My 4 must-have qualities in a connectable church

As I write this on New Year's Day 2016, I am reflective over 2 questions that are close to the core of probably any man or woman who has a ministry in any aspect of assimilation:

  1. What are the must-have qualities that make a church connectable for people?
  2. What characteristics are deal-breakers for me personally when it comes to my being a part of a church?

I have recently discovered that the answer to these two questions are the same for me. I have been a member of 5 different churches over the course of my lifetime. I have been on staff at 4 of those churches and have seen them from the inside out, and from the top to the bottom. I have been fortunate: I have never been a part of a church that I didn't love. Sure I have encountered ministry challenges, difficult people, and unanticipated conflicts. But the overall health, focus, and DNA of these churches have brought me to some clarity regarding what my soul requires of a faith community. Because I am a connector ("Sherpa type"), It didn't surprise me that this list would be both short and have a lot to do with how a church impacts new people needing connection.

My 4 "must-haves" in a church that connects well with me and other people

My 4 "must-haves" in a church that connects well with me and other people

I believe that as we grow, the list of what we require of a church gets smaller. My spiritual journey has changed my relationship to the Church from being a Consumer (long list) to a Contributor (medium list) to a Custodian (short list). I'm sure there is still more growth coming in that relationship. Nevertheless, here is my list essentials as it exists today:

1. Full expression of grace and truth

I don't mean a balance of grace and truth here. There is no balance to be had on these two characteristics of our Father. I don't want a church that adjusts its dial to the center of the grace/truth continuum. I wouldn't know how to function in an environment that is only 50% gracious and just 50% truthful. God never compromises one to be the other (See the cross as the ultimate example of that). I need the security of knowing that the truth about God, the truth about others and the truth about me will be spoken without risk of my being rejected or judged by those who speak it. My experience says that guests want and need the same thing from a church.

2. Authenticity

Churches have a reputation for being filled with people who take themselves way too seriously. Guests silently wonder if they will meet anyone who can just be real with them, much less laugh at themselves. Authenticity is the price a church pays to make people feel safe. Guests at churches are yearning for a safe place and when they see that people's stories, faults and victories can be shared openly, they will open up 

Authenticity is the price a church pays to make people feel safe

Recently, our Pastor Gene Appel asked us to help him find the name of a man who was known for worshipping very "demonstratively" from the front row in our services.  He wanted to contact him. We let him know his name was Kevin. I was a little sad for Kevin as I anticipated Gene asking him to "tone it down" to minimize the obvious distraction. 

I was so wrong.

Gene, who reveals his past in ways I have never heard a pastor do, shocked me by pointing out Kevin the following weekend. See/hear what he said about Kevin on this video by starting at 34:34 and playing thru 38:18.

A couple months ago I sat with Gene in the service and while I was talking to him, Kevin came and joined us. He wasn't in the center front row. He was now sitting with Gene and wearing a head set, serving on the tech team helping others to worship. I could hardly swallow the lump in my throat as I watched this man who had come the long way home, get assimilated into our church because of its authenticity and the safety it gave him to be who he truly was alongside us. 

Authenticity is an essential for me and for people who need to connect with God through his family.

3. Diversity

Socio-economically. A good friend once told me why he loved my church's parking lot. "There's a Mercedes by an old truck, and a mini-van by an very old Ford". He pointed out how other churches he had been to had one kind of car in the lot...expensive. Or another one mainly motorcycles. Churches tend to be made up of people from one socio-economic group. Their communities, however, have a much wider economic band-width. If a church represents its community, it will reach and embrace people from a wide variety of incomes and lifestyles in the name of Christ and the effect from the parking lot to the worship service will be felt by those attending for the first time.

Ethnically. Unless you live in a rural area, U.S. churches exists in cultural melting-pots. It has been said in the past that the church is the most segregated institution in America. I love a church when it more clearly reflects the community it is called to serve. Though "Euros" are still the largest ethnic group, they are no longer the majority of the church as Asian, Latinos, and African and Indian Americans represent large groups. I remember our worship team one weekend having a young Egyptian man on keyboard, a young Indian man doing announcements, a guy from Brazil leading worship, an Asian woman on vocals, a Latino on drums and a Phillipino running sound. Encouraging that kind of diversity on stage allows the unspoken question on the mind of every 1st time guest to be answered in the affirmative: "Is there anyone here like me?"

Generationally. In the past, ethnicity was what kept churches separate from one another. As the suburbs grew, our divider became socio-economics. As long as our kids went to the same schools and played sports on the same teams and as long as we went to the same restaurants and vacationed in the same places, our lifestyles bound us together in way that made us color blind. But now, churches are divided along generational lines (those that are not are often engages in the "worship wars"). There are traditional "blue-hair" churches, contemporary boomer churches, and hipster churches all worshipping separately as if any family could sustain itself with only one generation. That is why I am grateful that my church is a solid 4 generation church where millennials, their parents and grandparents all worship together. Pause for a moment and watch a different part of Gene's video where an 89 year old pastor from our church shares, starting at 25:32 and ending at 29:36.

My experience leads me to believe that churches made up of just one generation, one ethnicity, or one socio-economic group are really in danger of ingesting the 2 most toxic forces in our movement today: self-protection and consumerism. A diverse church neutralizes these forces by simply being diverse.

4. Missional DNA. I have the privilege of serving Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim California-a church that is gracious, truthful, authentic, and diverse. It is 53 years old and has never split. It is a healthy place with a vibrant culture. When people ask me why I think our church has never had to endure the divisions other churches have, I immediately know. Our church has nursed on Matthew 6:33 from the beginning. We were taught that we were to seek the expansion of God's kingdom first and all the other things that concerned us would fall in their proper place when we did. Our pastor called it, "Matthew 6:33ing it". We were taught that we were to do whatever helped us to engage with people who needed to encounter God and his message...period. So we did.

Someone once asked me what "my kind" of worship service would look like. I was surprised at how hard that was to answer until I realized that I had been living outside of my preferences for so long when it came to worship style that I didn't even know how to answer the question. When I tried to envision a worship experience based on my preferences, it was laughable because no one I knew would engage with it like I would. It simply wasn't missional to think about it so I didn't really care. That's me and I am that way because that is my church's way. It is missional, not consumeristic. 

When people ask me why I think our church has never had to endure the divisions other churches have, I immediately know. Our church has nursed on Matthew 6:33 from the beginning.

These 4 qualities represent the kind of church that makes assimilating people simple. It also represents my personal "must-haves" in a church. Musical style, doctrinal hobby horses, and having other people around that look and act like me are irrelevant. 

This is freedom.

  • What are 3 or 4 qualities in a church that are "must-haves" for you?
  • Do you find that your list of demands on a church grow larger or smaller over time? Why?
  • What does your parking lot tell you about your church?
  • Rate your church on a 1 to 5 scale in each of the 4 qualities. Discuss your answers.
  • What role does preference play in decision making at your church?
  • What could you do this month to "Matthew 6:33 it" in your ministry?