Invitations and "Elbow Events"
Some time back a study, funded by the Lilly Endowment, focused on how congregations can do a better job of reaching and equipping people to become new followers of Jesus. The study confirmed that “mainline” congregations are generally doing a poor job of reaching new people for Christ. And the study lifted up four fundamental principles that should guide our invitational outreach.
- Most new Christians first attended church because they were invited. Almost 60 percent of new Christians attended church the first time because someone invited them. And new Christians consistently said that the biggest barrier to attending church was “not knowing anyone.” For that reason, a speaker at a recent event I attended suggested that local churches host as many “elbow events” as possible. Elbow events are relatively non-threatening events (ice-cream socials, church picnics, comedy nights, volleyball night, etc.) where church folks can invite their friends and bring them in “on their elbow” by accompanying them and helping them to connect with others. Great idea. An invitation to worship, Sunday School, or small group meeting can also be an elbow event when you not only invite someone, but also offer to personally bring them or meet them at the door. The assurance that you’ll be there to walk through the new experience with them and help them make new friends is an important, and often life-changing, act of holy hospitality.
- New people connect with churches during times of change. Whether the change is good or bad, people are most open to becoming involved with Jesus and a congregation during seasons of change in their lives, such as marriage, divorce, financial crisis, new parenthood, health challenges, change of career, relocation, etc.
- Visitors return because of the people and the pastor. “The people” is the factor cited by 38 percent of new Christians as the reason they returned for a second time. “The pastor” is the second most frequently mentioned reason. That clearly highlights the importance of congregations extending a warm welcome from both the pulpit and the pew. Nothing takes the place of a genuine human touch when new guests show up among us.
- Decisions to join the church family are motivated by a search for real meaning in life. The study noted that new Christians are looking for connections with other people, but they are also thinking about questions regarding significance, meaning, and purpose in their lives…questions like “How can I find a reliable source of lasting happiness?” or “What’s missing in my life?” or “How can I know that my life really matters?” A lesson for churches is that visitor follow-up plans need to build on authentic relationships, but must also connect people with opportunities to ask the big questions of meaning in their lives early in their time in the congregation.
The study strongly affirms that a simple, sincere invitation remains the most effective approach to bringing someone into the family of faith. And we should all be looking for those “elbow events” and “inviting opportunities,” especially when our friends and acquaintances are going through some life-changing challenges and situations. May the God who welcomes and invites all help us to be both attentive and responsive to those opportunities to make a real difference in the lives of others.