Two years ago, my brother-in-law in the Pacific Northwest died. His wife, my sister, and family did not have any church affiliation. I called the nearest church of my denomination, and we were told we could use the church facilities for the memorial service and luncheon.
I stayed with my sister for a month, and each Sunday we attended church. Then I flew back to the Midwest for a while. My sister, a new widow, did not attend the church while I was in the Midwest, and no one called her. Four months later, seven years after my own husband’s death, I moved from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest. After 55 years of serving in churches, I thought I would be accepted and loved into any body of believers. After attending for four Sundays, I thought someone besides the pastor might know me, but this was not so. Still, the pastor’s messages were biblically based, and the church is only 15 minutes from where my sister and I live. If I wanted to keep my sister attending services with me, I figured I had better stay put in the nearest church. Still, I felt lost in the midst of a busy congregation with many youth ministry programs. For over a year I asked my friends across many states this question, “How do you break into a church?”
My single friend served on staff in a mega church in Hawaii, but now lives in the Midwest. She said one Sunday she arrived at a large church where the pews looked full.
“An usher stood on the other side of the doorway,” she said. “He never looked my way. Halfway through the service, I sat on the oor to listen to the message. Only the pastor spoke to me after service.”
Rebecca said of her church experience: “I’m not shy, but after a couple Sundays in a new church where no one spoke to me, I stopped going back.” She said she filled out a visitor’s card, but no one contacted her. “If I didn’t think I needed Christian fellowship,” she said. “I would stay home and watch TV.”
Eleven years ago, doctors told my friend Donna she had six months to live. Forced to move, she searched for a new church. “So, where do I nd a church for mis ts?” Donna asked. “As a single divorced woman, now retired and who wears her illness outwardly, I am indeed a misfit. No one sees me. They see my oxygen and my walker, and they assume they know my story. But nobody bothers to ask. I am a misfit, but I am not invisible to God.”
In larger churches with a staff, people are sometimes assigned to follow up with new attendees. What about members, though? Kathy shared how she served on a ministry team for 18 years of the 25 her family were members of a church. Yet when she and her husband divorced, not one of the seven pastoral sta ever contacted her.
“Not even my Christian sisters came to see me,” Kathy said. “It’s been four years. I pay my tithe, but now I watch the services online. I can’t stand the pain of realizing that no one cares if I show up or not.”
As for me, my husband and I met and married in a church. After wavering in our faith for a few years, we searched for a church in our new community. We were young and needed guidance. The greeters reached out to us that day and in the weeks to come. My husband became a minister. After his retirement, we stayed active in the church. And then he died. Our church families, along with our children, surrounded me. I felt loved and protected until at age 76, I retired from my job and moved from the Midwest to the Northwest. Why is it so difficult to break into a church?
For five weeks, Karen and I attended worship service. In the sixth week, I walked into the adult Sunday school class. To my dismay, no one in the class recognized me.
It is now eighteen months later. Karen and I are still attending the same church. Why? The reason is that God put me here on purpose. John 15:16 says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.”
While it is true anyone can stream worship music and a solid, biblically based message, I see my sister changing by being in this body of believers. People like me and my widowed sister need Christian fellowship. How do we fix the brokenness of our church outreach? The answer: One person at a time.
I began to ask what I could do to help others who had trouble adjusting to a new church. I sent notes to people on the prayer list from the bulletin. I call the widowed like me. Here is the good news: After I expressed my feeling lost in a Sunday school class, two senior families decided to begin “The Senior Saints” lunches once a month. The pastor and board agreed. At the end of the first luncheon, one of the wives asked if I would pray. Instead of prayer, I invited these senior adults to sing the doxology. The next month I received a phone call. “Do you think you might host the upcoming lunch.”
“Yes, and I’ll ask Karen to help me,” I answered.
To my surprise, Karen helped me prepare food, and I watched my shy sister—a woman who had not attended church since her teens—introduce herself to others. This experience causes me to continually ask, “How can I get acquainted and help others do the same?”
Because I’ve talked with many people— especially single women—I know how lonely they are. Most of them are strong believers, but how do we reach those like Karen? I’m convinced our church is healthy and growing. We have an active children’s and youth group. Our pastor is a caring, godly man. But the fact is, he cannot be the minister to everyone and fill every need.
Have I made a dent in my church yet? No. Most do not know my name, but I am learning theirs. I’ve made it my challenge. In January a year ago I claimed 2 Corinthians 3:1–3 for the year: “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3). We have work to do. There are still many who are trying to “break in.”