There’s one conversation with new visitors that I’ve made a habit of having in the None Zone that I never did in the Bible Belt.
Ministry looks different
Ministry in the None Zone is very different from the Bible Belt.
As longtime readers know, a few years back I moved from rural Oklahoma (the buckle of the bible belt) to Portland, Oregon, often called the center of the None Zone. It is called that because the northwestern parts of America have the highest percentage of people who check “none” on the census or polls to indicate their affiliated religion.
So as a transplant, I try to share the ways how I’m doing ministry differently so that the rest of America can learn from my mistakes and “ah-ha!” moments for when the creeping secularization reaches their doorsteps–or maybe before.
Today, there’s one pattern of conversation with new visitors that I’ve made a habit of using in the None Zone that I never did in the Bible Belt–and I wonder now why I didn’t.
“If you don’t like us, then…”
When a new visitor comes to a worship service and we are able to have a brief conversation, I make it a point to say something like this:
I hope you liked today’s worship and education and service opportunities. If you didn’t and you are looking for something else, let me know and I can point you to other churches in the area that may have what you are looking for.
While not common, I’ve met with newcomers who didn’t feel attracted to our traditional worship service, felt it was too far of a drive (even though we have people drive in from 60 minutes away), or who were inquiring about ministries that we didn’t have at the time. And that’s fine: a traditional progressive congregation isn’t for everyone, and I was able to suggest some other churches (even beyond my denomination) for them to check out. I never know whether they found another church or didn’t attend at all; I just hope they did find some place to nourish their spirits.
In the moment, most visitors either appreciate the comment, or get a weirded-out look in their eye like “why aren’t you pressuring me to stay here?” I realized over time that it may not be a common practice in many parts of Christianity, and I wondered if it was a characteristic of post-Christian hospitality that I was picking up.
No sheep-stealing in the None Zone
I wonder if scarcity yields more collegiality than one might think.
When I was in the Bible Belt, I honestly didn’t want folks going to other churches. In a rural Oklahoma town of 3300 people, my church was the only viable mainline church in a town full of congregational (mainly Baptist) and non-denominational churches. We were different enough that I didn’t recommend visitors should go to other churches. I’m reasonably confident the sentiment was shared by other churches regarding our mainline one. Sheep-stealing is the colloquial (and derogatory) term for churches that invite other church’s members to attend their church instead, so it can feel competitive to attract newcomers.
But in Portland, there’s not a sense of sheep-stealing in the None Zone–just a celebration that people are attending anywhere at all. I find collegiality much easier with conservative evangelicals in Portland even though I’m a progressive mainliner. It’s not because I’m in the majority (evangelical churches have the majority attendance thanks to a dozen or so megachurches–though I could be wrong on that), but because I feel we are both in the dwindling minority and shouldn’t let our piddlying differences divide us.
If that’s okay for post-Christian context, why not for majority Christian context as well? Do people do this in the Bible Belt too? Do we celebrate growth wherever people find soil to grow? Or is it still a competitive thing?
- If you are in the Bible belt or heavily majority Christian context, do you learn about other churches so that you can recommend them to visitors? Why or why not?
- If you are in the None Zone or lower-percentage Christian context,do you learn about other churches so that you can recommend them to visitors? Why or why not?
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