Are you a good date?
I’m a single minister, which puts me in the unique and sometimes awkward position of going on dates as a pastor. But even without my unique situation, dating is tricky, period. There are all sorts of unspoken rules and techniques to be a good date. And the truth is, reaching millennials is a lot like dating. A young person walking through the doors of your church is trying to evaluate the question “is this place for me?”
And just like a date, there are all sorts of actions we can take that, while well-meaning, can make a person feel uncomfortable. On the flip side, if you handle things well, you can make someone feel comfortable and at ease in your presence and be wanting a second date. So here are a few things I’ve learned about dating that translate 100% to reaching millennials in your church:
Lesson #1: Don’t jump the gun.
At the core, dating is getting to know someone and seeing if the two of you are a match. We put a lot of pressure around it, but that’s the goal. Church has a similar goal. We’re looking for people and they are looking for a community. So is this a person who finds a match in our community? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. And that’s fine.
But sometimes people get too excited too quickly. I have friends who have dated people who start talking weddings or kids within a couple dates! Nothing quite sends off red flags like someone who comes on too strong.
And churches are guilty of this exact thing. I hear stories constantly from young adults who visit congregations, only to be pounced on by older church members. One friend has a story where a woman at a church reached over and stuck a large red VISITOR sticker on her chest… without asking. During the service, they had her stand and introduce herself.
This was the equivalent of her first date. Not only was her personal space invaded, but she was put into a situation where she felt uncomfortable. She never went on date #2.
A good date happens when someone knows how to pace things. Don’t rush, don’t invade. Let people explore a connection to see if it works for them. Be kind, be inviting, be charming—but don’t jump the gun.
Lesson #2: Prep, prep, prep.
When I first starting dating in my 20’s, I was absolutely terrified of women. I would get attached before a first date, say things too personal too soon, talk too much… the list goes on. I once even tried to kiss someone for the first time while we were both buckled in my car. She politely avoided the attempt.
It was just cringeworthy.
What I realized is that I needed to learn and practice how to be a better date.
If you look at the churches most successful at reaching people in their 20’s and 30’s, they aren’t forcing things. The experience for the person attending is that things just flow. The experience from parking to sitting down is pleasant and straightforward. It feels like it just happens naturally.
But I guarantee you that none of that experience just “happened.” It was planned, practiced, intentional, and executed. None of that makes it any less authentic. It just means that some leader somewhere thought highly enough of their parishioners to put in the extra work. Good intentions aren’t enough. If you want someone to have a positive first impression, you’ll need to prep to make it flow!
Lesson #3: Focus on you - not the empty chair next to you.
When I first started dating, I lamented my singleness to my mother. She gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten. “Don’t worry about finding the woman of your dreams. Become the man of her dreams.” Super cliche, I know. But there’s some truth here. If you’re wasting energy worrying about who is missing, that’s energy you could have spent on making yourself better.
It applies to church as well. You can’t worry about who isn’t there. You only have responsibility for being the best version of yourself you can be. If you help create a healthy space and community, those empty seats will take care of themselves. It might be that there’s a lot of work in front of you. It might be discouraging. But one day of work becomes two and seven days becomes a week and eventually, you’ll be the church of someone’s dreams.
It’s just the tip of the iceberg, and dating may not be the best analogy for the church, but these ideas work in both worlds. Don’t jump the gun. Prep. Focus on you, not the empty seat. Every church in this country can reach millennials. But not unless you focus on their experience of your community.
A good church is like a good date. So how are you doing?