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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Hard Sell or No Sell?

Our question this week raises a fairly typical and often unpleasant tension within churches, a tension that is frequently grounded in anxiety about church growth. Our matriarchs offer some good thoughts.

Our church has a few folks in the community who visit from time to time, often drifting in and out of the life of the church seasonally. Since the church is small, it is always very obvious who is a visitor and who is a member on Sunday morning.
Right now there are three couples who do this. I know who they are, I know what their situations are, and I have talked to each of them about whether or not they are interested in any "next steps" and so far, all are content to be visitors, and my impulse is to honor that.
One couple in particular introduced themselves to me on the first Sunday they visited as members of "St-So-and So" around the corner, and on the visitor offering envelope they write their names but not address or phone numbers. I take that to mean they do not wish to be visited or called, and make a concerted effort to speak with them after worship every time they are here.
My approach when someone introduces themselves as a church member somewhere else is "hands off". That is to say be warm and welcoming but don't try to sheep steal. I know the meaning and context of name-on-the-dotted-line membership is changing, and I think the church's attitude needs to change with it. Some people will not join, and that's okay with me.
However, I'm getting pressure to put on the full court press with these folks. Is my approach pastoral? Biblical? Good discipleship? Or am I not trying hard enough?

Sunday's Coming responds:
My first reaction is to encourage you to keep to your instincts to be truly hospitable and allow these folks to relate to your community at the level with which they are happy. (I suppose this is a ‘pastoral’ response – and for what it’s worth, this is the line I always take myself.)

If you’re worried about winning others over to your way of thinking, maybe a Biblical approach would help.
Jesus, of course, calls people to follow him: always did, always will. But nowhere do I see signs of Jesus building anything other than the kingdom of God. Our perspective needs to be a kingdom one, too – not building up our own little empires. Jesus said ‘I will build my church’ - not ‘I will ask you to build churches’. Of course we do build churches and at their best they help God’s people to grow in faithfulness and follow Jesus.

If people in your church are asking you to encourage others to join the fellowship without regard to pastoral need or point of pilgrimage, maybe you could question them ‘why is this right for that person right now?’ - it feels as though there is some unspoken assumption that it is ‘right’ to round up as many sheep as possible: it just isn’t!

Diane writes:
I think this pastor's approach is spot on. A "hard sell" rarely or never works, anyway. I also agree with her about sheep-stealing. If people express an interest in joining, that's one thing; but I would never make a play for people who identify themselves as members of another church. She might remind the people who are pressuring her that the "full court press" will probably backfire.
There are times, of course, when a gracious invitation to affiliate with one's congregation is appropriate; but this situation doesn't seem to be one of them.

Rev Honey says:

There has definitely been a significant increase in the number of persons who regularly attend and financially support our congregation, yet prefer not to become members. This trend doesn’t make sense to those who have “signed on the dotted membership line” over the years.

Some of our members have expressed frustration that I have not “gotten these persons to join.” I explain to them that I have spoken personally with any of these individuals who have given us contact information and, for whatever reason, they do not wish to join. I also explain that the only thing these persons cannot do in the life of our congregation is to vote in congregational meetings. Generally when I say that, the questioners back off.

I think your approach is spot-on. I believe that we need to be intentional about cultivating emotionally healthy relationships that respect people where they are. I do not want to teach co-dependent behavior, sheep-stealing, or an unhealthy focus on “the numbers.” Members and regular attenders alike need to know that they can ask for what they want in our community of faith, and their choices will be honored.

Sue adds:
I tend to think along the same lines as our questioner this week. We have some folks who like to pop in from time to time just "for a change of scenery" or just to hear a different kind of sermon, or whatever. I always welcome them, make a point of saying hello and introducing them to at least a few people in our congregation that they may not have met on their last visit.

My sense has sometimes been that we were sort of a calm in the spiritual/theological storm for some of these folks. They were either church-shopping or not content with the theology coming from their present pulpit (this was definitely the case with one family) and needed a place to visit without the hard sell. They came to our church because we have a reputation in the community of being "welcoming but not smothering" as one of our Rev Pals once put it.

Personally, I think people are grown up enough to make a decision about where they will worship without any added pressure. Our little church will continue to be what it is - if a family decides that it is a good fit, we will rejoice in that. On the other hand, if after a few visits it isn't working for them, then all I can do is pray that they find a more appropriate spiritual home.

Also, I'm just not comfortable with even the appearance of "sheep-stealing" by pressuring folks to make a firm commitment and transferring memberships and such. I guess the hard sell just isn't for me.

We have a fairly unanimously opinion among the matriarchs this week. What about the rest of you? What is your experience in this area? How have you handled church members who pressure you to turn on the hard sell? How have you handled visitors from other congregations, especially those who settle in long-term without officially joining? Please share your thoughts!

