Start 2024 Off Strong! 9 Things That Help People Come Back to Church


Discover what it takes to rekindle faith and community in the modern church through the lens of Dan Foster's perspective.

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Thursday, June 20, 2024, at 2:00 PM EST

Off to a Great Start in 2024

January is right around the corner. If you work at a church, you know how vital January is for faith.

People tend to drift back to churches for Christmas and then January. The behavior is probably part New Year’s Resolution, part more discretionary time, and part coming off the Christmas high.

Whatever the reasons, January is a big deal in the faith lives of people, which means churches must get their guest experience right. This is especially true for the de-churched or unchurched people who will show up, perhaps giving God and the church one more shot.

How can you ensure their first time won’t be their last time?

What Are Non-Church People Looking For? 

We could all guess with some degree of accuracy. But we are church people, so “guessing” will be somewhat theoretical.

Luckily, we don’t have to guess. I recently found Dan Foster’s article on Medium titled “The Nine Things That Would Make Me Go Back to Church.” His insights might be all we need to know. Or avoid.

Here are 9 things that Foster believes keep people like him from church. And I’ll try to offer suggestions to combat his (and plenty of other’s) frustrations.

1. A manipulation-free zone

“I would only attend a church that did not use manipulative tactics like guilt, shame, or the threat of hell to control beliefs and behaviors. I want to be part of a faith community that doesn’t need such shady strategies because they show that Christ is real through demonstratable actions like loving people unconditionally and serving others indiscriminately. If we have love for one another, that provides a much more compelling case for Christ. No words are needed, really — certainly no guilt and shame.” – Dan Foster

Suggestion: Not much to add. I grew up attending some “shame and guilt” oriented churches. Remember that the first emotion following Adam and Eve’s sin was shame and blame. God doesn’t want us to feel ashamed, but forgiven. There is a reality of consequences, but shame and blame should not be used to manipulate behaviors or beliefs.

We want people to participate in the life and mission of the church. But we should use vision and opportunity to inspire these steps. Serving, giving, and engaging out of guilt or shame is manipulation. And it’s not spiritual. God loves a cheerful giver, not a shameful tipper.

2. Political neutrality

“I will not be part of a church that tells me how to vote. I’ve always believed that faith and politics should run on separate tracks. I’d love to be part of a church that respects my ability to make informed decisions without pushing a specific political agenda. The church I go back to is all about embracing diversity of thought and respecting individual convictions.” – Dan Foster

Suggestion: Many pastors filled their buildings in the past decade by pandering to a political agenda. I get it. Many people in our communities want their Sunday morning sermon to match their Monday evening cable news network. However, this is short-sighted and improperly motivated.

Our goal is not to fill buildings but to over-populate heaven. Heaven isn’t Republican or Democrat. If you must address something political, you should be an equal-opportunity offender. Don’t take any sides other than the side of Jesus.

3. Radical authenticity

“I want to go to a church where I can be real. At my old church, they used to have a tall, cylindrical container for people to put their umbrellas on a rainy day so the water didn’t splash all over the floor. In the same way, I feel like many churches subconsciously encourage people to stow their pain at the door as well, put on a big smile, and pretend that we are walking in the glorious life that God intended. After all, it’s not a good look for Christians to be miserable, is it?” – Dan Foster

Suggestion: A “real” or “authentic” approach begins with us, the pastors and church leaders. We should always lead with vulnerability. People want to see leaders who limp, not strut. I’m not suggesting you dump your sin skeletons on the congregation each week, but I am suggesting you be authentic and genuine. Use your natural voice. Preach like a human. Share stores of failure. Be self-effacing. The most trusted leaders are the most authentic leaders.

4. A social justice focus

“I am no longer interested in sitting in a pew being lectured about how I am a wicked sinner who needs to strive to get my life in order. I want to be part of a movement that actually wants to change the world in real, tangible ways through social justice work, advocacy, and helping the poor and marginalized. Making a difference is energizing and life-giving for everyone. Sitting passively in a pew and listening is boring and, to be frank, soul-destroying.” – Dan Foster

Suggestion: This is a dangerous one. I’ve written about this before, but to reiterate: Churches are not communal non-profits. But churches should be involved in the community. But to compliment, not to compete. My best suggestion is for each church to partner (through funding and service) with a few successful and trusted community organizations throughout the year. I talk extensively about how this can shape onramps for a discipleship journey in my FUNDING FUNNEL THAN FUNDS YOUR CHURCH Course and Masterclass.

5. A live-and-let-live approach

“I’m tired of being told whose sin is too sinful for God, who I have to hate, and who I am allowed to love. I am tired of being part of churches that forcefully try to impose Christian morals on people who aren’t Christians. I am tired of labeling people, interfering in their lives, telling them who they can and cannot love and what they are allowed to do with their own bodies. The next church I walk into will believe in the principle of ‘live and let live.’” – Dan Foster

Suggestion: Okay. Now, it’s getting complicated. As I read Foster’s comment above, he’d prefer a “you do you” approach to relative truth. Perhaps not, but this is increasingly commonplace. And, in some ways, normative.

