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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Newcomer Sheep

I've been having lots of conversations lately about healthy churches. People talk about church growth and try to analyze it. Religious leaders (pastors) want to see the attendance growing. They want to see newcomers stay and become members. It seems like a reasonable expectation to have in a church.

Unfortunately, many churches today, especially in metropolitan areas, suffer from a dilemma. They aren't "sticky." They watch newcomers come and go, so there is a constant churning of the church body, but little or no net growth in the number of people attending the church.

In one church I've been able to make some casual observations about the dilemma of the newcomers not staying and becoming members. One of those observations regarded how the rest of the people in the church respond to newcomers. Basically they are indifferent.

The church says they love newcomers. On the stage they extend a hearty welcome and express a sincere, "We're glad you're here!" But in one-on-one interactions, the people are indifferent. They're more focused on getting their kids to the right classroom, getting their coffee, signing up for the latest event, or just meeting their friends.

The worst people in the church (when it comes to responding to newcomers) are the ones who don't show up early enough to do anything before the service starts. They usually also exit the church during the closing song so they can get to the game, luncheon or whatever else is taking priority in their day. These people never even see the newcomers or know that they're there!

So I think the problem is that the sheep in these churches are acting like sheep. Let me explain. When I was in high school (in Ohio) I worked on a neighboring sheep farm. The farmer had more than 500 head of sheep. When he would go to the auction and buy more sheep, he would bring them into the pasture --- with the other 500 sheep. The other sheep would look nonchalantly and walk away, indifferent to the newcomer. It would be up to the newcomer to "break into the club," so to speak.

I think that is the problem with churches. New sheep (newcomers) walk in, and the sheep that are already there act rather indifferent about the whole thing. It's not that they're rude or anything. They just don't focus on the newcomer. If introduced, they may engage for a minute or two, but then will excuse themselves and move on. Like sheep. So you see, the problem is that people in our churches act like sheep. The challenge is to get them to act like Jesus instead!

I'm convinced that our churches will continue to struggle to be "sticky" to newcomers unless we find tangible ways to teach our people how to care. Maybe the people want to care about the newcomers, but they don't know how. It could feel awkward and they don't know what to say. Or maybe the people don't want to be inconvenienced by attending to the newcomers. Possibly the people just don't know how to engage the newcomers. More than likely, they think "someone else is doing that."

Have you ever looked into the face of sheep? That's exactly the look on the faces of people at church when newcomers show up! It's kind of a "whatever" look. If you or I were newcomers and were met with a sea of faces like that, do you think we'd be back?

You know, I don't think the people in our churches intend to act indifferently toward newcomers. In fact, if they were aware of it, I imagine they'd be pretty sorry. But the reality is that until the sheep learn to stop acting like sheep, newcomer sheep will not want to join them!

So for review, here's the deal. The sheep are so busy acting like sheep that they don't act like Jesus. Therefore, they aren't attractive to the other sheep (who are seeking Jesus). Any questions?

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