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Archive for Church Growth

Here’s some research from Christianity Today on the Decline of Mainline Denominations and the Impact on Evangelicals.

The main takeaway for me is that while mainline defectors first preference for relocation is in an evangelical church, evangelical defectors number one relocation spot is to become part of the rising “nones.” Surprising to no one should be the statistic that the number cause for the decline of both mainlines and evangelicals is the attrition due to aging.

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“More than a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church is beginning to reopen in the United States. This process has been uneven, with many cities still under significant restrictions while others are able to operate with relatively minor accommodations. At the center of this season of reopening is the pressing need for churches to gain clarity on the state of their membership. While online services and ministries have offered a necessary lifeline of connection, the rapid change and inherent disconnectedness of the pandemic has produced a season of uncertainty. How are churches in the United States fairing in terms of attendance, giving, and staffing? How are pastors navigating the new pressures of reopening after over a year of unprecedented challenges? The National COVID-19 Church Attendance Project (NCCAP) represents an effort to answer these questions by tracking church reopening. The report processed responses from over 600 churches representing over 400,000 weekly worshippers from 47 states and the District of Colombia.” — cited from the Overview of the full results of the Project Report.

You can view the full report at https://churchattendanceproject.org/full-results/. To read commentary on the Church Attendance Project Report, go to https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2021/may/church-decline-and-recovery-during-covid-19.html?&display=checkout and https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2021/may/church-decline-and-recovery-during-covid-19-part-2.html.

What do you think of the research? Does it reflect your particular congregation?

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This data was compiled during the COVID-19 closures in 2020. However, it is interesting to see how generations differ in what they missed and what they value in the corporate worship experience. What did you (or do you) miss most by not gathering in person for worship?

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Barna Research released a study this week which assessed how church goers feel after attending worship. These emotions range from feeling encouraged, disappointed, connected and more. To read the research you can use the following link: https://www.barna.com/research/churchgoers-feel/.

The surprising statistic from this research is the level of disappointment people feel following worship attendance. A full 50% of churched adults feel some measure of disappointment, and nearly 40% of practicing Christians feel the same. I am reminded that disappointment is the result of failed expectations. In other words, there is a significant disconnect between what pastors and worship leaders are providing in a worship experience and what attendees are actually looking for or need. This is critical, because disappointments are also resentments under construction. People may feel a wide range of emotions on any given Sunday, but repeated disappointment is a foundational crack that needs to be addressed.

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In a recent poll released by Gallup, American church membership has declined to below 50% of the population. The study cites that in 2020, only 47% of U.S. adults belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. That’s a 20 point reduction since the turn of the century (1999). The survey states the following reasons for this steady decrease.

  1. There is a decline in religious affiliation, due in part to the increased number of churches that have eliminated formal church membership.
  2. Values have shifted through generations. With each generational stage comes a decline, which should come as no surprise.
  3. No demographic sub group is unscathed. The decline in membership is non discriminate toward race, gender, socio-economic status, political affiliation, etc.
  4. While the pandemic certainly didn’t help the numbers, it didn’t cause the numbers. The pandemic revealed the trend that was already underway.
  5. While estimates remain unclear, it is certain that many churches will be forced to either close or form mergers in the coming years in order to remain sustainable.

What are the options, then, in the face of this trend?

First, churches need to re-evaluate their values toward formal church membership in favor of committed participation. Regular attenders may never formally join a church. At the same time, these same attenders may provide stability through volunteerism, leadership, and financial donations. If a church is narrow at this point, it may miss opportunities to disciple people and fellowship with them.

Second, churches need to immerse themselves in their communities to find the needs that are present instead of “just guessing at it.” For example, the Gallup Poll cites a 2017 poll among church goers which details the major reasons people attend a particular church. The results are interesting.

