Carey Nieuwhof: “Churches that try to be all things to all people often end up being nothing to anyone.”
Church leaders do it all the time. Ask them who they’re trying to reach. Their answer? Everyone.
It sounds appropriate. I get that. What else are you going to say? After all, the Gospel is for everyone.
But that’s not the question. The question is who is your church designed to reach?
Is your church for everyone? Really? What if it’s not?
Now, here’s the promise. What if … the faster you get away from the idea that your church is for everyone, the more effective you will be as a church?
Consider this: You are currently reaching a segment of the population—not the entire population. I don’t know of a single church that has reached everybody.
The people you’re reaching probably represent a particular demographic. Even if it’s multi-ethnic, or multigenerational, you are likely reaching a segment of people within the broader demographic.
Your church has a style, feel and culture that attracts certain groups. In Western culture, people self-select based on what your organization has to offer, just like Walmart shoppers are different than Nordstrom shoppers.
In addition, the way you do church (a combination of your mission and vision, but even more importantly, your organizational culture and strategy) has an inevitable filtering effect:
Your music is going to attract some people and bother others. Your teaching style and content is going to connect better with some than others. The people who already make up your church are more likely to attract others like themselves; like attracts like.
Your location and even the architectural style of the building in which you gather (whether that’s a school, a theater, a gothic cathedral, a contemporary suburban megachurch, an A-frame ’50s landmark or a living room) make some feel at home while pushing others away.
Your leadership style is compelling to some people and not so much for others. I’m not saying this is the way it should be. I’m just saying this is simply true.
Now, don’t miss this: Far too many church leaders spend their time fighting these realities. Rather than cooperate with the way people naturally gather, too many leaders resist it.
I agree, there are times we need to fight that. A church with no cultural diversity in a culturally diverse city functions more like a club than a church. And a congregation with only the rich and no people on social assistance worries me. And some churches attract only insiders or an age demographic that makes the future impossible. When I began in ministry, we had mostly handfuls of people over 65 attending the churches in which I served. The future wasn’t bright, nor was the church effective in its mission.
In those cases (and some others) you need to change your culture to reach the broader culture. But still, are you going to reach everybody?
Now, here’s the promise in an otherwise disconcerting thought-stream: Your church should be open to everyone, but you will be best at reaching a particular someone. And that’s OK.
Instead of competing with that, why not cooperate with it? After all, your church is not the body of Christ. It is part of the body of Christ. Play your part. Can you imagine the pressure that will release? You will no longer have to be all things to all people.
Churches that try to be all things to all people often end up being nothing to anyone and lose their effectiveness in the process. Only a few manage to do more than a mediocre job in most areas. The seniors and the young adults and the kids and the teens and the empty nesters and the young marrieds and the singles and the blended families can’t all be equally important. They just can’t be.
Where I serve at Connexus, our vision is to be a church that unchurched people love to attend. As a result: We don’t try to please people who want a church for the already convinced. We’re not worried about reaching Christians who have no passion for friends and neighbors who aren’t in a relationship with Christ.
We don’t feel the pressure to offer 100 programs, and, in fact, often point people to community organizations or neighboring churches that do much better jobs in those areas. Sometimes, we encourge people to find their own way to meet those needs. We focus on the few things that will help us best accomplish our mission.
We feel free to design our Sunday service to create an experience unchurched people want to come back to.
We specifically target the feel of our services and culture to connect with a 30-year-old unchurched man, believing that if the man comes, so (gladly) will his family and friends (and often his parents, and sometimes even grandparents).
I realize this is contrary thinking for most people, but for us it’s resulted in reaching more unchurched people than we ever have before (or than many churches in our community and country), with 60 percent of our growth being from self-identified unchurched people. Which is, after all, kind of why we started the church in the first place. And maybe why you started or lead your church.
So … rethink this.
Is your church for everyone?
Or is the Gospel for everyone, and your church gets to play a part in that?