I was recently asked to speak to a church’s Outreach Committee. I’ll call them “First Church”. They had grown from a small church plant to about 140 members over the past 7 years, but in the last two years their growth had flat-lined. I know the church well and I’m friends with the pastor.
As part of their preparation for that talk, I asked them to create a LIST of all the things they had been doing to attract visitors over the past two or three years. Here’s part of First Church’s list, but don’t forget to read the TWIST on this story.
- Mailings to neighborhood and new residents.
- Ads in the newspaper, and articles about events.
- Community outreach events, including events in the local park.
- Improved church signage.
- Magnetic bumper stickers advertising the church.
- Improved “greeters” ministry.
- Welcome Stations on Sunday with bag of goodies.
- Follow up on visitors.
- A church brochure.
- Nametags for all members and visitors.
- Improved New Members Class.
The rest of the items on their list looked like more of the same. And it was an impressive list! Their “Greeters” ministry was the best I’ve ever encountered. People liked the pastor. They hadn’t experienced any obvious problems that were keeping people away. By many standards, the church program was/is fairly healthy, and their worship service and sermons were and are attractive. But their growth had flat-lined. What was the problem?
One of the reasons they asked me to talk with them was my experience with church growth. I had been on the staff of a Chicagoland suburban Presbyterian church that went from 900 to 1200 members in three years. And oddly enough, that church was just a few miles down the road from what was then one of the fastest growing Mega-churches in the country: Willow Creek.
Now here’s the twist:
In that growing Chicagoland church, we did NONE of the things on First Church’s list.
ZERO. I staffed the New Member committee and “how to increase” our numerical growth was never talked about.
- No mailing campaigns.
- No stepped up greeters ministry (just avg).
- No ads, except for Easter.
- No articles.
- No community-wide VBS appeal.
- No “concerts in the park” and other such community attractions.
- Same old nice sign.
- No fancy brochure.
- Heck, we didn’t even “train our members how to invite others”.
And yet that Presbyterian church grew over 25% in two years. In fact, our growth created a sanctuary crowding program which we solved by balancing attendance between our two IDENTICAL services.
- No contemporary worship. (i.e. no “drums in worship”, hahaha)
- Our church was not on a main road.
- Our sign didn’t announce worship times (though I wish it had).
- Our pastor was not a rockstar or a glad-hand. He was a competent preacher.
- Our music program was traditional.
- Our church was on the outskirts of a growing area off the beaten track.
How DID we grow?
I’ve thought long and hard about that, especially in the light of church growth research and practices. Here’s a summary of how we grew 25% in three years:
1. We created a small group ministry. Our Young Families group went from 0 to 25 overnight, and they started inviting their friends (a major component of this uptick was recreation opportunities where young men/husbands could bond). Seasonal in-home dinner Bible studies were added.
2. We started an Adult Fellowship group that had recreation, study and family ministry components.
3. We improved our Sunday morning adult education, bringing in local speakers on a variety of topics, as well as, maintaining traditional Bible study. We made it appealing, and we also made it easy for adults to have coffee and go to classes which were right there and not half way around the building (I learned how important this was in another church where the adult ed space was to far away and out of sight.)
4. We re-invented our Sunday School (this is the church were the Workshop Rotation Model for Sunday School was born). Our Sunday School became a talking point for our families. Visitors saw our exciting learning environments, including our Bible computer lab, and their kids said, “I wanna join this church”. We also added a children’s fellowship.
5. We initiated a number of hands-on mission projects that brought members together in service.
In summary, we focused on growing our members, not our membership. And as I type that, let me say “thank you God” for making me type that! …so let me type it again…
We focused on the growth of our members, not the membership.
And profoundly, one took care of the other.
We did have a good foundation in place:
- A wonderful facility that was in good shape, colorful, and comfortable, not austere.
- A trusted Sr. Minister.
- A reasonable budget (but one which grew with us as well)
- Congregational leaders willing to embrace change (and as we became successful, even more change)
- Good church architecture (I mention this again having since been in other churches where the layout of the building and classroom locations made it easy not to “go there.”
I’m not suggesting that First Church’s list was unimportant or ineffective. But I would suggest that SOME of those things are what you do AFTER you have done the more fruitful and important work. Part of the problem is that committees often fixate on “quick projects”, -like tinkering with ads, sending postcards, designing brochures, and fixing up the church sign. They burn their volunteer time on “work” instead of “what works”. And don’t address the larger issues.
The research I’ve quoted recently in this blog confirms this experience. The best thing you can do to grow is to meet the “growing” needs of your members.
- That’s what will motivate them to INVITE their friends and neighbors.
- That’s what visitors will sense, and want to come back to.
We heard this in every new member class we held. “I was invited by….” “I was attracted to….” “I starting coming to ______ group.” “My kids really wanted to go here.”
Back to First Church…
First Church has an energy you can feel. But what many in the congregation have been saying is that –as it initially grew, and moved past focusing on survival, it started to lack opportunities to feel connected outside of the decision making groups. The early members were attracted to the idea of growing a new church, and spent all their energy doing so. They created all the ‘basics’: good worship, a few fellowship events, a modest Sunday School and youth group, the occasional mission event. They were right to focus on building the structure of a church in order to plant themselves, but now they needed to take it to the next level for the rest of the congregation who weren’t coming to establish a church, but to build relationships and grow in faith.
Happily, First Church has embraced the need, advice and stats. In fact, they intuitively knew it themselves, and have started to take “the next step” towards growing their members, which in turn will grow their membership.
They have begun a “Catch and Keep” program. As part of that emphasis, the church’s Session is articulating the need for all church efforts to promote meaningful “relationship building” and spiritual growth. And, they are going to hold every committee, group, and event ACCOUNTABLE for meeting this new standard.
Growth is a lot of work. It needs to become more than just “this year’s Bible study program”. Growing relationally and spiritually in Christ needs to become who we are, and how we go about everything.
I hope this helps your ministry.