Reasons for Attending Church or Other Place of WorshipMajor factorMinor factorNot a factor
%%%
Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture76168
Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life75168
Spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers642115
Lots of community outreach and volunteer opportunities592713
Dynamic religious leaders who are interesting and inspiring542817
Social activities that allow you to get to know people in your community493614
A good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music383625

Three things immediately stand out. First, participation in a particular church or denominational brand is not listed. Brand loyalty is a diminishing value that may not be persuasive. The second is the placement of worship style as number seven out of seven. So guitars and drums do not guarantee growth. Again, becoming immersed in your community will enable churches to discover the needs of people and design strategies accordingly. No, you don’t have to “guess at it.” The third and final observation is that people have a desire to be involved, but not necessarily in the way churches are designed. Take, as an example, a congregation with a heavy committee structure. It is not uncommon for a church to have 6-8 standing committees, in addition to a governing board, elder board, or deacon board. These committees may have 6-9 members each. At that point it’s a math problem. Six committees with six members each equals 36, not counting other leaders, officers, or staff. For most churches in America, that’s a substantial percentage of their adults. And because churches value membership, you can’t serve on a committee even if you were willing. Younger generations may not have their grandparents values, where membership included service to a committee. Service? Yes. Committees? Pass.

These statistics can lead us to do one of two things. One is to throw our hands up, give up, and close up. The other is to allow God’s Spirit to lead us to think about church in ways we haven’t thought before. We don’t have to give up. But we may have to let go of some things that we have gripped with white knuckles. As Corrie Ten Boom once wrote, “I’ve learned to hold on to things loosely, because it hurts too bad when God has to pry them from my hands.”

You can find both surveys at the following link: https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx

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Apr
04

Is The Window Closing?

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When John F. Kennedy ran for President, he often stated in campaign speeches that the Chinese word “crisis” was a combination of characters that combined the words danger and opportunity, yielding the meaning of “dangerous opportunity.” Since then, many leaders of business, education and popular culture have quoted this sentiment. But in actuality, the Chinese word weiji is composed of two words: dangerous and change point. Though typically misinterpreted, the principle remains the same. Crisis points yield moments of decision. What we do at that change point is risky. To choose wisely can create opportunities. To choose incorrectly can bring disaster. But worse, indecision can be fatal.

The COVID-19 pandemic placed every church at the cross roads of weiji, a dangerous point of change. Unfortunately, many church leaders (pastoral and lay) have yet to seize the opportunity placed before them. Things are starting to loosen and open up, which is good. But there’s a red flag waving furiously every time I hear the phrase, “I can’t wait until things get back to normal, and we can go back to the way things were in February, 2020.” Many churches went into “sleep mode” in March, 2020, holding on for the magical day when they could go back to the way things were. The problem with that is that the world has changed and adapted, which has produced a new normal. Business has changed, education has changed, and most of all, people have changed. Business and education have changed and adapted to new futures. The pandemic has provided all of the above time to recalibrate their values and in some instances find contentment in simplicity. People who began working at home out of necessity may never go back to brick and mortar office buildings. Children who have learned virtually may never go back to the classroom. People and families alike have become more deeply connected with one another as they profited from discretionary time they never knew existed.

COVID-19 was and still is an opportunity for the church to change and adapt as well. The pandemic was a catalyst for change and adaptation for those who chose to view it through the lens of blessing and not burden. The past year could and should have been invested in observing culture and in honest self assessment. Was there something new to start? Maybe something that needed to stop? Were there new practices to learn? Or was there something in place to master?

For example, about a year ago I presented a list of opportunities to the last Church I served.* We had the capacity to live stream worship services on our website already in place so we did not need to struggle there. But there were opportunities to consider a host of things like reorganizing the staff to manage and keep pace with technology and digital communication, to enhance and promote access to online giving, the possibility to return to live worship with an additional worship service that featured contemporary music, to re-engage our growth consultant for guidance in updating our mission, values and strategy in anticipation of change to name a few. These suggestions were casually met with “when we get a vaccine, we’ll get back to normal.” Thomas Watson once wrote, “Storms will drive ships into the harbor.” And many churches responded to COVID just like that, waiting for the skies to clear and the waves to calm so they could safely return to sea.