We have many questions lined up in the queue. If you have a question you want the matriarchs to discuss, please send it to us at


  1. As one of those 'visitors' I totally agree with the wisdom of the matriarchs. I love the people in our local congregation but, to be honest, attending worship can be quite painful sometimes theologically and liturgically. I have a few 'fave places' that I can go when I need an antidote to the elements I react so strongly against. And I so value the warmth of welcome without prejudice or pressure.

  2. The Gospel is not a commodity, and the hard sell is not biblical. Jesus offers abundant life. This has little to do with whether or not your name is on the roll. Those who want "more" members are those who often want to see the faith spread wider--but not necessarily deeper. When this comes up in my context, I always frame it in terms of hospitality. You will sense which visitors want to connect more deeply, and which ones don't.

  3. I wonder if this is an issue that runs on gender or generational lines. I say that because the older semi-retired pastor is the one who 'goes for' the dotted line commitment, even from folks who have said no thank you in the past.

    My male colleage and I just smile at folks and say, when you are ready, or if you are ready, or if you want to talk.

    I've also gotten to that place with 'inactive' folks who wish baptisms, etc. Let 'em come, be welcoming, tease them about showing up.

    I just spoke to a young couple who having a child baptized. 'Visit your parents on Saturday and offer to go to church with them! They'll think it's so nice of you!"

  4. In my former parish, a new congregation started in town, and began to actively and intentional work to "steal sheep" from my and several other congregations. We learned first hand how destructive and painful this can be. I think you all are right on, stick with the pastoral response!

    Unfortunately some see potential members as "giving units" to be owned (whether it is their money, talents or time). I actually had a member say to me once that the Sunday school superintendent at another area church was unhappy with her pastor and told me to "go get her for us" since we could really use her talents. Argh!

  5. P.S. is right on... I have heard these conversations about certain visitors - "gee, they look like tithers" or "I think I could get them to volunteer for nursery." I would always react negatively to that - parishioners are not commodities or blank checks - they are people on a spiritual journey. Yes, it's great when the decide to "buy in" and be a committed and integral part... but what if it is not in their means (or their calendar) to do so? What if they are less "lovely" or not so well-heeled.

    grrrrrr..... oh sorry. Sheep dog got a little riled there...

  6. I'm on our church evangelism committee, and unfortunately I detect that "sales" mentality in my group.

    Our congregation helped a local family last Christmas, and now I'm getting pressure to do follow-up on the recipients -- less, it seems, because any of the concerned people have a genuine interest in these people, but because our people are disappointed that our generosity did not lead to the family coming to our church. Meanwhile, when I -- in frustration, I confess -- launched into a rather passionate discussion of the why of evangelism, I got a roundtable of blank looks. By the end of that meeting I was ready to concuss myself against a cinderblock wall.

  7. Our medium-sized church is 10 minutes up the street from St. Very Large of the same denomination. They have a strong political voice, which attracts some people and causes others eventually to consider leaving; we are one of the alternatives they often find. This means we face this situation a lot!

    If they've identified themselves as being from another church, and if I have an address or e-mail, I write a nice note the day following a first visit thanking them for joining us for worship, acknowledging their membership at the other church, and inviting them to come back anytime. I aim for welcome with no tinge of sheep-stealing!

    When anyone else in the congregation asks about such a person/family, I explain my approach and the rationale, and that has seemed to satisfy folks. I wonder if it's a little easier for me because we are not so small and there's a little less pressure for new members? Also, membership in our denomination is such an elusive definition that no one really knows about anyone else!

  8. What Mavis said!!

    Sometimes I need to escape - temporarily - from our congregation. And the vapid, arrogant, condescending sermons. I really appreciate the gentle hospitality at St. Other and their willingness to let me participate or not. They've welcomed into some mission work with them which I especially appreciate because there aren't many opportunities for this at St. Home. And they invite me to attend classes and sing in the choir but are not at all pushy. Until things improve at Home, I need this retreat. I am so grateful for my sisters and brothers at St. Other!

  9. On sheep stealing - it's wrong and the "how would we feel if another church did that to us" approach may work.

    On pressuring the pastor to put on the full court press - How about encouraging those folks to build relationship with the visitors - invite them to lunch after church, meet for coffee...? Genuine relationship, and interest in their life/ spiritual journey - this is where church membership is built, not when the pastor shows up with a dotted line to be signed.

  10. any ideas why they visit? the way I see it is that building relationships is vital ... it doesn't matterwhere someone's membership is ...

    that said ... reading what Mavis wrote I want to ask/ comment why stay in the original church if "it's painful theologically and liturgically" ? inquiring minds want to know ...

    that's partially answered by anon who wrote s/he wanted to avoid "the vapid, arrogant, condescending sermons"

    but why not leave? I don't quite get it. If there is a good and viable alternative somewhere near ... (there isn't always!)why not go?


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