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Key to successful ministry: connect, not attract



Understanding ‘why’ before ‘what’

By Richard Hong | Presbyterians Today

Too often we hear about something that is successful for another church and, when we look into it, our immediate thought is “that won’t work here.” We often reject what it is before understanding why it works. Why it works is about inner connection, not surface trappings.

How should we analyze events? My analogy is to how chefs create a dish. There are only five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Chefs understand how to layer and balance these tastes.

One of my current favorite food-oriented documentaries is “Ugly Delicious” on Netflix, starring Chef David Chang of Momofuku in New York City. In one episode, he is eating a dish that has an extraordinary amount of fat. However, the chef had also added vinegar powder, and Chang remarks, “there’s enough acidity to balance the fat.” I didn’t know that, but now I’ll always remember that acidity balances fat.

What are people looking for?

In another episode, he is talking to Rene Redzepi, chef of Noma in Copenhagen, which had been named World’s Best Restaurant four times by Food & Wine magazine. Redzepi said, “I think increasingly when people go out they want something that’s more home cooking whereas maybe before it was people wanting something they don’t get at home.”

Then Chef Chang’s wife added: “That reminds me of when I had my first Noma dinner. It reminded me of something my mom used to make, and it was so homey, it was so unexpected. … I had no idea that I could feel this way about food.” They are understanding the emotional connection being made by their food. It’s deeper than flavor.

When you see a successful program or worship style elsewhere, the question isn’t whether you can replicate it; the question is whether you can understand how it touches people. Why does it work? What are people relating to? For example, you may see a worship service that employs techniques you would not or cannot use, whether it is a rock band, fog machines or dancing lights. But are people attracted to the lights — or to the energy level? Then ask, would your worship benefit from a higher energy level? Could you raise the energy in different ways? Replicate the connection, not the mechanics.

Churches touch emotions

Churches succeed through emotional connection. Just as there are only five tastes, there are only a handful of basic human emotional needs. People need a sense of belonging, a sense of hope and a sense of purpose. People need to feel loved and to feel reassured. We don’t all have the same needs at the same time, but we have the same needs some of the time. These needs also shift, and vary from person to person.

Understanding the emotional connection that is being made is the key to understanding why something works. Then you will be able to achieve a similar result in your congregation. When you look at your worship and your programming, what emotional touch points are you hitting — or missing? Are there multiple touch points, and are they balanced? Is there both high energy and space for contemplation? Is there a balance between comfort and challenge? Do people leave feeling inspired and hopeful?

People no longer feel an obligation to attend church. If they do, a void is being filled. People do not give up 20, 30, or even 50 Sunday mornings a year lightly. Churches that are attracting new adherents are connecting with them at a deeper level, and not all in the same way. When you understand how that connection is being made, you have a better chance of designing programs and worship services that will connect with people in your community.

Rev. Rich Hong

The Rev. Richard Hong is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Englewood, New Jersey. He regularly blogs for Presbyterians Today. Hong’s areas of interest are church technology, leadership and church growth. If there’s a particular topic you’d like to for him to address, contact him at

Read the Presbyterians Today blog here.

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