Why Do People Attend Church for the First Time?

Cash Register

Selling Milkshakes

I watched an interesting marketing video from a Harvard professor talking about an essential marketing question, “What is your product selling?” For example, He focused on the milkshake and asked the question, “What is the milkshake selling to the customer?” More than just a frosty dessert, it’s “selling” a feeling for the customer. For commuters buying a milkshake on their way to work, they might be buying something to hold and do during their commute. In the afternoon parents might buy a milkshake hoping to pacify their crying child. So, in that case the milkshake is selling peace and quiet to the parents. Once it is determined what the product is selling to the customer, a company can then better adapt their product to meet those specific needs. For example, McDonalds might make larger or smaller straws and offer specific flavors to meet the various things people are looking for their milkshake to do. Now, the question is, how does this apply to church?

What is your church selling people? Not literally of course, but if you thought of the church like a product- like a milkshake, what are people hoping it will do for them?

But, this is a ridiculous question!

Before I answer that question, I know some will think the very nature of this question is ridiculous. One might think, “The church offers the gospel, nothing more, nothing less.” In fact they might think that churches who get off on tangents like this is exactly what’s wrong with the church today. But, I would put this in the category of the restaurant owner who loves milkshakes and wants everyone to buy his milkshake, but thinks it’s a waste of time to ask why people would want to buy a milkshake in the first place. Maybe he thinks vanilla is the only “true” flavor and people should just line up and buy milkshakes because, “clearly milkshakes are the best,” and his restaurant is the best place to buy a milkshake. But, then this restaurant owner is confused why people aren’t flocking to his restaurant to buy a milkshake.

If you think about it, the gospel breaks down to establishing a need we have (a broken relationship with Jesus that we can’t fix). This leads to a realization of our brokenness. Then, Jesus offers the solution to fix that need (He died on a cross to take care of our brokenness so we can have a restored relationship with God and can now have true purpose in this life and the next). The restoration the gospel offers our lives can apply to all the spiritual nooks and crannies of our soul. The question we’re asking here is what specific nook and cranny of people’s soul drives them to look for answers in the church?

Reasons why someone attends church:

There are numerous reasons why a person attends church. These might be considered what the church is selling their community. Yes, we wish people walked in off the street looking for the gospel directly, but more often they walk in looking for the following first and realize only later the gospel is the answer:

  • Community (looking for friends, relationships)
  • Something in life is creating turmoil and they hope God will fix it (marriage, finances, emotional health, job, health)
  • Looking for life purpose or meaning
  • Want a place to ‘give back’ and serve others
  • To instill some sense of spirituality in their children
  • Recovery (loss, divorce, addiction)
  • Blessing  (spiritual, financial, any kind of favor)
  • Assurance of an afterlife
  • Hoping to reconnect with God (probably because of the above)

Think about yourself, what brought you to church in the first place? If you decided to attend as an adult, what were you hoping the church would fill in your life?

The Presenting Problem

These are the issues that typically bring people in the doors of the church. In counseling we call these the presenting problem. But, any counselor will tell you, the presenting problem is seldom the real issue. It’s the same with the church, these presenting problems are only symptoms of our deeper broken relationship with God. Any discussion on a person’s presenting problem in the church will lead to the truth of the gospel.

The Takeaway

In John 10, Jesus gives the analogy that He is like the good shepherd who knows his sheep and their needs deeply and intimately. Pastors are often compared to shepherds and are called to care for their congregation or “flock.” As a pastor it’s our job to know the condition of our sheep, but not only the ones in our church, but also the ones in our community and city. What questions are people asking? What’s broken? From the above list, what’s the biggest presenting need that could draw people to the church? We understand that Jesus is the ultimate answer to people’s biggest brokenness, but if we will first consider their presenting problem, and what they are hoping the church will offer them, they will be more prepared to hear and accept the truth.

The Big But…

This is only a piece of the picture. I think it is very important to understand what people are looking for that the church is “selling.” But, spending too much time thinking through this can be dangerous and only feeds into our culture’s me first attitude. I could write a whole other blog post about the dangers of the me first church, always going after and catering to the needs of the me first church attender. These are the people always talking about how the church meets their needs. I’ll save that discuss for another day, but it’s worth mentioning here.

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