Going to church, believe it or not, can be a controversial topic around the holiday season. Some of us go consistently each week, some of us used to go, and some of us have vowed to never walk through the halls of a church again.
Everyone comes from different families, cultures, and backgrounds and thus we all have different stories in this regard.
Recently, I was having a conversation with my Uber driver about her experience in church. As we spoke, she shared that at one point she had been attending pretty frequently but has since found herself less engaged. During the course of our time together, as a pastor of course, I couldn’t help but suggest that she might reconsider her decision.
Now, don’t misunderstand. It was a great conversation with lots of give and take, and she asked my thoughts, and I asked hers. And, when appropriate, I shared mine.
But, you see, we all know people like my Uber driver across many spectrums. Many have a complex relationship with churchgoing over the course of their individual lifetimes. Some are believers who have gone; others are believers who’ve stopped going altogether.
Others still actually aren’t believers at all, but perhaps people who are trying church out for the first time—in fact, chances are, there are people like that sitting next to you in service more Sundays than not.
Around the holiday times each year, followers of Christ have the opportunity to enter into spiritual conversations with family members and friends. Many of those conversations will likely end up at the very least touching on the subject of church in some way, shape, or form.
According to Scott McConnell, the executive director of LifeWay Research, that despite our many assumptions, the reality is that “many would welcome going to a Christmas service with someone they know.”
A study performed by LifeWay Research shows that across the country, Americans are much more likely to attend church at Christmastime. When asked the question: “If someone you know invited you to attend church with them at Christmas, how likely would you be to attend?” Over half (57%) of respondents said they’d be likely to come.
As we see here, relationships are a significant means through which people can be reached with the gospel.
Now, of course God can reach people through any means he chooses—not just through family members, friends, and neighbors. Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus with neither a soul nor an evangelist in sight.
But, the beauty about all this is that even though God doesn’t need us, he chooses to use us as a means through which to reveal himself to people. We are conduits of his love and grace in a broken and hurting world with the unique honor and privilege of entering into the work that he’s doing in the lives of those close to us.
Just for a moment, think about how much more compelling the gospel message is coming from someone you already know and trust. Who are you more likely to listen to—a stranger on the street handing you a flier telling you to come to church or a friend who’s known you all your life and walked with you through thick and thin?
LifeWay Research did a study in cooperation with the Billy Graham Center on unbelievers’ willingness to enter into spiritual conversations with their friends. As it turns out, nearly 80% say that if a friend values his or her faith in Jesus, they are willing to talk to the friend about it even if they themselves are not believers. Scott McConnell shared his thoughts this way: “Unchurched Americans aren’t hostile to faith…They just don’t think church is for them.”
Truthfully speaking, people in this demographic won’t know otherwise until they’re invited to check it out for themselves.
While the idea of inviting an unbelieving friend to church can seem daunting from afar, know that there are times in the New Testament that we are told to account for the presence of unbelievers in our Sunday morning services. This is not a foreign concept to the early church, and neither should it be to us in our 21st century context today.
This holiday season, I encourage all of you to find ways to reach out to the unbelievers and infrequent churchgoers in your circles extending them an invitation to join you at church. Here are some quick strategies to go about this well.
First off, extend pressure-free invitations. The people you know and choose to invite should always feel welcome to join you without sensing a certain pressure to take you up on your initial offer. I’ve tried to, in my own personal life, make a habit of inviting my neighbors to church around Christmas and Easter each year.
I’ll let them know about the special services we’re having, and let them know that I’d love for them to join—I’d recommend that you try doing the same with your neighbors this year!
In the event that the person (or people) you invite choose to turn you down, refrain from getting frustrated, defensive, agitated, or bitter about it. Know that God asks you only to plant seeds which frees you to keep all your interactions and invitations pressure free.
Second, welcome questions. It’s quite natural that unbelievers who find themselves in church around the holiday season or any other time don’t really quite know what to believe, where to connect, or why it matters in the first place.
If someone you know and love joins you on a Sunday morning, invite them out for lunch afterwards. Offer to talk through what they’ve learned, what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what they might still have questions about.
Even if you don’t know all the answers (and you probably won’t), what matters most is maintaining a consistent posture of honesty and humility. This will help your friend feel safe, known, heard, and willing to dive into spiritual conversations.
Last, be a friend. Recognize that whoever you invite to join you at church this holiday season, that person is on a spiritual journey all their own. God alone is overseeing that process of growth—not you, not me, not your pastor, only the Lord.
You’ve been called to be a good friend to this person whether they live near you, work in your building, or are related to you by flesh and blood. You can’t save them, but you can love them, care for them, and most importantly, you can also pray for them.
In Christians in the Age of Outrage, I talk about writing the names of friends, co-workers, and neighbors down to pray for them. And our latest resource at the Billy Graham Center is called Be.Loved. and is focused on 25 simple ways to love those around us this holiday season. I invite you to download your digital copy here.
Friends, we need to be asking God each day for chances to bless and encourage those around us as well as share the gospel message. These opportunities are priceless—may we take advantage of them each and every time.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.