“Happy new year! Be sure to invite a friend to church next week!”
Those seem to be familiar words in church around this time of year and just about every time of year when resolutions are made, holidays approach, semesters start or seasons change.
I’ll never forget that time a number of years ago when that announcement was made from the pulpit at the end of a service, and I, a single twentysomething, noticed my own visceral reaction: I cringed. I didn’t mean to do so, but hearing those words hit me. Hard. The faces of my two housemates who didn’t go to church and had never placed their faith in Jesus flooded through my brain, and a wave of guilt cascaded over me. Crash.
I realized I really didn’t want to invite them to church.
And yes, I just happened to work there.
But why? Why the cringe, guilt and dismissal? Why do many of us feel that way now if Jesus’ first followers couldn’t wait to bring their brothers, co-workers, and friends to “come and see” what Jesus and the first century church was up to then? Why do many of us feel funny inviting anybody at all to “come and see?”
Some possible ideas and answers come to mind as I dig deep into my own experiences and conversations I’ve had with those in the churches I’ve served:
“My Worlds Would Collide.”
Compartmentalization is a lot cleaner, and inviting friends from work, a team or your apartment complex has the potential to blur everything and bleed religion into daily life. The folks who saw you in the office Thursday or saw what you were doing on Friday night might wonder why you act and talk totally different on Sunday morning.
In turn, your church friends might judge you for hanging out with this crowd. It’s easier, cleaner, and a lot more accepted if you keep your religious stuff in its own box and not let it interfere with the rest of your life or the other people in your life.
The problem with this assumption is that, actually, that’s what a relationship with God is all about: becoming more like Jesus in all things and places, with all people in life. After all, didn’t Jesus want us to break the box of religion so that it would bleed into all aspects of life?
“I Don’t Have All the Answers.”
What if you invite someone to church and they ask you about why you believe certain stuff and you have no clue? You might look stupid or, even worse, you might make your church look stupid.
But then again, the limits of your own knowledge could actually provide an open door, an inviting element for someone to see. It just might let them know that you, too, wrestle with questions about the Bible, why bad things happen, and the nature of free will, but not fully understanding it all doesn’t prevent you from following Jesus anyway.
“It Could Risk Our Relationship.”
You’re afraid that inviting a friend to church might communicate you think she’s messed up or that you don’t respect her beliefs as-is. Maybe your friend even said before that he’s a Christian but doesn’t go to church. If you invite him and he declines, that could make your relationship kind of weird.
That’s a fair concern, so it’s important that church not become the fulcrum of your friendship. Make it clear that your invitation is just that: an invitation. And who knows? Maybe the only thing preventing your friend from going is that she doesn’t want to go by herself. What if your relationship could have the possibility of going deeper than movies and complaining about work?
“It’s Too Foreign to Them.”
You know that the hymns and praise songs you sing about lamb’s blood and the Christianese you use are like a foreign language to your non-church-going friends. They don’t understand what Advent or Lent is, the robe the pastor wears reminds them of The Exorcist, and the prayers everyone knows remind them they are outsiders.
This is a valid concern, and it’s largely our fault for incorporating so many strange elements into our church communities. We need to help our churches understand the importance of teaching the reasons why we do what we do and say what we say. We need to remind the leadership of how things look and feel to new people and those outside the faith and what could be done to ease their discomfort or let them know what to expect. It might mean a drastic overhaul or maybe even starting a new or different gathering that you’d actually want to invite people to be a part of.
“It’s Not Relevant to Them.”
You know that sleeping in on a Sunday morning or going home to watch TV after a long day at work is more appealing to your friends than waking up for worship or joining a weeknight Bible study. When you’ve mentioned participating in church events, they show no interest—and no need. You know there are numerous times that you yourself have come home from church wondering what was even preached.
Where a church service’s easy application ends is where your stories begins, and that’s why it’s so important to not let a church do the heavy lifting in your friendships. Tell your story. Why is Christ important to you and your life? No matter how important it is to bring your friends to your church, it’s more important to bring church to your friends.
You’re not going to change someone’s attitude overnight—that’s God’s job—but you can show evidence of relevance in your relationship with God and with other people. Sometimes someone who finds relevance in something other than Jesus—community, encouragement, hope, serving others—will be the doorway that leads to Jesus.
“They Wouldn’t Belong.”
Because of their history, how they look, or where they’re from, people would stare at them. There’s a chance that if you’re involved in church ministry, you might be busy helping lead something and a friend might have to sit by himself. Alone. And you know that either nobody will talk to him or he’ll be drowned with questions and conversation from well-meaning people who don’t see too many young people.
We need to help our congregations become more hospitable, especially to young adults. Recruit some friends in the church to be intentionally looking out for and not overdoing the hellos with newcomers. Some churches need to be reminded of why they exist—and it’s not for the benefit of those already inside the club.
It’s estimated that 30 percent of the U.S. population works on Sunday, which is the day that over 90 percent of worship services are held. That’s even higher for young adults in some areas where service jobs and campuses abound. Plus, many people work late Saturday night and getting up first thing in the morning to gather with people they don’t know to worship a God they aren’t sure of just doesn’t make sense.
We need to reach our friends where they are—a gathering at a different time and/or place that is accessible to those working. What if instead of investing our invitations to church in 11 o’clock in the sanctuary on Sunday, we planned to go and be a church for people where they are, when they are—at the gym, coffee shop, playground, trail, bar, campus, etc.?
Admittedly, some of these gut-honest answers hit us in the heart, while others clash with the culture of our churches. When we cringe at the thought of inviting a friend to join us, the best idea is to stop dismissing and start adjusting—our attitude, our motivation, our presentation and our communication.
After all, if Jesus thought inviting others to follow Him was a good idea, it probably still is.
Kris Beckert started out as an environmental scientist but God had other plans. Now she serves as associate pastor at Real Life Chapel in Easton, MD, is an adjunct biology professor at Chesapeake College, and works as the Coordinator of Operations for Fresh Expressions U.S