Thursday, January 06, 2011

About Inviting Friends to Church

It is something I’ve observed several times: It is a Sunday morning and a person walks through the doors of our church for the first time. Just as the person is being warmly greeted by our greeting team, out of the corner of his eye he sees a familiar face. “Is that really you? I didn’t know you came to this church!” They are co-workers. They are old friends. They are next-door neighbors. “I never knew that you belonged to a church.”

This Sunday, January 9, 2011, will be our first “Bring a Friend to Church” Sunday of 2011. Of course, you are welcome to invite a friend, a co-worker, or a neighbor (or a complete stranger, for that matter) to come to church with you any Sunday, but this Sunday is just a particularly good one to bring a friend. The sermon will be especially designed to speak to those who are brand new to Unitarian Universalism and we will have other things happening for any friends you may bring.

It has been noted that we Unitarian Universalists are notoriously bad at inviting our friends to visit our churches. Some time ago I heard the claim thrown out that, on average, a Unitarian Universalist invites a friend to church once every twenty years. I have no idea how the person making that claim arrived at those figures. But, it does seem true that many of us don’t invite our friends to church despite the fact that personal invitation is the most effective way to introduce people to Unitarian Universalism is through personal invitation.

So, why don’t we invite our friends, co-workers, neighbors, and dog-groomers to come and visit? The answer is obvious: we don’t want to be like those people in those churches. Many of you have heard me tell the story of my very first day in Kansas in 2003. I had gone to a furniture store and, as I was leaving, an employee followed me out into the parking lot to invite me to visit her church. I politely thanked her and explained that I had moved to town to accept a position as the minister of a church. She was relentless. It takes a bit of chutzpah to try to evangelize a minister. And, none of us want to be like her.

I’m not asking you to be anything like her. Here is a different way of thinking about it. Over the last seven and a half years I have had dozens of friends and acquaintances come and visit on a Sunday morning. These are people I’ve met at social gatherings and at social action events. They are people alongside of whom I’ve volunteered. They’ve even been employees of restaurants and coffee shops I’ve patronized. Heck, one time a bartender came to visit our church! Most of these people weren’t looking for a church community. Some already had one of their own. Others were just not at a point in their life when they desired to join a church community. But, they were curious. In my case, they were curious about watching me lead a worship service and deliver a sermon. And, they were also curious about what UUism was all about. Maybe they just wanted to see me in my “natural habitat.”

When you invite someone to church what you are really doing is offering that person a chance to get to know you better. To get to know you better as a friend, as a co-worker, as a neighbor. The church is a part of your life. It is where you go for your soul to be fed, for your children to receive a religious education. It is where you go to be around like-minded folks. It is where you have your conscience stirred. It is where you go to feel at home. So, what you are doing when you invite someone to come to church with you is you are inviting them to experience what you experience in your spiritual home. It is an invitation to deepening relationship.

Unlike my experience of being evangelized in the furniture store parking lot, inviting a friend to church is not about recruitment or conversion. Last spring I was invited to and attended the Bar Mitzvah of the son of a friend of mine who served with me on the board of a community organization here in town. At the Bar Mitzvah I ran into a family from our church, also there sharing the faith community of our mutual friend. I deepened in my connection to my friend as I witnessed my friend practice her faith. I was deeply thankful for the invitation. It was a wonderful gift to receive. And, it is a gift that you can give.

I’ve found that the best way to share Unitarian Universalism is not with pamphlets or tracts or form letters. It is deeply personal. It is about sharing an important part of your life with someone you care about.

One of the most frequent things we hear from people when they come to a Unitarian Universalist Church is, “I wish I had know about this community years ago!” That sentiment resonates. And, sometimes they come through the door and catch, out of the corner of their eye, their next door neighbor and say, “We’ve lived next to each other for thirty years. I didn’t know you came to this church!”