A few weeks ago a couple came to my church who I hadn’t seen in a few months. Normally I would just say “hi, great to see you!” but lately I’ve been going at these conversations differently. I said, “I haven’t seen you in a few months and have really missed you being here. It’s great to see you.” Instead of just walking by, they stopped to catch me up on their lives. Though I said nearly the same thing as what I’ve typically done, confronting the idea of them being gone opened the door to something beyond the usual greeting.
As a pastor, I’m often intimidated to talk to people about their church attendance. Part of it is a self-conscious worry that they’ll think I selfishly care more about church attendance than them as people, but another part is a worry that they’ll take it as me condemning them for their lack of church attendance. Of course, neither of those are true (at least you would hope not), but that’s why I avoid the conversation.
According to Barna research, one of the reasons people stop going to church is because they lack community within the congregation. Often this shows up when someone doesn’t come for a few weeks and no one says anything. If no one noticed for a few weeks, new habits can be established, and by the time someone actually reaches out they’ve already started to move on. Within the church, no one should have to show up to be noticed.
Normally when I tell them I’ve missed them at church this is immediately followed with the reasons why they’ve been gone. Vacation. Sickness. Work. I have no reason not to believe their reasons. But I like to remind people after they give their reasons that I wasn’t giving them a guilt trip by telling them they were missed, I just wanted them to know I care and that our church is better when they’re around.
In this, I have identity issues that must be worked through, or I’ll navigate the conversation from a place of deficiency, ultimately becoming a manipulator. Because much of my ministry and leadership is done in public in front of others it’s quite easy to believe that people not showing up or lacking enthusiasm is a knock against my abilities. I can quickly move from success to failure on any given Sunday in my own mind. These identity issues come to bear in how I navigate conversations with those who seem to be distancing from the church.
If I find my value in how many people come to my church and appreciate my pastoral leadership when I tell people I miss them then I’m only trying to boost my own confidence. If I feel rejected when people don’t show up and respond by telling them I miss them I’m merely a sleazy recruiter hoping my statement will bring them back.
The situation is easy to manipulate, instead of actually caring.
No Perfect Path
I’ve learned there’s no easy way to go about telling a person you care that they were gone. Some will feel judged and condemned. Others will greatly appreciate it.
What must be decided is whether you’re more comfortable leaving things unsaid or choosing to state the obvious. Leaving things unsaid provides opportunity for the same pattern to continue with little acknowledge. Stating the obvious may not change the outcome, but it will provide clarity in the present.
As it relates to church there seems to be little to lose when saying “I’ve missed you” to someone who hasn’t been around much. As long as you can make the statement without judgment or manipulation, letting someone know they were missed assures them that people care and that they have value.
Whether you’re a leader at a church or not, we should all strive to notice when people aren’t around and let them know the church is better when they’re around.