Developing a Culture of Invitation

In 2004 a simple truth turned my life around – that before you can welcome someone to your church you have to go through the fear barrier of inviting them! I have never met anyone who goes to an unwelcoming church but how welcoming can we be if we are not inviting?

Back then I was working on the Back to Church Sunday project, which developed in 18 countries and has allowed me to conduct over 900+ focus groups across multiple denominations and streams. In my research I discovered that, although most of us would like to invite people to church, 80 to 95 per cent of us have no intention of doing so.

Other research underlines this. The Evangelical Alliance’s ‘21st Century Evangelicals’ discovered almost two in every three Christians feel they have missed a chance to speak to others about God in the past four months, almost half admitting they were ‘just too scared’ to talk about their faith with non-Christians.

My curiosity focused on the gap between desire and intention. Some call it the confidence gap. I would call it the courage gap and suggest it is the place we meet God.

The reason we have no intention of inviting is the emotion of fear. That’s what those in the 900+focus groups told me when asked to identify why they don’t invite: fear of rejection, fear of disappointment, fear of failure, fear of embarrassment and more. (One little difference in Scottish Christianity would be that I often hear the word ‘reticent’ used when describing why we don’t invite ).They have someone in mind God may be prompting them to invite but fear paralyses them. Fear can bubble wrap us in unlived missional lives.

In my research I also discovered that if you ask a congregation, ‘is there someone God has laid on your heart to invite?’ 70 percent of Christians already have the name of the person. This has led me to conclude that God is the ultimate inviter. God is already at work. All we have to do is ask God who to invite and be obedient in God’s strength.

In scripture we read of God constantly saying to individuals: “Fear not”. Mission is, therefore, first of all a discipleship issue. This means we must help believers discover and experience that God is alive, can be trusted and is calling them to mission, and that maybe the first emotion we feel when God calls is fear, because God often calls us to go to places that humanly speaking we don’t want to go

So how does a church move from just being a welcoming church to an inviting church that experiences the presence of God through mission?

There have to be three paradigm shifts – three ways to think differently and behave differently.

First we must grasp that success is not getting a “yes” to an invitation – as getting that is God’s job. And nor is getting a “no” a failure. Success is simply to make the invitation. As the Apostle Paul says, “I Paul planted Apollos watered but it is God that gives the increase.” (1Cor3:6)

Second, as churches we must be as focused on the inviter as we are on the invited person. When God called Moses to invite Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go, it was also to form Moses into the person God wanted him to be. Mission is as much about Christians growing in faith as it is in others finding it. This I think is the main point I am trying to get across to those of us in leadership today

Third, God is the ultimate inviter. God is already at work. All we have to do is ask God who to invite and be obedient in His strength. The 70 per cent of congregational members who already have someone laid on their heart to invite to church shows that God has already invited them to invite.

To help individual Christians understand and apply this, I work with folk through a very simple process. I mentor congregational members through their own attempts at a personal invitation and then ask them to mentor another congregational member through a similar invitation, all the time looking for the presence of God and what they have learned. Often this leads me to being invited to do a workshop on a culture of invitation at the church to walk a wider group through the process

Then I visit the church to teach them the three paradigms – the new ways to think and behave – and bring these to life through the experiences, good and bad, of their leader and congregational member. These experiences become central to helping the whole congregation face their fears.

Then comes an activity called Invitation Heart or Cross Sunday. Keeping all that they have been taught and have heard in mind, they are helped to prayerfully identify who God might have laid on their heart to invite. They put the person’s initials on a post-it note and pin the note to a heart or a cross at the front of the church. The following week they are encouraged to share what God did when they stepped out in faith to invite.

Some remarkable stories come out of this simple structure. Nigel Barge of Torrance Church of Scotland describes the process in this way

For along time as a congregation, we have been introspective and this process has been an important part of turning us outward and inviting others to share in the life of the church.

Fearful? Of course. That is exactly the point where God speaks to us all! Ask Moses, Joseph, Elijah, Mary and a bunch of shepherds on a hill.

Michael Harvey leads the National Weekend of Invitation, To find out more click here.