Across the ELCA, congregations are wondering how to better connect with people and find renewal and avenues to growth. But when asked, “What is the best thing about this place that you’d want new people to know?” members in almost every congregation say the same thing: “The people. These people are really nice people.”
With a significant majority of our congregations having weekly worship attendance of well under 100 people (and declining), this sentiment is understandable. In many of our settings, most of the people know most of the other people. It can easily feel like a family.
We are a church grounded in the gospel of a God who has come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. This God has lived, suffered and died with a costly love. That same God has been raised from the dead and returns with a persistent love. We are joined to Christ with a baptism that offers an abiding presence and promises we will never be apart from the God we meet in Jesus.
But when we’re asked the best thing about what it means to be part of our ministry, sadly the answer too often begins “We are .…”
There are two reasons why this is causing us trouble.
First, it isn’t true. Whenever we descend to being a social club, no matter how religious the veneer, we have ceased to live out of our identity as the church. The focus of life, especially as Lutherans understand it, is that God always goes first and initiates with love that creates, redeems and gives new life.
While we might respond with faith and life or with sin and death, the God of Jesus persists in the direction of life anyway. If the first thing we say about our church life isn’t God, we are already in the doghouse. Whenever we have become the point, however unintentionally, we have big issues to deal with.
Second, in our overloaded and busy lives, most people aren’t looking to spend more time with nice people anyway. Many people are inundated with relationships from work, caring for aging parents, their kids’ activities and other demands on their lives.
If that isn’t enough, many have hundreds of friends on social media — often including dozens they haven’t really met yet, and probably never will, or don’t remember “friending” in the first place.
Depending on social skills and abilities, online “friends” may be less problematic than actual face-to-face time with a living person whose body is present and eyes are actually looking at you. The last thing many people are looking for is the chance to not sleep in on Sundays in order to have a few more nice people in their lives.
So what’s the point?
If nice isn’t enough, or even the point, then what is?
Recent indicators from multiple sources point to the fact that people are less interested in church life than in previous eras, but their interest in their spiritual lives (God, meaning, purpose, etc.) remains quite high.
It isn’t that people have stopped believing that God might exist or that life might have meaning. Rather, because so many churches are filled with people being “nice” but who seem to not be all that interested in God when they get together, people have stopped looking to the church as a place to search for spiritual meaning.
While many in our society are “spiritual but not religious,” they perceive that people in the church are “religious but not spiritual.”
When someone who hasn’t participated in church life comes into a congregation, they usually are not looking to see if the people there would make good friends. Their underlying question isn’t “Are the people here nice?” but rather “Is God clearly a part of this place?” If the answer they perceive is “yes,” they then ask the next question: “Do the people seem to notice God’s presence here?”
Visitors want to know if this is a place where people have a vibrant and growing faith life. If so, they find hope that they, too, might find a vibrant and growing faith.
Once the God questions and the vibrant faith questions are answered, then people ask: “Are these people I would want to hang around with?” Here, being nice is helpful.
People want to journey with people who know God and are growing in faith, but who are also caring and loving in authentic ways. Relationships do matter. But nice is the third thing on the list — not the first.
Here’s a simple exercise to do in your congregation. With no prompts hinting at the right answer, ask people to write down the one thing they appreciate most about your congregation. Collect the answers and tally them. If they mostly write “The people here are nice” (or some similar phrase), then you have work to do. Leaders would do well to lift the results up explicitly and work to discuss and refocus congregational life to be consciously and explicitly centered in Christ.
If they mention the God they encounter in Jesus first, then celebrate and ask how to share this God with others and help people in their life’s journey with Jesus.
In the end, it’s fine to be nice. But nice is not enough.