Its late, but not too late for churches to seize the opportunity embedded within the pandemic. The future is wide open, and to paraphrase Thomas Freidman, “belongs not to those who can think outside the box. The future belongs to those who can think without a box.”

*I stepped out of the pastoral ministry on August 24, 2020. The transparent details of my personal journey from sacred to secular are forthcoming in my first series of podcasts at Out of Ur.

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Jan
03

The 2020 State of the Plate

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For the past several years I’ve been invited to participate in a stewardship study conducted by Brian Kluth in partnership with Christianity Today that explores stewardship trends among American churches. This year’s survey was complied from the responses of nearly 1,100 churches from all 50 states. Of the respondents, 60% represent churches of 200 or less and 18% are between 200-500 in attendance. The COVID-19 pandemic tinted this year’s results in an interesting way. Here are some of the highlights from the executive summary.

  1. Giving has stabilized or increased for most churches. 22% have seen increases while another 42% have seen stability. Still, 36% of the churches have seen a decrease in giving since the shutdowns began. These numbers correlate with the fact that during the same time period 21% of American households experienced a decrease in personal income.
  2. Another corresponding reason is the decrease in the in person worship attendance for those who have opened for public worship. 58% of the churches who have re-opened have reported less than half the attenders they had prior to coronavirus. Online worship attendance is also beginning to trend down since the onset of the pandemic.
  3. Optimism about future budget requirements is marginal. 12% of churches expect salaries and benefits for staff will be decreased. 25% believe that major projects and purchases will be delayed. 19% believe that funding for programs will decrease, and 8% anticipate that support to missions and denominational entities will be reduced.
  4. Pastors are hopeful about the viability of their congregations. 63% believe their churches will stabilize and another 46% believe their churches will become stronger and grow. However, 16% of pastors anticipate their congregations will face and struggle with difficult decisions. And, 7% believe their churches will either merge with another congregation or close. This corresponds with the data from Barna Research in mid 2020 that projected one in five churches will close in the next 18 months due to the impact of the coronavirus.

So what does this mean for church stewardship in 2021? Here are some observations and predictions I have for the future.

  1. Churches will need to maintain and continue to develop their digital footprint. The coronavirus caught a lot of churches on their heels when the shutdowns began. They did not offer an online worship experience and neither were they equipped to do online giving. Many, if not most churches, successfully mitigated this vacancy in the past nine months to an impressive degree. However, it must continue to be in place and enhanced because whether we intended or not, technology has given people permission to decrease their in person worship if they come back at all. This may necessitate a revision of staff job descriptions and the reallocation of budgeted resources.
  2. Churches cannot expect to return to February, 2020. Coronavirus has signaled a significant shift in culture both at home and abroad. In my opinion the worst thing a church could do is expect a reset and carry on as if the virus was simply a blip on the radar. We need to eliminate the phrase, “get back to normal.” Churches that desire to be both efficient and effective in the future are going to have to re-engineer programs and outreach for maximum impact. In short, the church of the future cannot continue to maintain a campus centric ministry (“y’all come!”). The church of the future will need to creatively think of possibilities and opportunities “beyond the walls.”
  3. Finally, the path forward, especially for the smaller congregations of 200 or less, will be cooperative kingdom collaboration. Churches will need to be open to sharing resources, facilities, programs and even personnel in order to provide ministry for and with their congregations. Of course many congregations have done this previously, mostly around social needs in their respective communities such as food pantries and clothing ministries. Going forward, this may extend to many of the traditional ministries (in particular children and youth) that have previously been held close to the vest.

My prayer is for you in 2021. God is not finished with his church. If there was ever a time to pray and seek God’s will for the future, it is now.

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Jan
12

Early Adopters

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I remember the first time I saw a VCR. It was in the mid-1980’s at the home of one of our church members. He explained how it worked and wasn’t bashful in the least to tell me how much he paid for it. If memory serves, it was nearly $600, which certainly put the device way out of my financial league. Today I can now go to a local discount store and purchase a Blue Ray DVD player for less than $50!

