The Church Needs More Unchurched People!

by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill

I recently came across another startling statistic about the overall state of many local churches in our cultural moment. “Half of all churches in the United States have not added any new members to their ranks in the last two years.”* I had to read that line twice to make sure I got it. This is not a statistic about net new membership. Rather fifty percent of American congregations have not added any new members at all in over 100 consecutive Sundays! Thanks be to God, St. John the Divine is not in this category of local churches as we have been blessed with many new members as well as net growth over this same two-year span following a decade of membership decline.

Over these past two years, we have also been engaged in deep and prayerful discernment about God’s vision for our parish as we look to the future in uncertain and troubling times. What would we yearn to say about SJD at the end of this current decade? What will it look like to be a member here in 2030? What is the roadmap the Lord has laid before us to get there?

I am confident that at the center of God’s vision for us is more and more people will come to know and worship Jesus in joining our common life at SJD. We desire this not out some kind of competitive spirit with other local congregations (though I am familiar with this temptation). We desire it because this is simple obedience to our Lord’s call upon the church: that we would make and baptize new disciples (Matthew 28:17) and be a light to the world around us (Matthew 5:14). I am convicted that if this central gospel vision is to come to fruition, more and more of our members will need to be encouraged and equipped to invite their friends, colleagues, and neighbors to experience our fellowship and worship in Christ. We need to deepen our invitational culture.

How does one define an invitational church culture? I appreciate how Canadian church leader and researcher Rich Birch puts it. In his new book from which I cite the statistic above, Unlocking Your Church’s Invite Culture, Birch characterizes healthy local congregations this way: “The entire church community is thinking: Who can I build a relationship with and invite to a part of what is happening here?” Indeed, would that every single member of our parish had this question on their hearts all the time!

Certainly, there are strategic objectives that we will be pursuing to help us improve on inviting more people to SJD. Be on the lookout. Yet, if I have learned anything over the years of my parish ministry, it is the truth of the modern adage: “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We seek more than the development and execution of tactics, as important as they are. I am talking about a fundamental change in culture. It has been wryly noted for a long time how Episcopalians are notoriously leery of the word “evangelism.” This has got to change.

To be an evangelist for Christ in our context need not be scary or difficult. It begins simply by considering how and when to invite people you already know to join us in our journey together with Christ. My strong hunch is that more friends, colleagues, and neighbors will be receptive to joining you on a visit to St. John the Divine than you anticipate. And here is why I believe this is so - an anecdote that conforms to my blessed experience with you these past three years:
This past winter at the end of a long weekday, I was leaving the church to go home and encountered our lead architect, Jim Powell, who is helping us develop a much-needed master campus plan. Jim had just completed about 12 focus group meetings with parishioners that day. He was cheerful but clearly fatigued. I asked him how his conversations had gone, and he immediately responded, “Wow, your people love this church! I am not sure I have ever met members of a congregation who love their church more than yours do.”

I am so grateful that you all love this church! Consider how in other areas of life we so naturally share with others news of what we love such as recommending a favorite restaurant, a great new book, or a compelling television series. Let your love for SJD serve as the most powerful resource you already have to invite someone to come and see what our life in Christ is like.

It may be counterintuitive, but we will know we are living into God’s vision as a church if there are more and more unchurched people among us. As I so often share, many all around us do not have a life-changing relationship with Christ or know of God’s love and will for their lives. But they may be more open than we often assume. So let us “live wisely among those who are not believers, making the most of every opportunity” (Colossians 4:5).

SJD Campus

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