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Christmas is almost upon us: a season full of opportunities to invite friends and relatives to church. Michael Harvey explores 12 reasons why we don’t always seize them
Take a moment to thank God for the person who first invited you to take a closer look at Jesus Christ. It might have been a parent, a youth leader, a friend or a stranger. It might have been at an event, a church service, or simply over a cup of coffee. But whoever or wherever it was…they invited you.
This Christmas, churches across the UK will host their best-attended services; ancient rural chapels will offer standing room only on Christmas day and city-centre churches will see hundreds of people descend on them. Even for those who consider themselves without faith in God, carols, candles and Christmas stories are still often seen as an acceptable and enjoyable aspect of the festive period. Whatever their reason for attending a celebration of Christmas, many still take at least a moment to ponder the birth of Jesus Christ.
I have spent the past 11 years trying to understand the culture of invitation, as part of my work in developing Back to Church Sunday. I believe that a window of invitational opportunity opens around 13th December and closes again on 25th December; rather like the hunting or fishing season, we are given a period of time in which it is seen as acceptable to invite people to church. We have 12 days of invitation where we are at liberty to lose the inhibitions we have for the rest of the year.
So why don’t we always seize the opportunity to invite our friends and relatives to the seeker-friendly nativity or carol service? What is it that holds us back? Here are 12 common reasons (12 ‘nays’) why we may choose not to invite...
1. I don’t want my friend to suffer in church like I do
The first ‘nay’ I often hear for not inviting a friend is this: we can’t invite them to our act of worship as they won’t get anything from it. The reasoning goes: ‘I suffer in church from getting bored during an overlong sermon, or intercessions that seem to last for half an hour. I don’t want my friend to suffer too.’
But we all know of people who have been touched by God even when we felt there was no chance of that happening! Who would have thought that Saul, chief persecutor of the early Church, would find Christ? God often surprises us, and people meet him in unexpected places, even (in what may be to you) a boring sermon.
2. My friend said ‘no’ last year
Our friends will turn down our invitations sometimes. But are we too quick to let those answers shape and direct our decision on whether or not to invite again? When the answer is ‘no’, this should not stop us from considering a second shot at inviting someone to take a closer look at Christ. A lot can change in a year.
3. We have no nonchurchgoing friends
The third ‘nay’ could indeed be true (in which case you really need to get out more). Or it might not be. What we are really saying is: ‘You’re not asking me to invite people I know, are you?’ (with a look of fear in the eyes).
Let’s say for a moment that we have a whole congregation that genuinely has no non-Christian friends between them. Shouldn’t that cause a church to wonder how they have allowed themselves to become so ghettoised? This alone should lead to churches and individuals moving from an inward to an outward-looking focus.
4. We think It’s the church leader’s job
It is clear to me, from touring some of the larger growing churches around the world, that congregations can often ‘hire away their responsibility’. But this is not exclusively a large church problem. We have a tendency in our generation to outsource certain aspects of Christianity, and mission is one of them. Certainly, some have a particular gift for evangelism, but we are all called to be contagious Christians.
Christmas Starts with Christ
With just 12% of adults saying that they know the nativity story, and more than one third of children unaware whose birthday we celebrate at Christmas, the Christmas Starts with Christ campaign has been launched to help churches to make Christ and the amazing story of his birth the focus of the nation’s favourite time of year.
Some of the UK’s leading Christian groups, including the Church of England, the Evangelical Alliance and Bible Society are backing the campaign.
Resources including posters, radio ads and worship materials are freely available for churches at christmasstartswithchrist.com
5. I was never invited – I was born into the church
Many of us come from generations of Christians who were born into the Church. They had no choice in going, they just went. But those sorts of Christian families are becoming less and less common. The generation where churchgoing was simply an assumed part of life is no longer with us. Today people most certainly have a choice; we are a generation who want quality of life. Today people need an invitation to turn up.
6. What if it damages my friendship?
One of the most powerful obstacles is the fear of damaging a relationship: I might lose a friend over this, or they might look at me differently. In reality most of our perceived fears never happen. But even if it did, no good thing ever came about without an element of risk. Someone risked telling you about Jesus.
Others tell me they can’t invite a friend ‘because it might go wrong’. They fear saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But I say: one way to learn how to do something right is to do it wrong! Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong – it may well lead to a new level of learning. God can take wrong and make it right.
7. Our services and people are unpredictable
This is the number one reason church leaders give for why congregation members don’t invite. There is a saying that perfectionism is the mother of procrastination. I recently heard someone say that they were not going to be doing any inviting until the church service was right! Or I hear, ‘When we have more young people, then I will invite’ or ‘When we have more activities, then I will invite’ and so on. But the church is never going to be perfect – or even perfectly predictable. If you are waiting for the perfect church, then you’ll never invite anyone.
8. I fear the congregation will think my friend is not ‘our type’
One serial inviter told me that they were not afraid of hearing the word ‘no’ from those they invited; they were more afraid of the response of the congregation to the person they brought along. Sadly, this reason is more common than it should be.
Church leaders need to be proactive in encouraging a welcoming and inclusive ethos in the congregation. Half the battle is won when a church member shakes a newcomer’s hand and offers a smile.
9. I am reticent… or timid
Reticence can so easily masquerade as timidity. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John were cautioned by the authorities not to speak about the name of Jesus. They ignored the warning and threw caution to the wind by still speaking out. Timidity and overcaution are diseases that need to be treated with God’s spirit of power, love, and self-discipline.
10. Religion is a private matter
The tenth ‘nay’ has origins in the well-used saying that you don’t talk about sex, politics and religion. People often say (quite reasonably), ‘In this day and age we need to take a softly-softly rather than pushy approach.’ It sounds sensible, until we bring obedience into the picture. What if God has called us to invite someone?
Was Jesus softly-softly or pushy-pushy? It seems to me that he was neither. He was just about his Father’s business – obeying God’s calling. Invitation was always part of Christianity from the beginning; it still is today.
11. I don’t want to be seen as strange
Noah looked strange building an ark in the desert. Sarah looked strange buying maternity clothes aged 90. The Israelites looked strange marching around Jericho blowing trumpets. David looked strange attacking Goliath with a slingshot. The Wise Men looked strange following yonder star. Peter looked strange stepping out of the boat in the middle of the lake.
We may fear being ridiculed, but we actually need to become less self-conscious and more like little children who love to explore the world around them. As Eugene Peterson has said: ‘Worship is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves.’
12. They might ask something about my faith
I have met people in my seminars who say that if they invite people to church, ‘They’ll find out I am a Christian!’ It’s as if they want to be in a witness protection programme.
This particular ‘nay’ could be restated: ‘I am not going to invite someone for fear of cross-examination.’ In the Great Commission, Jesus asks us to be his witnesses, telling others about him. Some of those opportunities will be easy and some will be hard or even hostile. Scripture doesn’t ask us to have all the answers to the questions, simply to be ready to give our own reason for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15).
So, this Christmas, pray for faith instead of fear, and risk inviting someone to church. Turn your ‘nays’ into ‘yays’ and see what God does.
Michael Harvey helped start the Back to Church Sunday movement and is author of Creating a Culture of Invitation in Your Church (Monarch)