By Eddie Pipkin

April 25, 2017

Free grilled chicken samples!  Who would walk by tasty, mouth-watering, fresh, and did we mention FREE, fresh-off-the-grill chicken samples?  And yet, people do.  It’s almost as unbelievable a situation as the people who walk right by all of the amazing opportunities that our local churches make available for people to be a part of amazing worship and ministry.  So, what’s up with that?

This past Saturday I was part of a crew that ventured downtown to Church Street in Orlando to attend the season opener for the Orlando Pride (our National Women’s Soccer League franchise), and after the game we stopped in at a local soul food institution, Chef Eddie’s (authentic chicken and waffles, with waffles in 10 flavors—I highly recommend the red velvet waffles).  We had a table outside, and while we were eating, a couple of servers came out and started offering bite-sized grilled chicken samples (complete with sauce options) to the thousands of post-game soccer fans who were streaming by.  And to my utter astonishment, the vast majority of these people—and this was right at 6:00 p.m., dinnertime—walked right on by.  Group after group strolled past and rejected this generous offer of golden grilled perfection.  They shook their heads no, waved the offer off, looked studiously in the opposite direction or stoically straight ahead.  Only a few sociable souls took the proffered morsels; they were the ones who found themselves immediately smiling.

Since I have never ever been one to pass up free food, and because I had snagged a sample of my own and knew just what they were missing, I could not wrap my ahead around this scene.  Group after group walked right by.  I got up from my seat and staked out a different angle so that I could formulate a theory as to what was going on.

And here’s the best I could come up with.  The server, Lucinda, made a great inviting and professional presentation (the product was perfection and the price was right), but she was standing there silently—pleasantly but silently—she was not engaging the passersby in conversation, wasn’t giving them active encouragement, wasn’t clearly communicating the merits of the opportunity they were sadly missing.

I had a sudden and swift ministry insight: this is exactly the kind of mistake that we as ministry leaders often make.  We come up with a great idea.  We work diligently to plan an inspired worship event or discipleship retreat, a service opportunity or an engaging study.  We write an article about it and post it to our website or publish it in the printed newsletter—we maybe even make an announcement about it on Sunday morning.  And then we sit back and wait, and we end up wringing our hands in frustration when people just walk on by.  No thanks, they say.  And we wonder why.  We can’t wrap our heads around how people could refuse such an awesome and opportune chance to be a part of the action.

It turns out that we have to do more than just present the opportunity to them on a platter.  No matter how wonderful what we are offering is, unless we engage people with active communication and actual conversation, most folks are hard-wired to walk on by.  Sure, some will always engage (the natural engagers who are seeking new experiences as a way of life, or perhaps those who are truly hungry for what we’re offering at the exact moment we happen to be offering it).  But many others are suspicious (this can’t possibly be a no-strings-attached offer!) or focused on other priorities (um, we already are headed to dinner, and I don’t want to ruin my appetite!) or not sure exactly what’s happening (what is that—is that chicken—is it organic, free-range chicken?).

As ministry leaders who believe with all our hearts in what we’re offering ministry participants, we should keep these things in mind:

  • Don’t just put your ministry out on display. Tell a story.  Don’t just make an “announcement” about upcoming (or continuing) ministry opportunities.  Don’t just write a quick article about when and where and how many bodies are needed to make it happen.  Help people understand exactly what you’re offering, exactly how they can get involved, exactly what it will demand of them, how they will make a difference by participating, and how they will be changed by that participation.
  • Leverage the power of first-person testimonials. At one point as I was watching people walk by the chicken samples, I started chiming in with, “Hey, I can’t believe you guys are missing out on that amazing chicken!  It’s the best chicken I ever tasted.”  This, in fact, compelled several people to try it out.  So it is with our ministries.  Stop talking so much yourself (people assume you are obligated to be excited about your ministry).  Invite others to share their ministry stories.  This strongly motivates those who hear to consider giving something new a try.
  • Don’t forget the chit-chat. Create opportunities for active conversations with people.  Pre-empt their natural suspicions and concerns.  Give them a chance to feel comfortable asking questions.  Take the stress off by creating an empathetic dialogue that acknowledges their reality: “Hey, I bet you guys are hungry after the big game—how about a snack of some fresh grilled chicken?”
  • Have a menu and a host handy. Have an easy and straightforward path for people to engage opportunities more deeply.  If they like the chicken, hand them a menu and have somebody available to guide them straight in to a table.  Don’t be pushy about it, of course, but just give a clear sign of welcome and delight in their extended interest.  Definitely—as ministries too often do—don’t sabotage that interest.  If somebody is interested in a ministry, there should be a crystal clear way for them to respond, get involved, or talk to somebody further (who is excited to be talking to them).
  • Remember: Not everybody likes chicken! Maybe you want to offer multiple samples.  Sampling is a great idea, by the way.  Ministry fairs, ministry field trips and shadow sessions, ministry mentors and guides, ministry gift assessments: there are many ways you can encourage people to sample a given ministry without feeling like they are making a lifetime commitment.  Let them try things out and see what clicks.

What ways have you offered “free samples” to your congregation?  What have you seen work well and what have you been frustrated by as people just walked on by an amazing opportunity?  As always, feel free to share your own experiences and check out the discipleship resources which explore this and other topics more deeply at Excellence in Ministry Coaching.