I came of age in the 70s and was raised on the TV sitcoms of the era: All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Happy Days, and The Odd Couple. In fact, one episode from the many hours of TV that I watched comes from a classic Odd Couple show. Messy, fun-loving, unpredictable Oscar Madison teaches punctilious, uber clean roommate Felix Unger the negative impact of unstated assumptions. Without spoiling the punchline, let’s just say they cause everyone to feel asinine. Painful as the lesson is for Felix at the time, he later teaches the lesson to others. It’s a moment that lives on in TV history.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the need to be clear on assumptions. Each presidential campaign is based on a certain set of assumptions. If you agree with the assumptions the candidate makes, then you are likely to agree with his or her vision of the future. If you don’t agree with their assumptions, their vision is unlikely to move you.
It seems obvious, doesn’t it? But the thing about assumptions is they often go unstated and unnoticed. We don’t even realize we have them, let alone what they are. They’re hidden from our view. That’s as true in the church as it in politics. I’d like to share one area of congregational life in which it’s critical to test your assumptions, and how to do it.
When I began a new small town church appointment, I took the advice of my coach and met with different groups of people in their homes. My purpose was to get to know them and let them get to know me. It was also to discover their hopes, dreams and memories of the church. All of that was insightful. But what made the biggest difference was a question I slipped in at the last moment. “Why do you come to church?”
Here’s what I found out:

  • My friends are here.
  • I grew up going to church and it helps me re-set my week.
  • It’s a time to pause and catch up with myself.
  • I like the hymns; they make me feel close to my grandmother.
  • I’m trying to meet somebody special.
  • I want my grandkids to learn about Jesus.
  • I’m lonely—divorced/widowed/new to town—and I wanted to meet some nice people.

None of what they said surprised me. The surprise is what they didn’t say. Nobody said, “Because I want to give back to the community, get to know Jesus better, make the world a better place, or pray for a miracle in my family.” Nobody said, “I want to learn how to pray better, or know the Bible better or because God said so.” Mind you, these were all answers I had gotten at previous churches I had served. Glad I asked. If I hadn’t, I would have dragged us all into the Felix Unger trap of making untested assumptions. Everyone would have felt asinine, especially me. And the people would have had every right to be upset, disconnected, and disappointed. As it was, the knowledge I gained from that one unplanned question helped shape my preaching, the way I approached Bible study, and new ministries the church launched. Relationships were the key. Eventually, that knowledge even informed the church’s new mission statement: “Ordinary people doing extraordinary things with the love of Jesus Christ.” The congregation was able to live it out with gusto.
The truth is, you can consult big data about why people go to church. Or even read pieces about why they should go to church. But there’s no substitute for finding out why people actually show up at your church.
I’m not saying church needs to be built around whims. But it is important to talk with your constituency and find out what’s true for them. Even if you think you already know.
To make the most of this opportunity, be as open and as curious as you can be. Lay aside any defensiveness or judgments about what people have to say. Ask open ended questions that indicate you care about their answers. Then listen, take notes, and shut up. Let people talk.
It’s helpful to do this every few years in a more formal way, like at home gatherings. It’s also an incredibly helpful question to ask of guests, long-time leaders, and new members.
Don’t forget to flip the question around and ask people who have stopped coming to church: “Why have you stopped coming to church?” Be as open, patient, non-anxious, and caring with these folks as you are with the regular attenders. Don’t necessarily try to fix things. Just listen. You might be surprised at what people have to say.
I was surprised to discover that one single mom who attended worship pretty regularly had stayed away because her friend, a Sunday School teacher, was complaining to her about church business. While she liked the church, and enjoyed worship, this mom didn’t want to come to a church that seemed to be in turmoil. In actuality, her neighbor was just venting. But she didn’t know that. She thought the church was going down. We got that straightened out, and the next surprise was she came back to worship and got involved once again.
Got assumptions? Might as well be clear about them. Own them, test them, and be prepared to revise them. Otherwise, you’ll fall into the Felix Unger trap. And you know what Oscar and Felix would have to say: “When you assume, you make an a$$ out of you and me.”
The church deserves better than that.