[Note: This post is in response to this article by Joe McKeever.]
I don’t live in a gated community, per say. I live in an apartment building surrounded by dormitories. Everyone knows where everyone lives. There are no exterior locks on the buildings. Anyone and everyone is welcome. I have neighbors that are Chinese, American, Polish, Ecuadorian, and Mongolian. I have neighbors that just turned 18 and neighbors that just turned 80. During July the streets are filled with visitors from all around the world. It is so packed that I sometimes can’t find a place to park in front of my own home.
I live in Yellowstone National Park. We don’t need to tell anyone about how great the Park is. There is already a global following. They’ve heard and they are literally coming here by the bus load. The hotels are fully booked before the park even opens up in the spring. There are so many people showing up that there are discussions going on about a possible lottery system to limit how many people can visit Yellowstone.
Why aren’t there busloads of people coming to the churches? Well, for some churches that is the case. For others, I don’t think the issue is a lack of outreach. It’s a lack of the basics. At some core level churches are becoming increasingly disconnected from what they should be trying to accomplish. Getting more followers for the sake of having more followers is not the mission.
“Marketing is leadership. If you do something that people want to follow, you connect people that want to be connected and they’ll follow a tribe. A group of people interested in accomplishing something. If you can lead a tribe then the marketing will take care of itself.” -Seth Godin
What we have in Yellowstone is authentic. The National Park Service has gone to great lengths to preserve the Yellowstone Ecosystem. What have churches done? They’ve hired youth ministers that prioritize Xbox and Pizza Parties. They have musicals and special programs and guest speakers. Great, but what are we trying to accomplish with those programs?
The problem is not that we have failed to tell the people. The problem is that the people were told, showed up, and realized it wasn’t for them. Why are 85% of young people leaving the church? It’s not that no one told them. People young and old have had an inauthentic experience with church. They want to accomplish something meaningful, but churches aren’t offering that.
Churches are also making a mistake by trying to get everyone in. Not everyone is ready for church. Not everyone is ready for your particular brand of church. What if we could say, “Hey, this is the church where we sell what we have and give to the poor. We’re volunteering on the weekends to help out at homeless shelter. We’re funding community education programs. We’re giving a lot and doing a lot, and if you aren’t okay with that then you aren’t going to fit in here. That’s okay. When you’re ready, come see us.”
Not everyone wants to come to Yellowstone, but they know what it is. It’s nature. It’s bears and bison and Old Faithful Geyser. When people show up it is exactly what they expected. It’s unique. It’s authentic.
I’m not saying chuches should be more exclusive. (Maybe I am?) I’m saying they’re trying to get everyone to come over and join their group without clarifying what it is they are trying to accomplish. I stopped going to church briefly in high school because I wanted to connect with other people who wanted to study the Bible. Instead, everyone played basketball or did goofy team building activities like we were at a corporate retreat for children.
Churches need to stop thinking about advertising (taking adds out in a paper?!). They need to think about what it is they are actually offering. What do they really want to accomplish? See Marketing v. Advertising.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47
If church looked like that then we wouldn’t have to worry about better outreach.