I finally got back to church this past Sunday.
I say “finally” because vacation plus the holiday schedule really wreaked havoc on our normal church attendance. Oh, I was in church the Sunday before last: I went to my old home church, where I grew up as a kid. And I was in my current church the week before that – but it was the Christmas service. And not long before that I was on vacation with my husband.
What I’m saying is that last Sunday was the first normal church service I’ve had in a while.
It was crowded, so my husband and I slipped into a seat a few spots back from where we usually settle. A few rows ahead of us, an older couple – our frequent ‘pew-mates’ – got up and actually walked back to say hi. “It’s been a while!” said the woman, and the man told us he was glad to see us back. We talked to them for a little bit about the hectic holiday schedule before they went back to their seats.
Another man, an usher, noticed us as he was walking up the aisle. “Hey, you two,” he said, clapping us on the shoulders, and I could sense he too had noticed that we were back from a minor absence. Another congregant told us she’d seen us at the Christmas Eve service but had been too far across the room to say hi; another kind family a row down from us waved and waved and waved until they caught our attention.
These tiny, seemingly insignificant moments are anchors: we know when you are here and when you aren’t. When you’re gone, we notice. Hi, and welcome back. We missed you. They keep our husband and I in place at this church; they keep us from feeling adrift, unnoticed, disregarded. At this church, we need not fear being strangers anew every time we show up at the door. We’re recognized by this congregation as people, and they have cobbled together a memory of us: they know where my husband works, they remember the funny shoes I wore three weeks ago, they revisit the old in-jokes.
This hasn’t always been my experience.
I have visited a church and then been visited by that church’s members later in the week and encouraged to “come by and stay for a service some time” – they were apparently canvassing the neighborhood and didn’t realize my husband and I had stopped in previously, despite the information card we’d filled out. At one point, my husband and I visited a church for five consecutive weeks only to find, each consecutive week, that we were treated like new guests who had never arrived before – again, in spite of filling out an information card. And recently at a local steakhouse a member of our previous church – which my husband and I had attended for years and been small group and ministry leaders at, and from which we have now been absent from for a year and a half – asked how we were enjoying the current sermon series.
I call it Christian float: when believers can float into a church and even do all the “right” things in it (become a member, “plug in” to small groups or activities, participate in ministry) and somehow never end up fundamentally connected to anyone in the congregation. When they can show up faithfully and then leave the church after a day, a month, or after two years and find the reaction is exactly the same: indifference or ignorance. No one notices when they show up, and no one seems to care when they leave.
What is it that causes Christian float? Lots of things. Big churches whose populations make it difficult to connect to other members regardless of how much you participate. The temptation by congregations to view visitors as a number or a set of characteristics or statistics than as a person. Constantly changing the pew or chair you sit in. Introversion. Shallow small groups and fellowship activities. Simple disinterest or preoccupation. Church-hopping.
A lot of people seem to think that the issue of Christian float can be fixed by getting people involved – to a small group, to a ministry, to something in the church. That’s why the constant urging from the pulpit for new members to “plug in” is familiar in congregations all across America. I think, sometimes, that works. Other times – and in my case – it doesn’t. I was plugged in to small groups and to ministries. I made friends and had phone numbers and emails. And somehow none of those things made a difference. Plugging into a group only works when the group cares, or when the group makes a concerted effort to keep Christian float at bay. Being in a small group that is indifferent to whether or not you show up and when is not much different than being in a congregation that does the same.
Moreover, asking people to “plug in” puts the onus on the newest and most inexperienced members of a congregation. It’s a strange sort of bargain: invest your time and energy in us, the church says, and in turn we will value you and care for you and pay attention to you. The problem is that the church ought to be valuing and caring for and paying attention to new visitors and members whether they invest in the church or not: the function of the church is to care and to serve, not to do so only when people have demonstrated sufficient interest in becoming involved.
In all honesty, I think we’ve made the answer to Christian float a lot more complicated than it needs to be. Faced with declining memberships and attendance, churches are coming up with all sorts of ways and means to keep people in the pews without realizing that doing so really only requires buy-in from a congregation, and a series of small, significant acts.
As my congregation indicates, Christian float can be easily fixed with what I call anchors: practices over time that let people know we see them as people, that we care about them as more than a face in the pew, and that whatever happens to them or wherever they go, their presence has registered with us in a meaningful way. So here are a few practical, simple tips to prevent Christian float for both visitors/new members and longtime congregation members:
If you are new or new-ish to a church:
- Strive to sit in roughly the same area each time you come. It’ll help people remember you better, and you’ll get to know those around you.
- Give it some time, and be forgiving if people need to ask you for your name more than once. It takes a while for people to remember new faces, and to get to know you.
- Fill out a contact card, if there is one. It’s a way of showing you were there and telling people who you are and why you’ve come. Otherwise, pastoral staff or people who want to reach out may not even know you were there.
- Reach out to individuals instead of large groups. It’s easier to establish relationships that way.
- If you’re comfortable with it, introduce yourself and ask for other people’s names. Write them down if you have to. And pay attention to minor details: do they have kids? Are they married? Do they have a little basketball hanging off their car keys? This will help you remember people and see them as other human beings with lives and interests of their own.
If you are a congregation member:
- Don’t zone out once you enter the sanctuary. Look actively around you and see who is new, who you recognize, and who you don’t. Try not to get so caught up talking with friends or “church busy-ness” that you don’t notice visitors.
- Pastoral or care staff: read and pay attention to what the contact or information cards say. Remember who has visited once, twice, or three times, and if they have prayer requests or have asked for any information or help. Don’t make the mistake, if you can help it, of sending form letters to the same person three times.
- If you see an unfamiliar face, simply say, “Hi! Either my memory is bad, or you’re new, and either way I need your name!” or something similar. Especially at large churches, there’s no sin in admitting that it’s easy to forget people. Write names down if need be so it doesn’t continue to happen. Better to talk to someone and get to know them than be embarrassed and never speak.
- Introduce yourself to those around you, if you haven’t before. Get to know a little about people. Use the fellowship time during worship to actually…fellowship. With new people.
- If you see someone new sitting alone, go sit with or near them (but ask first if it’s okay).
- Ask your pastoral staff for new/new-ish member info. Send them a card, an email, or a text – not a form letter, not one asking them to come back to church, not one giving them information (they’ll get plenty of that from the pastoral/care staff) but simply saying that you’re glad they came.
- If you’re an extrovert or you know some new folks who seem to be and if you can afford it, invite them to an after-church lunch. (Introverts will want nothing to do with this. That’s okay too.)
- Pay attention to patterns. If someone goes missing for more than two Sundays, ask after them – or check in with them if it’s possible. If they’re away for a while and then they come back, make note of it and say you’re glad to see them.
- Notice details about people as mentioned in the previous section. Really listen when they talk.
- Worry less about getting people through The Process (first visit, second visit, education, membership, “plugging in”) and more about getting to know who they are and what their lives are like
Doing just a few of these things can drastically reduce Christian float; it will help people feel like people and as though they matter in your congregation. It’s easier than you’d think, and it really only requires some heightening in care and awareness. I know it’s easy to want to “turn off” when you enter the sanctuary – to just kick back and listen to the preaching – but the danger of doing so if that we’ll never notice the people God is sending to our congregations.