Back in the mid-1970s Bill Hybels set up a little church called Willow Creek, just outside Chicago. It quickly grew to 1000s thanks to its informal style and friendly welcome. They are still going in multiple locations in purpose-built venues all around the Chicago area. For a long time their Sunday services were all seeker events, clearly outlining the Christian message to newcomers. Members would have the chance to go deeper midweek. They weren’t the only ones. There are a number of good and successful informal mega-churches all over the USA.
The problem is that this style has been copied and copied without much thought of amending it given the changing social times of the last 40 years. According to this article on ChurchLeaders.com (which is short and worth a read), people still think you can show up with a bunch of people, put on a great worship experience and some good coffee and people will come. Perhaps they were generalising a little, and perhaps in some parts of the US where there are still a significant proportion of people with some Biblical/Church/Christian knowledge, this approach might still work. But in general, particularly in the UK, people think they know what church is offering so simple advertising will not work.
In May we started having a monthly gathering on a Sunday afternoon for our core team and anyone else who wanted to come. I was determined that this wouldn’t just be the church that we liked, so tried to make the service as user-friendly as possible, stripping away some traditional churchy things and adding in plenty of interaction and discussion. But I was also adamant that this wouldn’t just be a seeker service, with the gospel message presented but without much depth. It would be a place where we could engage in-depth with the topic of the week. Of course, we put together a little postcard of all that we were doing in the community, including the service, and delivered it through every door on the development so people knew it was happening. From this we maybe expected a couple of new-to-the-area Christians to come out of the woodwork. In the end nobody came to us through he leaflet drop (although I would say it was still good to get the message out there). However, to my surprise, we found ourselves welcoming some who weren’t previously church-goers at all, but these people had comet through relationships that had already been built.
But the key wasn’t in the discussions we had, the video clips or the informality of the service (although this probably helped). The key was in the relationships that we had formed in the community, outside of the monthly gathering. Our friends wanted to come.
We have a culture where natural community is hard to find, yet people, perhaps subconsciously, yearn for it. The Kingdom of God is about community so friendship is the natural place to start.
Those that came to us knew us or a member of our core team, were invited but not expected to come – our friendship wasn’t based on that, but some wanted to come, and when they came they enjoyed the community we were creating. We now have a small but tight group of regulars who are gradually becoming community to each other.
The key is simply in relationships – spending time with people, getting to know them, hearing their stories and making them welcome when they came. As we move to the next stage from start-up we need to remember to continue to cultivate relationships in our outside-of-Sunday activities.