A few years ago, in a show of solidarity with my daughter, I reread the classic Little House on the Prairie books and Anne of Green Gables. One phenomenon I noticed this time around (probably because I’m in the habit of thinking about church leadership) was that the books’ churchgoing characters didn’t have to choose between churches of various sizes and stripes. They simply attended the church in town and enjoyed (or put up with) the teachings of Reverend So-and-So every Sunday.
My, how things have changed. Along with the constant and dizzying array of other choices we face every day, we have the luxury of choosing the church we like best. I know some small towns and villages in our country still have only one church. But in most of those cases, people live within driving distance of other communities and might choose to drive to one of them to attend another church. The situation is very different where I live–in some areas I can find a church on every block. And on a recent trip to the area around Fort Worth, Texas, I thought I saw at least two churches on every block.
Recently someone asked me for advice in finding a church, and I had a hard time helping. After all, there are so many options, and most of the differences are subtly detected–yet sometimes important. My input became so complex, I had to stop and just list some ideas.
Sometimes I wonder how people make sense of the selection and choose a church to attend. I have my own preferences and when moving to a new area, my husband and I usually have started with the comforts of our “home” denomination. But many churches downplay their denominational affiliation, if they have one. It actually can be hard to discover. And for people without the constraints of denominational preference–and especially those for whom church attendance is not a long-ingrained habit–how do they make a selection? I’m not sure how I would (apart from visiting every church in town and receiving some clear guidance from the Holy Spirit every week).
Some churches don’t seem all that concerned about this question, while for others it seems of primary concern. Some churches have learned to differentiate and market themselves smoothly; others try but stumble awkwardly. In both smooth and awkward attempts, churches often subtly put down other churches, implying that they’re the only ones who’ve finally gotten it right. (We’re the friendly church. We’re the fun ones. We’ll welcome you. You won’t feel judged here. We’re casual and nonthreatening. We serve the community.) I know what this communicates to me; I wonder what it says to people on the outside looking in.
In my view, many of these efforts to be attractive are actually quite unattractive.
So in their efforts to attract people, should churches differentiate themselves from one another? Can they highlight their attractive features somehow without implying that other churches are less attractive? Should they call attention to themselves at all? And if they should be promoting their individuality, what sorts of differentiation do you believe make sense to people who are looking for a church?
Maybe, as in so many areas of life, it all comes down to who you know. Perhaps the best way to help people find the church they’re longing for is to go outside and be the kind of person they want to be with.
What do you think?
This blog post first appeared here on Christianity Today’s GiftedForLeadership.com.
© 2012 Amy Simpson.