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Why People Choose Churches

by Jason Waeber
Foundation BP Mission in Lockland, OH
the Missions Banner, March 2023: Online Edition

One of the most challenging barriers to entry in a small group (this goes for both a new plant or a struggling, established church) is it costs social capital for folks to come, rather than granting social capital. By this, I mean that everyone with social goals (knowing more similarly situated people, friends for their kids, useful professional networks, etc…) brings those into their churches also. A church will either further or impede those goals. In a new plant or a struggling church, a person’s association with the church will almost always do the latter, sometimes severely. For example, given the lack of children at Foundation BP Mission and the fact that we homeschool, we’ve had to be very deliberate about finding and cultivating relationships that give our kids access to Christian friends outside Foundation. Having Grace BPC nearby makes it easier for us than for many others, but this is very much the kind of factor people consider when determining which church to go to.

The fact that this consideration weighed so heavily for many folks used to bother me deeply. I thought of it as a kind of betrayal. This was terribly arrogant of me. I thought, If we are preaching the Bible faithfully and standing for the truth, even in trying times, shouldn’t that be a higher consideration than the social networks in our church? The church is a mission, not a social club. In the frustration of trying to get a church up and running, it was easy to hide in the armor of cynicism, dismissing all the folks who considered coming but didn’t as unfaithful or unserious. I had conflated conservative, confessional Presbyterianism with faithfulness to the gospel, and anyone who didn’t believe the same was unfaithful and unserious. In retrospect, this is comical, since, like all churches, there are folks in our own congregations who are barely aware of our Confession of Faith. Even fewer have actually read it in full, fewer still understand the issues behind the archaic language, and yet fewer still agree exhaustively with all its prescriptions. These ordinary folks are still faithful Christians, but they did not pick our churches because of our theological precision or our confessional fidelity.

I am deeply thankful for the folks who have come to be with us at Foundation. They have often paid a heavy social price to do so. We have one individual who comes from a nearby community and is willing to break with his social circle in order to participate. We have a few college kids who come, despite the fact that all their friends attend large churches near campus. These kinds of social prices aren’t significantly outside the norm and weigh vastly more than we might think. These folks mean the world to me, but I’ve also come to realize that they’re the exception, not the rule. I don’t get to be salty when others don’t make the kind of stands that these folks have made.

Indeed, if we want to be successful in speaking to folks outside of staunchly Reformed circles or those with exceptional social courage, we have to address their basic concerns at their level of theological understanding. A caring mother, who is a faithful Christian, committed to the gospel but without an understanding of mature theological categories, will look at our church next to the Church of Christ around the corner or the Southern Baptist church across the tracks and see very little difference in the teaching. She’s not wrong – those churches (at least in our setting) preach a biblical gospel, and she doesn’t have strong opinions about the differences between us. Nor is she petty for weighing heavily the presence of other children to be friends of her own over questions of paedobaptism or Calvinism. If our intake process is “sit down so I can give you a graduate-level course in why our distinctives are super important,” we really should not be surprised when we get the hardcores and no one else. We have to actually take the social questions in hand, be willing to be creative in finding out how to address them, and simply be more pragmatic about how we build the programs of the church. There is nothing spiritual in being oblivious and irrelevant to the concerns by which ordinary people choose churches.  Only a mechanic gets excited when he looks at the engine of a car and sees the potential. Everyone, however, can appreciate a beautiful drive through the country in a car driven by the same engine. Perhaps, if we want them to learn how the guts of the car work, we should show them the vistas that open up when it works the way it’s supposed to. If our confessions are true and dear to us, we must be ever more adept at bringing the realities to which they lead into the actual lives of our people.


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