Community matters. I’ve spent most of my professional career learning that the hard way. See, instead of trying to really cultivate a community, I spent most of my time trying to create an experience. The difference is simple: in a community, your presence is what matters. At an experience, it’s your absence that’s noticed.
Many churches function on the experience end of the spectrum. I don’t think they mean to be, but it’s what a lot of gurus have told them to do, and I can tell you this honestly – most churches are suckers for a good guru. Especially if their answers are as simple as “change the paint, change the music, see the growth”. The problem with being an experience focused church is that when you put so much emphasis on getting people to come try the experience, you automatically set yourself up to judge success by the numbers. You start counting. You notice empty seats. Soon enough, you care more about the people who aren’t there than you do the people who are.
Chances are you might belong to a church like this. You miss a Sunday and you get a phone call, an email, and maybe a text. Or a “missing you” card shows up in your mailbox on Tuesday. The message is clear: we missed you. And while it may seem like I’m splitting hairs, that message is a long way from we missed you.
Let me illustrate it another way by sharing my experience with a church greeter not too long ago. I was visiting the church on a Sunday morning, and while the atmosphere was a little traditional, it seemed friendly enough. Until I got to the greeter. She immediately grabbed my hand and welcomed me with a big smile. She asked my name. She asked if I were married. Did I have children. Did I attend church anywhere regularly. Would I like to fill out the visitors information card. My name again. Where would I like to sit. Did I say I attended church somewhere. Glad to have you. Hope you have a fantastic day and decide to come back again soon.
All of that before I even sat down.
Now, that’s straight out of the greeter’s handbook. It’s Hospitality 101, I suppose. And to many people, it would seem like simple kindness and good manners. To me, it smacked of desperation. The questions were pro forma; they weren’t asked to get to know me, they were asked to make me feel comfortable. The emphasis wasn’t on welcoming me to the community, it was on making me comfortable in the experience. That impression was reinforced as dozens of other church members welcomed me in the sanctuary, all asking similar questions, none really caring to hear the answers.
How do I know that no one cared about my answers? Easy: with the exception of one man, not a single person looked me in the eye while talking to me. Every single person, with the one exception, looked over me, past me, through me, as if waiting for the polite moment to disengage and move on. I didn’t matter, as long as I was present.
(Side note: the one guy who did make eye contact was clearly the alpha dog among the membership, and his eye contact was to establish dominance.)
Now, do I believe for a second that this church wanted to create this impression? NO. A whole-hearted NO. An emphatic NO. I believe they were striving to create a sense of welcoming, a community atmosphere where new folks could feel at home. But before I’d even experienced a service within their community they were already afraid of my absence and were working to prevent it. And what that subtly communicates is this: we know you’re not really going to like it here, so we’re trying to give you some reason to return.
Now, contrast that to the church I’ve been attending regularly. It’s a massive, modern, contemporary church. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it reveres the Word of God. They have free coffee in the lobby, greeters at every door, ushers at every aisle, and they offer you a high-five or a handshake on your way in. They rarely ask you questions, and when they do, it’s usually to see if you need assistance. Everything they do is centered on one thing: making sure you enjoy that service.
They don’t seem desperate. They don’t pressure you for your life’s story. They don’t worry if you’re going to come back before you’ve even been. They just worry about the service and making sure it’s done with excellence.
To me, they create a community. Everyone is focused on the service and the people attending it. There’s zero focus on the people who are missing. There’s no worry about making sure they know they were missed – everyone is too busy paying attention to the folks who came. Funny thing – when you focus on those present, they’re less likely to be absent.
By allowing me to enjoy the service, I automatically enter into the community because I become one of them. I’m not separated by my newness. I’m not targeted because of my assumed future absence. By focusing on the task at hand – worshiping God with excellence – the church creates an atmosphere that makes me want to belong, which in turn makes me want to come back. And I have been; I’ve missed one Sunday in three and a half months.
A community is different from an experience. It’s a mindset that requires people to focus on the true purpose of worship – to enter into presence of God as one. That focus, to bring people together as one in order to bring God glory, means that nothing goes unnoticed. People are treated well. Things are done with excellence. The environment is conducive to worship. All of those things come about as the result of setting community as the goal. Too often, the science comes first. And often it back fires.
What about you: is your church an experience church or a community church?