Outsiders wonder what’s inside church
by Richard Hong
I used to live near a business that had an innocuous name – I forget what it was. There would usually be just a few cars parked outside. The windows had blinds covering them. I never figured out what it was. Was it a charming little restaurant? A shop for tasteful little knick-knacks? I didn’t know what it was – and I never bothered to find out. Maybe I missed something great. I’ll never know.
For many people today, the church is a similar mystery. They have little sense of what we do day-to-day or what it is like to belong to a church community. At most, they experience an occasional ritual (wedding, funeral, etc.) with us.
We know what church offers. We know how wonderful it can be to belong to a community of mutual support and care. We know the comfort of the Gospel. But we know it so well that we largely haven’t developed the skill of communicating this to the people who don’t know. We are also generally older than the people we are trying to reach.
The generational experience of church has changed dramatically. Church attendance peaked in the early 1960s. In the 1980s, younger adults had probably experienced Sunday School as children in the late 1950s, then rejected church in the late 1960s. In the 1980s, we were trying to win them back. A typical 30-something today – those younger adults with small children that every church wants to attract – isn’t coming back to church. They likely have never been churched. They are the children of the generation that rejected church. We are truly a mystery to them. They have lived their entire lives without church, and they’re okay with that. Of course, no generation is monolithic. There are churched millennials who were themselves raised in church.
But our future depends on reaching those very people who are unfamiliar with us.
Remember, the church is never more than one generation from extinction. Growing down generationally is even more important than growing wide. This means we have to restructure our messaging to the world. We need to revamp the copy we put on our websites and Facebook pages. The primary question people have is not “which church?” but “why church?” The answer to “why church?” is generally not doctrine. When a person comes across your website, the questions they have in their minds are often one step removed from “what time is your worship?” Before they need to know when and where your church meets, they need to decide whether they are going to visit.
I was recently leading a discussion of this in a class at my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary in NYC. Some of the questions the class thought might be going through the minds of website visitors are:
What will I get if I come?
Will I be comfortable?
How much (time/money/etc.) are you expecting from me?
The focus of your website should be answering the questions people have about church – and don’t make them hunt for the answer. Lay it right out there. The average visitor to a web site is there for less than 30 seconds, and half of all site visitors never go deeper than the first page they land on.
If you bury the answers, they won’t see them. Of course there are deeper theological issues involved, and faith is indeed about this life and the next. But if you want to meet people where they are at, start with a discussion of the here and now. Help them understand why they’ll be glad on Monday that they came to church on Sunday.
I believe the local church is the hope of the world. I believe people need what the Church has to offer. But I also believe that we need to adjust our practices to help people connect with what we do.
The Rev. Richard Hong is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Englewood, New Jersey. He is excited to be blogging about his passion for the church 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.