Connecting With Christmas Guests Who Won’t Come Back

Connecting With Christmas Guests Who Won’t Come Back

October 12, 2015 by

Christmas services are some of the most popular of the year. Everybody and their brother comes to church on Christmas—literally. Extended family shows up like never before.

We’ve talked before about how to bring people back after Christmas.

But what about those Christmas guests who won’t come back?

Let’s be honest: Some people just show up for Christmas and they’re never coming back.

  • Maybe they’re out-of-town family and as much as they enjoyed your service, they live 600 miles away.
  • Maybe they’re long-time non-attenders. They show up for the high holidays, make their appearance and that’s it. Don’t expect more.
  • Maybe they’re only there out of obligation. The family matriarch put on the guilt trip and they buckled under.
Be intentional when reaching out to people who don’t want to be in church. But in the end, the Spirit has to work.

Who Are These People?

Some of these people already have a church home. They came with family or friends or just to check out your awesome service. But they’re already happily attending another church. Poaching other members is not cool.

So you can exchange a high five, wish them the best and not worry about them.

It’s the other folks you want to connect with. Something brought them to your church and gave you this opportunity. They may not have many connections with the church. They might actively steer clear of the church or even be hostile toward the church.

That war on Christmas everybody gets so riled up about? The true victims aren’t poor persecuted Christians (who are so not persecuted), but the real victims of the war on Christmas might be these people who are so alienated by the nonstop culture wars they don’t even want to be in church with Grandma.

Get in Their Shoes

It helps to understand where these people might be coming from. They might have had a bad experience in a church growing up. Maybe they’ve struggled with theological questions. They might be lapsed Christians or atheists or of another religion entirely.

They might be receptive to some sensitive, considered outreach. They did come to your church after all.

And they might not. They might be at your church on Christmas against their will. (Blink twice if your Christmas presents are being held hostage.)

As you think about how to connect with people like this, spend some time getting to know them.

  • Have some honest conversations with people who never go to church.
  • Read memoirs where people talk honestly about faith. These might be books by people who were ultimately won over by the church (Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Pastrix, Addie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire). Or they might not be (G. Willow Wilson’s The Butterfly Mosque, Mark Curtis Anderson’s Jesus Sound Explosion, Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat [OK, it’s far from a spiritual memoir, but Huang does talk about attending Christian schools growing up and the impact it had on him]).
  • Even a book like UnChristian might help (though in general I think you need to get further away from your comfort zone than a book by Christian authors from Christian publishers).
  • Or find some fiction that gives you a different perspective on faith. Even a fictional character can help you see the world differently.

However you do it, try to understand how they see the world. Try to grasp why they might feel uncomfortable sitting in your church or why the sermon might make them cringe.

Open Hands

Remember to approach this with open hands. You’re hoping to start a conversation, to create an opening. No matter how much research you do or what books you read, you really don’t know these people. Don’t pretend you do.

Even my constant references to ‘these people’ is the kind of thing that could rub somebody the wrong way. It’s not like this is a clearly defined demographic. It’s a nebulous, ill-defined group of people. The only thing they have in common is that they found themselves in your church for Christmas.

And don’t take it personally if your overtures go nowhere. You’re trying to reach people who will likely never come back to your church. The failure rate is going to be pretty high.

Have some honest conversations with people who never go to church.

So What Can You Do?

OK, we’ve talked about who these people are, why they might find themselves in your church and we’ve tried to understand where they might be coming from. Now what? If they’re not going to come back, what do we do?

1. Make an Impression

We’re talking about people who don’t want to be in church. Many of them have come to expect certain things from the church and that’s why they don’t want to be here. So show them something different. Defy expectations. Trump the stereotypes.

2. Be Broken

Some of the most frequent complaints about Christians are that we’re hypocritical and judgmental. Your one Christmas service isn’t going to change that, but you can at least be honest and real with people.

Don’t pretend that we’re all polished up for Christmas with our fancy clothes and plastic smiles.

Freely admit that the church is a broken vessel comprised of broken people. We screw up. That’s why we need Jesus so desperately.

3. Give Them Something

Since these folks will likely never come back to your church, give them something to take home with them.

But this is where it gets difficult: It’s not like you can ask for a show of hands—”Who’s here today and doesn’t want to be here?” So whatever you offer people has to go to everybody. That means it needs to work for your longtime members, your once-in-a-while attenders, the actually curious visitors, your visiting Christians and the visitors you’ll never see again. That’s a tall order.

You might be able to bank on the fact that longtime members and visiting Christians will recognize your attempts at outreach and understand that they’re not the target audience.

Here are some things you might be able to offer:

  • A book that could subtly point them along a spiritual path. This is fraught with peril, mainly because so few people read these days, but also because picking one book that will appeal to a broad audience is nearly impossible. But it could work. Remember you want a book they can relate to, so probably not something from the Christian bookstore. Think more gritty spiritual memoir, less Billy Graham.
  • Music can be a powerful way to connect with people. If your church has a strong worship team (i.e., not amateur hour), consider recording some music and offering a CD or USB drive with your Christmas music. Sometimes Christmas music can be less threatening than regular worship songs because it’s so familiar. (Be aware of licensing restrictions—you might be limited to public domain songs, which works well for a lot of Christmas music.)
  • An invite to a follow-up event for the spiritually curious. One way to bring people back who don’t want to come back to church is to offer something that isn’t church. Create a follow-up event that welcomes doubters and skeptics. Maybe it’s an Alpha course or a speaker with a story wary people can relate to. Maybe it’s a casual hangout at a non-threatening location, like a coffee shop or a bar (gasp).
  • A genuine, no-agenda, no-strings-attached gift. This could be a loaf of bread, Christmas cookies, a gift card, etc. Now people might be skeptical of your gift and question your motives, but you have no control over that. Christmas is about giving, so give them something.

Whatever you offer should include a URL pointing to a landing page with specifically targeted information. These people don’t want to come back, so service times are probably a low priority. But if they’ve engaged thus far, they might have questions or want to connect. Give them opportunities to ask questions or learn more in a low pressure setting.

4. Just Consider It

Maybe this all sounds crazy to you. A church-sponsored event at a bar? Never gonna happen. Or maybe your church is just so, well, churchy, that you can’t relate to someone who doesn’t want to be in church. Maybe your church is great at altar calls, but you’re not so great at welcoming people who actually need to respond to an altar call. Maybe evangelism is just not a priority for your church.

But this is the difficult work of the church. It’s why we’re so eager to share the good news of great joy for all people.

If that’s the case for your church, you’ve got a lot of work to do. But the fact that you’re still reading this article is good news. Just start thinking about how you can reach out to people. Maybe it won’t happen this year, but you can start planting the seeds with your pastor or leadership.

Some churches are also better at this than others. Ask around and see if there are other churches or ministries in your area that do a good job reaching the unchurched. Then connect with them and see what you can learn.

Pray & Let God Work

We can be as intentional and thoughtful as possible as we reach out to people who don’t want to be in church. But in the end, the Spirit has to work.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is pray.

  • Pray that God will bring people who need the hope of Christmas to your services this year. Even if they don’t want to come.
  • Pray that despite their reservations and frustrations, they will somehow be open to the Holy Spirit.
  • Pray that the stumbling blocks would be removed, that even those hostile to the church would be softened this Christmas.
  • Pray for opportunities.

Remember that your Christmas service may be just one instant in someone’s spiritual journey. This might be a tiny window of opportunity. Let’s make sure that no matter how small the opportunity, it’s at least a step forward.


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Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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