there were five or six huddles of both men and women and although they were only a few feet away, no one ever turned to acknowledge we were there. I was absolutely about to die inside. I have never been so alone in a crowd of people in all my life.
We did eventually find a table, but the conversation there was stilted and awkward. Then the most dreaded of all came. You guessed it! Game time. Now, not only were we alone, there we were on stage, with television cameras and bright lights-well, it felt that way-as we reenacted the newlywed game.
In our search for a church, we have also felt alone in a crowd in Sunday school and in a worship service for that matter. A pastor who read my previous article on this subject described to me these gatherings as "holy huddles." Why is it easier for us church folks to talk to a stranger at Wal-mart than it is to welcome a visitor at church?
You may be surprised by my response. Visitors aren't interested in measuring the ranks of your church pipe organ or in checking the lumens of your church video projector - nor do they really even care if you have one. They generally aren't even interested in whether you use the King James Version or the New Living Translation. They could care less whether your microphones are wired or wireless, whether you use choir robes or not or whether your communion bread is homemade or store bought.
What they are looking for is the affirmative answer to a single, solitary question: Can you help me where I hurt? Can you meet my most pressing needs? Do you really, Mr. Churchman and Mrs. Churchwoman, down deep inside, care about me? As I stated last time, the strongest message you convey to a visitor is not said. It is felt. The needs of your visitors will rarely have anything to do with church, as we have it conjured up in our minds.
On this night at the unsociable social, while we may have thought our pursuit was for a church, it really was not. We needed friends. More precisely, we needed somebody to love and accept us. My wife hit the point precisely when we got home. "I just needed to be with people because in my job, I'm alone all day." Her tears following this event proved that one can still be all alone in a crowd of people.
So how do we fix this? There's an old saying that has to be invoked here: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care! Church folks will only care as much as you care, Mr. Pastor. Is it time at your church that you "pressed pause" long enough to refocus yourself and your people to care? Caring is not an inherent ability. We'll only get visitors to stay when we teach church members-in 21st century terms-how Jesus cared. Most often He meet their physical needs first and in the process, people saw that His love, and as a result they joined Him in caring.
If this subject has interested you in the least, I recommend a book by my friend Yvonne Prehn, entitled, Church Marketing Made Easy. The term "marketing" as she uses it is simply about caring and meeting needs. See www.thelionsvoice.com for ordering information.