Bruce Reyes-Chow, our young, hip, and very distinguished Moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, came into town for a meeting this week, and it was great to spend some time with him. He had a town hall meeting, where people could ask him questions. It was interesting that he began to talk about something that I hear and talk about often. In fact, it was the second time that week it had come up, and it came up again when we walked to lunch.
“Going to church is like being a part of a secret club,” a smart, interesting young church leader explained as we crossed the street for a bite after the gathering, “When you meet someone else who goes to church it’s really exciting. It just never comes up in regular conversation.”
The way most people find themselves in a particular church is by word of mouth. Right? A friend told them about the congregation. The Welcome Wagon greeted newcomers with a list of churches and some personal recommendations. A person asks her neighbors. Not any more.
No one is expected to go to church any longer, and no one talks about church any more. Especially people who are under forty. Even for church leaders, people who are really dedicated to their congregations, it just doesn’t come up.
I noticed the shift at my first congregation, University Presbyterian in Austin. A person about twenty years older than I was (I was 24) mentioned putting their role as an elder in the church on their resume. I was shocked, thinking, Why on earth would anyone do that? But I’m sure it was probably pretty common in Texas. Talking about church in general was pretty common ten years ago… in a different generation.
Now, talking about church is just not as socially acceptable. The mainline church used to be known as a place where one could make professional connections. Growing up Baptist, we would look at the mainlines and say, “People go their to bolster their social status. It’s like the country club.” The accusation was not fair then, and it’s not true now. Talking about where you worship in the workplace is pretty much frowned upon.
I sort of lose sight of the fact that people don’t talk about church. People usually ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I’m a pastor, and they go on for a good twenty minutes about their church, their former church, and the church they wish they were at. Around my friends outside of the congregation, I end up talking about church all the time, even when I don’t steer the conversation in that direction. Maybe it’s because they can’t talk to anyone else about it.
Western still gets most of our young members from word of mouth. The WOM just sounds different. From what I hear, it’s more like, “Check out our church. It’s not like that. It’s different. I promise.” And people do. Friends bring friends to church all the time at our place.
There is another shift going on in the larger culture that we can’t ignore in all of this. Part of a shift to Web 2.0 is the ability for people to rate, review, and comment. People rely less on professional advertising, and WOM has become more important than ever before. It just looks different.
That’s where Bruce comes in. He encourages his church to review the congregation on Yelp, an online service where you can review restaurants, shops, and entertainment spots, and religious organizations.
So, what do you do? How do you encourage people to spread the word in an environment where it’s unlikely that church will ever come up? Do people talk about church more in other parts of the country? How do people usually find out about your church? Are you on review sites? Do you encourage them? Are you afraid of them? What do you think?
photo by sleepydays