Hopeful Church

Stop telling them what you believe…

Tell them why you believe

by N. Graham Standish 

I was knee-deep into listening on the phone to a potential church visitor when I had a sudden insight: We keep telling people WHAT we believe. What we really need to do is tell them WHY we believe.

The man on the phone was thinking of leaving his present church and wanted to visit us. But first he wanted to make sure we believed the right things. He wasn’t happy with his new pastor’s preaching. It wasn’t orthodox enough. It wasn’t biblical enough. It wasn’t “Presbyterian” enough. Five minutes in I knew that we wouldn’t be orthodox or biblical or Presbyterian enough. We’d be worse.

He sounded so much like a character from one of my favorite jokes. Years ago, a man and his wife started their own religion. A reporter writing an article on it asked him, “Is it true that your religion teaches that only you and your wife are saved?”

“Yes!” he responded, “but lately I’m not so sure about my wife.”

By the end of our phone call, I don’t think my caller was sure about my or my church’s salvation.

Why we believe

Our churches often outline “what” we believe on our websites so people can know more about us, but is this what people are seeking? With the exception of those only seeking the like-minded, how much does anyone truly care about “what” we believe? In all the time I led a church, I don’t remember anyone ever saying to me, “I joined this church because I really, really wanted to learn Presbyterian beliefs.” Their reasons were more centered around their liking the preaching, the music, the sense of family and community, the classes and groups, and the fact that we were a church steeped in prayer and discernment.

They wanted to be in a church where they could experience God. Quite frankly, most didn’t pay much attention to what we believed. They cared much more about why we were in the church, and they hoped that they would experience God in the church much like others they had met.

My phone-call-insight led me to change a page on our website. We had a “What We Believe” page that outlined our theology. It looked like thousands of other similar mainline church website pages. We changed our page from what we believe to why we believe. Here’s what we wrote:

So… what do we believe? Telling you what we believe may help if you are looking for a church that only believes what you already believe. We think it’s more important to tell you WHY we believe:

  • We believe in God because we have experienced God in our lives. We are a community of people who’ve experienced God’s presence and love throughout our lives, and especially in our struggles. As a result, we’ve formed a deep a relationship with God.​
  • We are committed to being a church together because we’ve learned that we can’t just seek God on our own. We need companions who will help us as we struggle and seek. So, we pray, worship, serve, and live lives of faith with each other. We’ve gone through hard times, and in the depths of our difficulties we have found God many, many times in our midst.
  • We are grounded in a basic question that Jesus asked continually: God, what are you calling me to do?  We encourage people to seek God’s guiding voice throughout their lives because we believe God is everywhere, speaking and listening to us.

At the bottom of the page we added a “what” line for those who needed it: If you would still like more information about our denomination and tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA), click here.

What if we don’t know why?

If we don’t know why we believe, then perhaps we aren’t really emphasizing the experience of, and encounter with, God in our churches.

At my former church, we constantly tried to emphasize experiencing and encountering God throughout our church. It was expressed through how we worshipped, how we preached, how we structured our education programs and our small groups. Even our mission revolved around attempts to nurture the experience of God, leading to an encounter with God. Most of my sermons were on topics related to how we connect with God, hear God, respond to God and serve God. They were why sermons focusing on why we’re motivated to worship, learn, meet and serve.

Ultimately, with so many people who’ve walked away from church and declaring themselves to be “spiritual but not religious,” what’s clear is that they aren’t asking us to declare what we believe. If they were, they would have called themselves “theological but not religious.” They’re seeking an experience that leads to belief. When we tell them why we believe, we’re telling them about our experiences. And we’re inviting them to come and share in these experiences.

The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he also runs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program. He was pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, for 22 years (www.ngrahamstandish.org).