Easter approaches, and with it the customary mandate and encouragement: “Invite people to church.”
It is a good thing to invite people to church, certainly. I’ve been doing it since I was small. In elementary school I invited friends I had made because it seemed natural to do so and because our church had a lot of fun children’s activities; I didn’t realize, at the time, that I was engaging in a very basic form of evangelism. And as I grew, it was a practice I continued. I invited both churched friends and non-churched friends to church for many different reasons: to hang out, to give people some experience with the faith or to the Gospel, to fellowship, to work and learn together.
I was fortunate because my church was deeply engaged and also fairly small. When I invited people, everyone noticed. This was by and large a good thing, because it meant everyone was welcoming, everyone introduced themselves, and everyone remembered my guest’s name. The congregation was warm and receptive, and everyone who attended with me felt cared for and seemed to enjoy themselves – even those people who were not and never became Christians.
So when I hear believers encourage other believers to invite someone to church, I understand the urge. The theory is that if we can just get people in the door, we’ve already made it over the biggest hurdle: we’ve gotten them to Jesus, and now He can do the rest. There’s a sense that if people are receptive to the idea of attending church, then they might be receptive to the faith, as well.
But what we must not do is assume that inviting someone to church is enough.
In modern churches with large congregations, simply inviting someone to a service doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be welcomed – or, indeed, even noticed. It doesn’t guarantee that they’ll feel comfortable going to a small group or engaging in a church activity. It doesn’t even guarantee that they’ll come to the same service as you, or become a Christian. It doesn’t guarantee anything. When you invite someone to church and they accept, we would do well to understand that they have agreed to show up. And that’s it.
The rest is on us.
I think sometimes that “inviting someone to church” is so encouraged and so ideal precisely because we don’t think it takes a lot of effort. You invite someone and boom! You’re done. Except that you’re not. If you invite someone to church, then it’s your job to be there for them and with them. Your job to advocate for them. Your job to be the guide to this new place and community and culture you’ve invited them into.
What does this mean in practice? Well, if they’re going to attend a service, make sure you’re at that service. Sit with them. Introduce them to people, or to activities you think they’d enjoy. Don’t leave them on their own to figure it out unless they express the desire to do so. Explain anything about the service that they might not understand, and make sure that they don’t feel compelled to participate in things (like communion or tithing) that are really practices for congregants. Pay attention to their needs and questions, their curiosities, and what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable.
More than that, understand that “inviting someone to church” is not just an end, but a beginning. If someone comes to a service and doesn’t automatically emerge a newly-minted Christian, that’s just fine. Maybe this is the first step in a friendship with them. Maybe they want to know more about Christianity, but not at your church. Maybe they’re already Christians and they’re looking for a new church home. Maybe they just want to hang out and see what’s what. The only way you’re going to know is by cultivating a relationship with them that extends beyond the church doors, that requires effort and investment and time.
There’s nothing wrong with inviting people to church. Indeed, it’s a good way to bring people into our lives and into our experience and share Christ with them. But when we assume that inviting someone to church is the sum total of evangelical work, we’ve failed. The crux of evangelical work is, always, to serve others and in so serving to reveal the love of Christ to them and to show them who He is.
Inviting someone to church can be a step in that direction. But it can’t be the only one.