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The Worst Ways to Evaluate Your Church (and the Best One)

The Worst Ways To Evaluate Your Church (And The Best One)

When you attend a church, how do you evaluate what you’re experiencing?

Before you say, “I don’t evaluate anything. I’m just there to worship God,” hang on a second.

We all evaluate what’s happening in church. Every one of us does. Whether you’re a first-time guest or a lifelong attender, you evaluate your experience. You do the same thing every time you go to a coffee shop, store or restaurant. Frankly, you’re doing it now, trying to decide whether clicking on this article was worth it and whether you’re going to bother to skim through it, read to the end or abandon things.

To evaluate is human. How you evaluate something is the difference between being harmful and helpful.

Evaluate things one way, and you become a critic. Soon, you may become a professional critic. Nothing is ever good enough.

Evaluate things another way, and you become a contributor—you build a better future.

I was talking to my friend Ben Snyder recently (he leads Cedar Creek Church in Toledo) and he said something that made me stop and write it down: You see church based on who you’re inviting.

Boom. That’s exactly it.

Like Ben, I’ve devoted my life to helping create churches that people who don’t go to church love to attend. In my view, it’s a worthy endeavor because it strikes at the heart of the Gospel: The Gospel is always advancing to people yet unreached, offering the hope and forgiveness we find in Jesus Christ.

We have an incredibly large group of people in our own cities, towns and communities who have yet to personally experience the love, forgiveness and salvation experienced in Jesus.

Paradoxically, most churches are stalled out or declining and actually not reaching the very people we were created to reach.

Maybe one reason that’s true is because of how we evaluate church.

If you see church based on who you’re inviting, far too many Christians would say, “Well, I’m inviting no one.”

As soon as you venture into that territory, your evaluation lens is in trouble. Rather than seeing things through the lens of an outsider, you begin to evaluate church based on other factors which probably make it hard for the church to accomplish our mission.

Here are some bad ways to evaluate your church experience, and one good one.

Let’s start with the good.

Your Friend’s Eyes

When you invite a friend who doesn’t attend church to come with you to church, everything changes.

Suddenly, you listen to the music differently. Is it any good, easy to follow or sing? Is it weird or outdated? Wait—is it full of jargon no one can really understand?

You start to wonder whether the message would make any sense to an outsider, and shudder if it’s filled with language that’s so ‘churchy’ you have to be a life-long Christian to understand it. You also hope the preacher isn’t talking about money. (Actually, there is a way to talk about money that unchurched people love, but that’s another blog post.)

You begin to notice things like the cracks in the sidewalk, peeling paint and a preschool ministry filled with toys from a previous generation. And then you wince.

You’ll also see whether you have an easy on-ramp for new people who want to explore Christianity deeper. Many churches don’t. They just have programs that work for those who already attend.

You see things so differently when you invite a friend.

If you want to keep losing unchurched people, here are seven ways to do it quickly.

If you want to take this a little further, evaluate your church through a kids’ eyes, as Ben encourages his team to do. The results will tell a story.

If kids hate your church, why you’re not growing shouldn’t be a mystery.

Critics will say churches who pay attention to unchurched people water down the message or experience. Maybe the opposite is true.

Leaders who make things accessible to unchurched people don’t dilute the Gospel, they advance it. After all, the mission of the church has always been to advance beyond itself to reach others.

Seeing church through the eyes of your friends is one of the best ways to see your church. I know when I have friends in the room I’m always more sensitive to every aspect of the service, hoping we help them make a connection with Christ rather than get in the way of it.

But what happens when you don’t have a friend on your arm? So many Christians attend year after year and bring nobody with them.

Well, then, your lens for evaluation changes. And almost always, it becomes far less healthy.

Selfish Eyes

If you don’t have a friend on your arm and you fail to fight this with all you’ve got, you’ll end up evaluating your church through selfish eyes.

People who don’t invite friends almost always evaluate their church through selfish eyes.

You begin to run everything through a simple filter: Do I like it?

You judge songs and worship leaders based on your personal preference and make emotional decisions on whether you like a particular preacher or a series or a topic.

You’ll look at everything from architecture, to dress, to style, to kids ministry, to things as intangible as vibe as the basis for your decisions.

You’ll become what Jon B. Crist parodies in his hilarious and a-little-too-true episodes of Church Hunters.

You can’t help but factor some of your preferences into your decision, but still, why would a devoted Christian make them their primary criteria?

If you keep evaluating a church through selfish eyes, you’ll kill the most important thing: the mission.

And worse, you’re playing a game you’ll never win. In fact, here’s why searching for a church that meets your needs is futile.

Theologically Judgmental Eyes

Some people make it their mission to defend orthodoxy.

Don’t get me wrong, orthodoxy matters. When a church becomes untethered from the truth, it ceases to be a church.

I’ve seen way too many people become hyper focused on orthodoxy and theologically ‘correctness’ at the expense of everything else, including the mission or whether their church might ever reach their friends.

It’s as though their entire reason for being has become to point out flaws in preachers, denominations, and congregations.

Your primary way of building yourself up should never be tearing others down.

You can easily get yourself in a place where you think you’re the only one who understands truth anymore, and almost everyone else is wrong and going to hell, except your tiny little tribe that’s also as correct as you are.

Do we have to guard against theological drift and compromise in our churches and within ourselves? Absolutely.

But if your only gift to the church is criticism, you need a new gift.

In the name of orthodoxy, too many people untether themselves from grace. That ceases to be Christian.

I’m not saying they cease to be Christian, but their view point and tone certainly aren’t true to the Christian faith that at its heart is grace AND truth.

If you’re not inviting friends, it can be easy to fall into the trap of evaluating everything through the eyes of theological correctness.

A Practitioner’s Eyes

So this one’s an occupational hazard.

For half my life, I’ve been a part of church from the inside. Which means it’s hard for me to be in a church service (even as a worshipper) without evaluating and studying everything.

I look at the lights and band and try to figure out how they (or we, if I’m home) did everything. I study the sound board, watch the greeters work, check out the parking lots, kids ministry and student ministries.

Even during the message, I can miss the sermon because I’m studying the sermon—more interested in style, method, approach and even delivery than the content.

Church leaders, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The only thing that can keep my heart moving in the right direction on this issue is to remember that I’m a worshiper first, and leader second.

If I come into church as a worshipper and try to experience the service as something that brings me closer to God, it helps me resist the tendency to take notes on everything and miss the point.

Wait…I can even do better than simply showing up as a worshipper.

It changes everything if I enter the experience as a worshipper with a friend on my arm. Then, I think, we’re getting close to what church is actually designed to be.

What Do You Think?

What eyes do you adopt if you’re not careful?

How do things change for you when you bring a friend?

This article originally appeared here.

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Speaker and podcaster Carey Nieuwhof is a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church, one of the largest and most influential churches in Canada. With over 6 million downloads, The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast features today's top leaders and cultural influencers. His most recent book is “Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.” Carey and his wife, Toni, reside near Barrie, Ontario and have two children.