Twelve years ago a simple truth turned my life around – that before you can welcome someone to your church you have to go through the fear barrier of inviting them!
I was working on the Back to Church Sunday project, which developed in 18 countries and has allowed me to conduct over 850 focus groups across multiple denominations and streams. In my research I discovered that, although most of us would like to invite people to church, more than 80 per cent of us have no intention of doing so.
Other research underlines this. The Evangelical Alliance’s ‘21st Century Evangelicals’ discovered almost two in every three Christians feel they have missed a chance to speak to others about God in the past four months, almost half admitting they were ‘just too scared’ to talk about their faith with non-Christians.
My curiosity focused on the gap between desire and intention. Some call it the confidence gap. But I suggest it is the place we meet God.
The reason we have no intention of inviting is fear. That’s what those in the 850 focus groups told me when asked to identify why they don’t invite: fear of rejection, fear of disappointment, fear of failure, fear of embarrassment and more. They have someone in mind God may be prompting them to invite but fear shouts “no”.
In scripture we read of God constantly saying to individuals: “Fear not”. Mission is, therefore, first of all a discipleship issue. This means we must help believers discover and experience that God is alive, can be trusted and is calling them to mission.
So how does a church move from just being a welcoming church to an inviting church that experiences the presence of God through mission?
There has to be three paradigm shifts – three ways to think differently and behave differently.
First we must grasp that success is not getting a “yes” – as that’s God’s job. And nor is getting a “no” a failure. Success is simply to make the invitation.
Second, we must be as focused on the inviter as we are on the invited person. When God called Moses to invite Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go, it was also to form Moses into the person God wanted him to be. Mission is as much about Christians growing in faith as it is in others finding it.
Third, God is the ultimate inviter. He is already at work. All we have to do is ask God who to invite and be obedient in his strength. I have found that 70 per cent of congregational members already have someone in mind to invite to church. God has already invited them to invite.
To help churches understand and apply this, I work with them through a very simple process. This begins with local church leaders themselves. If they are to help people face the fear of invitation then they have to experience it and understand it for themselves. I mentor church leaders through their own attempts at a personal invitation and then ask them to mentor a congregational member through a similar invitation, all the time looking for the presence of God and what they have learned.
Then I visit the church to teach them the three paradigms – the new ways to think and behave – and bring these to life through the experiences, good and bad, of their leader and congregational member. These experiences become central to helping the whole congregation face their fears.
Then comes an activity called Invitation Cross Sunday. Keeping all that they have been taught and have heard in mind, they are helped to prayerfully identify who God might be nudging them to invite. They put the person’s initials on a post-it note and pin the note to a cross at the front of the church. The following week they are encouraged to share what God did when they stepped out in faith to invite.
Some remarkable stories come out of this simple structure. Sutton Vineyard described the response as immediate.
“We held an Alpha party for which we had 40 guests, and then 20 people took part in the Alpha Course and it was the same the year later. We had not held an Alpha Course for several years because we had stopped inviting.”
To help every church have the opportunity to engage in this same process there is to be a National Weekend of Invitation in June 2018. This follows on from the Archbishop’s Pentecost season of prayer and is preceded by training opportunities for churches to change their thinking, hold an Invitation Cross Sunday and see God at work through making personal invitations.
Fearful? Of course. That is exactly the point where God speaks to us all! Ask Moses, Joseph, Elijah, Mary and a bunch of shepherds on a hill.