I’ve had this in my blog file for a while as a topic to explore, and the truth is, I don’t have a good answer. I’m not sure I even have much in the way of suggestions for how to get at this. But as far as I’m concerned it’s one of the most frustrating parts of ministry: when you work hard to prepare programs that people ask for that they then don't attend.
Like when someone comes to you and says, “We really need a Bible study!” And you say OK, and you prepare and you announce and you invite, and two people come, neither of whom is the person who suggested it.
Or when you send out a survey, asking for people’s interest on a variety of topics, and you focus on the one that people are most enthusiastic about. You line up speakers or prepare presentations and the first one goes great, but attendance dwindles until you’re left with the half-dozen people who come to everything.
Or when parents tell you that they want their youth to have a strong fellowship group and a chance to explore important values and you share about your great youth program and then they never come.
And the frustration to me is less that people don’t come, or that people can’t come, but that we can’t get an honest answer from people about what they're actually willing and able to do. At least, that’s what I suspect.
It's not that they’re lying to us; my hunch is they’re conditioned to give certain answers. People think they’re supposed to want to come to Bible study or to book groups or to bring their kids to youth group; they want to want to come to Bible study or book groups or bring their kids to youth group. But I suspect the truth is, most of our members aren’t quite sure what they want, but they want something.
But let’s be honest: we church formation types are conditioned too. Perhaps I should just speak for myself. When someone tells me they want a spiritual formation program that I think sounds interesting, I get excited – and I can imagine that my excitement and enthusiasm is a reward of sorts for those who tell me their ideas. How would I react if someone came to me and said, “I have absolutely no interest in being part of a Bible study.” Would I reward that response? Would I neutrally accept it? Or would I subtly work to convince them otherwise – never overtly saying, “You should want to be in a Bible study,” but asking leading questions that imply that they should?
So as an initial answer to the question of how to get people to be honest, I have a searching personal question to ask myself – and perhaps all of us who are Christian formation professionals: How do we subtly reward people who give us the “right” answer? And how can we change that so we get the true one instead?