Everett Rogers coined the term “early adopter” in 1962, and described them as early customers to a given company, product, or technology. Today it is estimated that 13.5% of Americans are considered in this bracket, right behind the 2.5% who are considered to be the innovators.

There are a couple of components about early adopters that I find interesting. First, early adopters are patient. While their eagerness may not find crowded check out lines, they have to patiently endure the “bug fixes” that accompany new yet not fully developed products. With early adoption comes paying the price of time as they use the new innovation in the real world.

Second, early adopters often pay premium prices. Those who are early adopters in technology find this to be especially true. Think of the prices of the first VCRs, computers, flat screen televisions, or cell phones. Think of those prices compared to the technology of the same items available today for a fraction of the cost.

What we find in the retail world is true of churches as well. New programs, worship styles and other innovations come with a price. I have yet to see a new anything rolled out in a church that was perfect in its first iteration. There are kinks, bugs, problems, conflicting schedules, miscommunications, lack of communication…you get the idea. Some church members will wait and see if the new innovation catches wind. Some will never buy in. But the early adopters join in and patiently pay premium because they want to be on the cutting edge of innovation. Even when its in the church.

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Feb
08

Trading in our Canoes

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The year following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Captain Meriwether Lewis to find the most direct and practical water route across the continent from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean for the purposes of commerce. For over 300 years explorers from at least four sovereign nations had been looking for a pathway that would lead from the Mississippi River all the way through the North America to the Pacific. Lewis was joined by Second Lieutenant William Clark and together formed the Corps of Discovery to under take the challenge from President Jefferson.

The Corps of Discovery began with a faulty assumption. Everyone was certain that the water route to the Pacific was there. All they needed to do was discover it. But they were wrong. There was no passage. When Lewis and Clark came to the end of the river they realized that nothing before them was like anything they had experienced that was behind them. There were no manuals, maps or journals that could help them. They literally marched off the map into the unknown.

What the Corps of Discovery learned over 200 years ago is what we are learning today in the life of our church. The world of ministry is not like anything we have experienced in the past. The cultural landscape has changed to the degree that our assumptions about reaching and serving are experiencing diminishing returns.

Today we are recognizing that many of the ministries we found to be effective in the past are no longer having the same impact today. Like Lewis and Clark, we must realize that we are marching into an age where our canoes may no longer help us reach our destiny. Like the Corps of Discovery, we are finding the need to trade our canoes for horses so that we can stay focused on the mission. Those who choose to love their canoes more than the mission will risk becoming stuck at the headwaters of the river and fail to reach the ultimate goal.

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Mar
19

The National Congregations Study

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I recently received my copy of the National Congregations Study due to my participation in the process. The NCS was directed by Mark Chaves, Professor of Sociology, Religious Studies, and Divinity at Duke University. The study gathered information from 3,185 congregations from across the religious spectrum. What follows are some of the important results from the research.

1. The number of congregations claiming no denominational affiliation increased from 18% in 1998 to 24% in 2012.

2. White mainline congregations, and the people in those congregations, are older than the congregations and people of other religious traditions.

3. Most congregations are small but most people are in large congregations. The average congregation is getting smaller, but the average church goer attends a larger congregation.

4. People in smaller congregations give more money to their churches than do people in larger congregations.

5. Worship services have become more informal and expressive.

6. 10% of church goers worship in a multi-site congregation.

7. American solo or senior pastoral leaders are more ethnically diverse and older, but not more female than they were in 1998.

8.Food assistance is by far the most common kind of social service actively pursued by congregations, with more than half listing food assistance among their four most important social service programs.

9. 13% of all congregations are led by a volunteer solo or senior pastor.

10. Women could, in principle, serve as a senior or solo pastoral leaders in 58% of American congregations. However, only 11% of those same congregations have a woman serving as a solo or senior pastor.

What do you think? Any surprises?

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