Have you ever wondered why inviting people to church feels awkward? You are not alone.
When having meaningful, authentic conversations with non-Christians, it can feel very inauthentic to invite them to a church service that you may not even attend regularly anymore.
Back in 2014, Barna did a study that revealed the majority of Christians in America would not put attending church on their top-10 list of what helps people grow in their faith. Numerous other studies point out that there aren’t bluer skies ahead when it comes to church attendance. Just last year, we learned that during the height of the COVID pandemic, a third of practicing Christians weren’t regularly watching or attending a church service. And since emerging out of COVID, church attendance has dropped 20-30%. Inviting people to church will never be the priority when we can’t even bring ourselves to go, or even watch the service online.
So the question is: What do we invite non-Christians to if not a church service?
After years of being a pastor, starting The Doubters’ Club, and now planting churches across the nation, my answer to this question may surprise you: I think we need to stop inviting people to a church service so that we can start inviting them into real life. It really is impossible to try to do both at the same time. We need to shift the target entirely! Here are a few reasons why inviting the doubter, skeptic, and spiritually wounded to church is not a good idea:
1. Church culture is weird to a non-churchgoer.
By culture here, I mean the patterned way in which we do things:
- We dress up.
- We sing songs.
- We listen to a monologue from the stage.
- We eat crackers and drink juice.
- And then we go out to lunch.
I could add to the list the laying on of hands, spiritual gifts, and altar calls, but you get the point. To you and me, church is much more meaningful than an order of service. To your atheist neighbor, however, this is what they experience. The friend in your life who is not a Jesus follower probably enjoys the unscripted conversations you have with them. The unplanned drinks by the pool. The random acts of kindness when you see they are in need. The question is not, “How do I get them to church to hear about Jesus?” The question is, “How do I invite them into real life so they can experience Jesus through me?”
2. They don’t want what we have.
Six years ago I started an organization called The Doubters’ Club. The Doubters’ Club is co-moderated by a Christian and a non-Christian (usually an atheist) who model friendship and pursue truth with one another. The group votes on what they want to talk about, we adhere to some basic ground rules, and we connect around our uncertainties. Out of all the Doubters’ Clubs that exist around the world, one thing that we continue to hear is how important two components of the gatherings are: community and story. In fact, I think the starting place for any serious skeptic is at community and story, not community on Sundays.
Your friends are your friends because they trust you. And they trust you because you have lent them a listening ear when they needed it. Without an ulterior motive, by the way. Without trying to close the deal. If you follow Jesus, it’s probably safe to assume that everything your non-Christian friend wants in a life-giving friendship they can find in you. If that’s true, maybe it’s better to just wait until they express that they want church before you invite them. What if they never want to go to church? At least they get to experience the hands and feet of Jesus in their home when you are there!
3. Jesus didn’t do it.
I’m still looking for the story where Jesus invites Gentiles and Samaritans to the synagogue. If you’ve found it, just ignore this point.
The followers of Jesus initiated the largest movement in the history of the world, and they did it without an invite card. They helped their followers experience lasting spiritual growth and a robust life in Christ, all without a Next Steps class. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in going to church and the structured next steps that take place in the building. But in whatever way those work for some, they aren’t working for the skeptic and doubters of our day. And that is a growing number of people!
Jesus invited people into real life! Or, as in the case of Zacchaeus, He invited himself into theirs. Either way, the transformation that came in his followers’ lives was because they did life with Him. It is safe to assume that for the representatives of Christ on earth, His model of ministry is still the best way to influence and inspire people toward God. An invitation into real life, not a church service.
Let me be clear. I believe that people should go to church on Sunday mornings. That said, if bringing people with us is what we emphasize, we have missed the point entirely. I say all this as a former church planter whose outgoing texts on Saturday nights used to be “Hey! You should come to church with me tomorrow.” Now, my relationships with my neighbors and friends don’t have that agenda, and I have never felt closer to the people I’m doing life with. In fact, I don’t even push people to join me in The Doubters’ Club meetings. Many of these people are atheists and agnostics. One of them, Fred, lives across the street from me.
Fred and I get together with a bunch of guys fairly regularly to share stories, laugh together, and help one another grow. A few weeks ago we were talking in his driveway when he said,
“You know, Preston . . . I feel like the church misses it when it comes to real life.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. (Fred knows I’m a church guy.)
“I have been to many churches in my life. Not lately, of course. And it seems like they genuinely want you to be there. However, there is nothing for you after attending. Nothing that resembles real life, that is.” Fred chuckled as he thought about what he was going to say next. “I guess what I’m trying to say is, the church world just doesn’t always feel like real life. This! This right here is real life. This is what they are missing.”
“Thanks for doing life with me, Fred,” I responded.
Preston Ulmer is the founder and director of the Doubters’ Club, an organization that teaches Christians and atheists to model friendship and pursue truth together. Additionally, he serves as the director of network development for the Church Multiplication Network (CMN), the church planting arm of the Assemblies of God. Before joining CMN, he served in ministry for years as a youth pastor, young adult pastor and church planter. Preston has two master’s degrees, one in religion and one in divinity. His experience and education led him and his family to plant a church in Denver, CO, where he also founded the Doubters’ Club. Preston’s upcoming book, The Doubters’ Club: Good-Faith Conversations with Skeptics, Atheists, and the Spiritually Wounded, releases from NavPress in September 2021.