Quit inviting your friends to church

By Ed Seay

Special Contributor

I remember as a youngster growing up at First United Methodist Church Dardanelle, we would have “Invite a F
riend to Church Sunday” every year. I cannot recall if I ever invited a friend, but I figure I did. 

Ed Seay

The idea is good for a couple of reasons. First, you already have a relationship with your friends. You know what they like and dislike, and what their interests are. Second, there is a familiarity that gives you freedom to ask them to come to church that would be awkward with a stranger. Finally (and this is the “churchy” reason), if everyone brought one friend we would double our attendance that Sunday. 

Now while I cannot remember if I invited a friend on that Sunday or not, I can remember we never doubled our attendance on that Sunday. This has now morphed into “National Back to Church Sunday,” which encourages regular church attendees to invite friends and neighbors to church. Considering the declining attendance in churches across our nation, this is a noble idea, but it is largely ineffective. 

A 2015 article, “Which Friendships Last the Longest?” appearing on socialpsychonline.com, cites a study finding that friendships last based on similarities and dissolve due to differences. The familiar phrase “irreconcilable differences” has more application with friendships dissolving than Hollywood marriages, I would presume. If you examine your circle of close friends, not acquaintances or Facebook friends, I imagine you would find they are a lot like you. They likely make a similar salary, live in a similar size house and have similar family structures. And just like you, they likely attend church with the same dedication you do. They may attend a different denomination, even strikingly different, but they love God, love Jesus and are members of a church. No amount of invitation will convince them to leave their church, just as it would not you. (One exception: If they share with you, because you are friends, that they are dissatisfied with their church, it may be an opportunity to invite them to yours.) 

The same goes for your neighbors. I live in an upper middle-class neighborhood, and my neighbors, by and large, go to church. Pew Research studies show that only 50 percent of residents in a city go to church, but a large percentage of that number will be concentrated in a couple of areas. 

So quit inviting your friends to church. 

I can hear you saying, “But who are we supposed to invite? Strangers?” No, because that is awkward and unlikely. How are we supposed to do evangelism if we don’t invite our friends to church? 

Author Kay Kotan said at last year’s Grow By One Summit that we should “go where those who don’t go to church are.” For Shiloh UMC and Pruett’s Chapel UMC, this means we go to the homeless shelter. And we go twice a month (I hope we will expand to four nights a month soon). 

The shelter feeds 60 to 80 people every night. These children of God are often times going through hell on earth. They often were not raised in church. They often feel that church has nothing to offer them. And so we go to serve them and to love them. 

We share stories with them. We listen to their struggles, and we show compassion. One of our children’s ministry leaders wanted to do something more for the kids who live at the shelter, so we started picking them up for our Wednesday night children and youth programs. To use the words of John Wesley, my heart was “strangely warmed” to see new kids laughing, playing, learning and participating in that ministry. 

Instead of inviting your friends to church, celebrate each other’s faith by engaging in meaningful conversation about the challenges our world faces and how Christians can respond to those challenges. Then go outside your neighborhood, outside your circle of friends and outside your comfort zone to meet God’s children where they are, and love and serve them. 

I have a motto: “Disciples are made when the pews are empty.” Get out of the church building, seek out those who are suffering, who look for hope in destructive habits and relationships, and show them the Savior who replaced your hope in those same destructive things with hope in him. 

The Rev. Seay serves as pastor of Shiloh UMC Paragould and Pruett’s Chapel UMC.