My friend Bob says, “There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count and those who can’t.”
I suppose there must be a million variations of that joke. However, this is not meant as a joke but a serious commentary on modern church life: There are three kinds of people in every worship service: the browsers, the customers, and the shareholders. Nothing tells the story on us like identifying our group.
Briefly, the browsers say, “Nothing for me, thanks. We’re just looking.”
The customers say, “We come to this church because we like the music/youth/Bible/whatever program.”
And the shareholders say, “This is my church. It depends on my faithfulness.”
Let’s explore these a little deeper and see if we can figure out a way to move people through the labyrinth into the last category.
Browsers: Those who are checking things out before deciding to make a commitment.
Anything wrong with this? Not a thing. We’ve all done this. I have friends in a small town in Ohio who are at this stage right now. The church they have belonged to for years is drying up and dying, they tell me. So, they have decided the Lord would have them to move on. Last Sunday, they attended a church of another denomination a few miles away. They worship on full alert, checking out the sermons, the way church is run, the choice of hymns and choruses, the fellowship of the congregation, and a hundred other things.
I expect they will end up joining that church. If I know my friends, they will not be content to remain browsers for long. They believe in Christians getting into church and supporting the ministries. They are tithers and Bible teachers and witnesses. Their new church will be blessed by their membership.
The problem comes when people remain browsers for years. How does that line go from Scripture: “ever learning, and never coming to the knowledge of the truth” (II Timothy 3:7)? Never making a decision, always hovering around the edge.
Customers: Those who ‘take from’ this church as a financial arrangement. The church supplies our need; we contribute our presence and a little money.
In a former church, a member of the orchestra told me plainly, “I’m here because I love to play my horn. If the church ever decides to shut down the orchestra, I’m out of here.”
I appreciate his candor, I suppose. (I’m not sure, but suppose I appreciated it at the time.) But he was sending me a signal that I was not to count on him for anything substantial. He had put his membership in with us, but there was no real commitment. He was a customer.
Customers are rarely loyal to a supplier. If you discontinue the product they’ve been buying from you, they will look for it somewhere else. We expect that in the commercial world. We are blind-sided when we find it in church.
“We come to this church because of the youth program.” The music program. Children’s ministry. Mission opportunities. Bible-teaching. Ad infinitum.
Customers take no ownership of the ministries, no responsibility for the future of the church, and often no care with the facilities. Let others see to those things, pay the bills, fund the programs, staff the ministries. They (ahem) “do not feel led” to help.
Shareholders: Those who take responsibility for the church’s well-being, its programs, its success. Have a work day and they are sure to show up.
In every church, there is one group of faithful men and women who step up and take ownership for the ministries. These are the shareholders. They own stock in the company, so to speak. Their mantra is “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”
A word of caution here. Regular readers of this blog will hear me say often that the church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ, not to any one group of its members–not the pastor, staff, deacons, longest-serving members, heaviest givers, not even to the congregation itself. It is Jesus’ church. He died for it; we didn’t. So, in speaking of members ‘taking ownership,’ we do not mean literal ownership. We refer to the act of belonging. “I belong to that church and it belongs to me.” We are members of His body.
Charles Colson says, “Every one who belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ belongs to every one who belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s certainly how it ought to work in God’s world. The reality, however, is that many claim to belong to Jesus but want no one else to make a claim on their time, their service, their finances, or their influence.
My pastor, Mike Miller, told our congregation last Sunday that as he was welcoming a young wife to church recently, he looked around for her husband. She said, “He’s outside. He spotted a couple of beer bottles on the parking lot and went to throw them in the trash.”
Mike said, “Those are my kind of members! They see a need and instead of walking inside and trying to find a staff member to deal with it, they take care of it themselves.”
I’ll tell you an easy way to find out who in your church is a shareholder, but I don’t recommend you do it: Check the financial records. See who is giving and who isn’t.
Our Lord gave us this insight when He said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
Shareholders are church members whose hearts are in this church. They love it. They work to make it better. When the church needs them, they step up and volunteer.
QUESTION: How can we help people to transition through the process, from Browsers and Customers into full-blown Shareholders?
1) Make it clear in the church service and printed materials how a browser can become a member, and how everyone can become more deeply involved in ministry. Give plenty of opportunities for taking the next step of advancement and make it crystal clear.
2) Keep the pressure on from the pulpit. The preaching of the Word should continually call for deeper commitments by God’s people, for growth in Christlikeness, for continual sanctification until we each take our final breath.
3) Shareholders–those whose hearts are in this church–should have opportunity to interact with browsers and customers regularly so they can invite them to participate in the work of the church. Often a person never transitions out of the lower statuses because no one asked or invited or urged it upon them.
4) Pray the Lord of the harvest to thrust forth laborers (shareholders!) into the work (Matthew 9:38). That is a command from our Lord and not a slick technique for manipulating people into anything. The simple fact is not every browser should join your church. Some of them aren’t ready to unite with any congregation and would be a detriment if they did.
I recommend you pray three prayers for your church and do so at every opportunity:
“Lord, send only the people to this church you want here. Keep away any you don’t want here. And if there are those in the church you want out, please move them out.”
He will honor that prayer if you mean it. Those three requests are the very things He wants to do for your church in order to make it healthy and effective.
Pastor, welcome the browsers. They are the pool from which your next generation of workers and leaders will come.
Even welcome the customers. Whatever it takes to get them to church where they can hear God’s Word being taught is worthwhile. Now, pray they will grow into the fulness of the Lord’s plan for them.
Appreciate the shareholders, pastor. They are the ones who make the church function and make life more livable for you.