The biggest difference between the people who go to church in the United States and the people who don’t go to church is, for the most part, that people who go to church like doing church things and others don’t. People who go to church like being involved in church activities, programs, groups, mission projects, fellowship groups, worship services, and classes. People who don’t go to church aren’t very interested in any of these things. If this is case, how do you start churches (or grow existing churches) that involve a large number of people who haven’t previously gone to a church?

Fresh Start is a new church in Elmira, NY that meets in a movie theater.
Fresh Start is a new church in Elmira, NY that meets in a movie theater.

The primary shift is to move away from emphasizing church programming toward emphasizing deep relationships. For years churches have competed to attract new people by being the best provider of their brand of Christian religious goods and services for their target community. Churches for people who don’t like church, however, begin with meeting and knowing people first.

The first step for any pastor or new church planter is to find out where people are already gathering and go there. In every community, people are already gathering for sports, school, work, relaxation, play, and service. Go to those places and start meeting people. Become a regular at a restaurant or shop. Volunteer in the school. Coach a sports team. Join the community service clubs. People who don’t go to church won’t be found inside church buildings, so spend as little time as possible there.

The second step is to listen deeply to other people. Honestly and fully listening to people is a remarkable act of grace. Most people spend their lives being talked at, marketed to, managed, and instructed. Listening is a profoundly counter-cultural expression of the good news of God’s unconditional love and acceptance. Listen, and do not judge. Listen, and honor their story. Listen, and be blessed and a blessing.

The third step is to initiate a mutual relationship of faith exploration. This is not viral marketing testimonies about how great your church is. Rather, this is an actual relationship with all the possibilities of friendship, authenticity, and honesty. You risk by opening yourself to the possibility of relating to another person, and they risk by opening to you. In the context of this relationship, you ask each other questions and explore each other’s life and spirit. This relationship and shared spiritual journey takes time, takes patience, and takes love, but it is the best matrix through which the love of God in Jesus Christ can be effectively shared with people who are deeply suspicious of religion and church.

These individual relationships form the beginning of a network of relationships upon which a church may begin. As you build relationships and teach others to build relationships, you form a web of interconnected Christians and spiritual explorers. Through careful discipleship development and intentional organizing practices, this web can grow into a group of leaders and co-founders of a new faith community or church.