What you win them with you’ve got to keep them with

I have been thinking about this old adage a lot lately. I don’t know who first said it, so I can’t attribute it properly (just know, obviously, it wasn’t me): what you win them with you must keep them with.

We have just put out our most recent church prayer letter and there is much to thank God for and a good amount of things to pray about too. One thing we mentioned was the start of a new women’s group.

We’ve had women’s groups in the past but, well, let’s just say they were not overly helpful. There are lots of reasons for that that I won’t go into (reasons that are potentially more significant than what I’m about to highlight) but one issue was that of focus. Many were drawn in by the promise of craft activities or feelings-led discussions. Now, of themselves, there is nothing wrong with either craft or discussion. But if that is the central focus for your group, we can’t be that surprised if people show minimal interest the moment we crack open our Bibles.

As an aside, I’ve always thought it a bit offensive to imply that women can’t cope with theological study and ought to busy themselves with craft instead. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with crafting. If that’s your bag, then have at it. But I did sense that all too often engaging the brain in the work of studying scripture very quickly went on the back burner in favour of other stuff. The problem, of course, is that what you win people with you have to keep them with. If people are coming primarily for the craft, or natter, or whatever it is that you’re drawing them in with, that is what you’re going to have to keep them with too.

Thankfully, the lady who has kicked off our new women’s group grasps this issue. Craft and whatnot is all fine, but what we want to win them with is Christ. We want the women of the church to be captivated by Jesus and to grow deeper in their knowledge and love for him by finding him in the pages of scripture. It is precisely for this reason that we haven’t tried to find some special women’s study on the Proverbs 31 woman or something geared specifically to ‘women’s issues’ per se. Instead, the ladies are doing a Bible overview. In fact, they’re going through a book that has been known to be used on theology courses. We want to win them with scripture so that we might keep them with scripture.

But I was also set to thinking about this as I read the latest edition of Evangelicals Now. In it there was an article trying to help us think through how we attract millennials to the church. You can read the article here (paywall).

The article was interesting for a number of reasons. For one, it was encouraging us to think through how we might attract those who are graduating from university. But the millennial generation (to which I belong) are no longer graduating university. 1996 was the last year of the millennial, which would place the very youngest of the generation at 23. Really, such as we want to be doing this anyway, we need to be thinking about how to attract the next generation of post-millennials. Millennials are so passé.

But I was intrigued by the focus of the article itself. It landed hard on millennial graduates and the assumption was that these will be the next church leaders. That rather plays into the assumption that graduates will necessarily become the next church leaders. It would render the vast majority of people from my church, and my community, beyond the scope of church leadership. This is the very attitude we are trying to push against in the church.

Perhaps worse, I was troubled by the desire to compete in the marketplace of graduate opportunities and the means by which we might do that. If we are genuinely asking what we need to offer in order to attract people into ministry roles as opposed to getting on the graduate scheme at PWC, I fear we are asking all the wrong questions.

Then there was the stuff suggested with which we were encouraged to attract people. Things like international travel were mooted without any sense whatsoever that lots of churches don’t have international connections and certainly don’t have the money to fund jollies for the interns. The focus on authenticity was interesting because the distinct impression I got was that experiencing the authenticity of my church wasn’t the kind of authenticity that counted. They don’t want that kind of experience.

But my biggest concern about it brings me back to our adage. If I have to attract Millennials with the promise of international travel, experiences and authenticity, I fear that is what I’m going to have to keep them with as well. One authentic, international trip to America isn’t going to cut it. It’ll need to be annual trips. The authenticity of my church as it really is will have to be jettisoned in favour of appearing authentic in a way that is more attractive. But, of course, in so becoming more attractive to the millennials I hope to win, I become less attractive to Gen Xers and post-millennials.

You see, I’m not sure I really want interns who will only come if I can offer them authentic new experiences and international travel that competes with the likes of Deloitte. I want to attract interns who love the Lord and are willing to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. If the only interns who will join me are those who relish the prospect of international travel, I’m not sure they’re the kind of interns I really want to attract at all.

I’m not sure we’re asking the right question if we are trying to attract interns by competing with high end graduate schemes. We need to try and help our potential interns see the importance of sacrificial service for Christ. Quite apart from the fact that, realistically, the average church simply cannot compete with remuneration, experiences or travel with major multinational companies, this really isn’t what we want to win people to or with.

We want people who want to come and serve because they love Christ and want to reach the lost. I want to win people to the prospect of taking up their cross and following Jesus because Christ is ultimately more valuable to them than the prospect of a payday, career progression or international travel. I want to win people who are excited by the work of reaching South Asian Muslims and working class indigenous Brits. I want to win people who see the value of reaching real people, with a real gospel who are looking for their reward, not from my church, but from the saviour they serve. I want to attract people who want to hear the Lord say, ‘well done good and faithful servant’. These are the kind of people we want.

I thank God that there are, indeed, millennials who grasp this vision. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people who have seriously considered moving to work with us in Oldham have been millennials. These are millennials who have not been attracted by a big payday or promised experiences, but by the prospect of serving the Lord where they are needed regardless of what they appear to gain for doing so here and now. If we win them with that sort of vision, they are so much more likely to stay when they realise the authentic church isn’t all international travel and high end experiences, but a lot of plodding, ordinary work with very ordinary, broken people.