If you want to dig in deep, read this post. But for now, I suggest we commit to elevating God’s ideal while acknowledging what is real. As a pastor or church leader, we should not compromise the truth, yet we must accommodate where people are when we meet them. Every discipleship pathway may have an identical destination in mind, but each journey begins from a unique starting line. This is why ministry is so messy.

6. A flat leadership structure

“Down with the patriarchy! I am sick of the religiously elite controlling religious institutions and the way that power is held by a select few (usually men) at the top of the pile. I am tired of the nepotism, the cronyism, and the stifling atmosphere of exclusivity. I am tired of how the system must be protected and preserved to keep leaders gainfully employed at the expense of accountability and growth. I want to be part of a church where Christ is our leader and everyone else is equal.” – Dan Foster

Suggestion: Here’s the problem: The church is an organism and an organization. It’s essential to understand both elements of our church. No organism can remain healthy without a solid supporting organization. Our bodies have circulatory, respiratory, and nervous systems to help ensure our body remains healthy. Our churches must have strong organizational structures, too.

Yet, these systems and structures should not remain hidden or unknown. Secrecy fuels most issues in churches (and everywhere else, by the way). Invisible structures or secret leadership circles destroy trust. As a church leader, ensure your leadership structures are 1) Healthy and spiritually sound and 2) Transparent.

7. No money grabbing

“I won’t be part of a church that repeatedly asks me for my money to pay wages and maintain buildings, using the Bible to justify the ‘money grab.’ If the church wants my money, it doesn’t need to ask… it just needs to give me a compelling cause to give to. For me, it would be one that I see making a difference in the world. I regularly open my wallet to people and organizations that are making a difference without them having to beg for my cash as if God were in need of it.” – Dan Foster

Suggestion: I first suggest immediately jumping into the FUNDING FUNNEL THAN FUNDS YOUR CHURCH Course and Masterclass to learn how to do this well.

Next, Foster presents quite the conundrum. At some point along a discipleship pathway, generosity must be taught. Nobody stumbles into tithing. Yet most people in our churches are like Foster. They reject the manipulation and, therefore, reject our giving requests.

Non-generous people need a vision worthy of their donations, but we must create a pathway that moves people past this needs-based intervention giving to giving as a spiritual practice.

8. Gender equality

“I will not be part of a church unless men and women are equal in all respects. Every member, regardless of gender, should have an equal shot at leading, serving, and having their voices heard. I will not go to a church where my wife is treated as a ‘lesser than.’ I will not go to a church where my daughters are told — implicitly or otherwise — that their god-ordained role in life is to get married, submit to their husbands, punch out a couple of kids, and then home-school them. They can do whatever the hell they want with their lives, and God is glorified in them becoming strong, independent women.” – Dan Foster

Suggestion: I agree with Foster. I realize this is a theological conversation, but I primarily fall theologically on the side of egalitarianism. And I believe the historical context of Scripture substantiates this view when considered. These historical authors wrote when women were seen and treated as property. That context matters as we interpret these writings for today’s world. 

Additionally, Jesus talks about women. And he doesn’t seem to relegate them to only non-leadership or non-authority roles. 

Regardless of how you see the theology, this reality is essential. The vast majority of people feel like Foster. So, if you elect to keep women out of leadership, you must do so with complete clarity and transparency.

9. More potluck suppers

“Okay, so not everything about the church was bad. In fact, the one thing I miss more than anything is the ‘fellowship’ — to use a Christian buzzword. There is something powerful, uplifting, and wonderful about sitting around a table and sharing good food with good people. More of this, I say!” – Dan Foster

Suggestion: We all know content is no longer king. People do not attend churches for content (sermons, messages, etc.). Churches must pivot to connection and community. How? There are so many ways to make this transition.

I’ll give you one idea. My friends at Centerpoint Church in Tampa, Florida, are about to experiment with a post-church service connection experience. Each week, they will invite a category or segment of their congregation (parents of preschoolers, singles, twenty-somethings, etc.) to hang around for 15 minutes for coffee, tea, and snacks to connect. People are more willing to relate with people “like” them. That’s not new, but it’s how we at church can initiate more connections.

A goal would be for people’s best friends to be their church friends. The more we can make this happen, the better chance we have of engaging them frequently and consistently in their local church.

One More Thought…

At the end of Foster’s article, he offers a final thought: “There is just one last thing that would draw me back to church — a laser-like focus on living out the practices, principles, and priorities of Jesus Christ. After all, that is simply what Christianity is supposed to be.”

If we just did this, I wonder if we’d resolve most of our issues.

Of course, Foster speaks out of both sides of his mouth in a way. He doesn’t want the church to tell him what’s right or true, but he also wants to see people living out what’s right and true.

When I think about his comment more, however, I believe this is the most significant tension faced by the unchurched, de-churched, marginally churched, and such. They see pastors teaching “truth” but not following it. They see members attending and serving at church but not living out their stated (or assumed) beliefs outside of church.

This hypocrisy may be the death nail of American Christianity.

Just look at the behavior of famous Christian leaders. Take a cursory glance at so-called Christian politicians. Everywhere we look, we see over-informed and under-applied professing “Christians.” Perhaps this is where we begin. Lovingly and kindly calling people to live a life “worthy of their calling.”