Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash

Be honest: Why do you want your church to grow?

Rev. John Zehring

November 14, 2018

Looking for a new pastorate? Chances are astronomically high that the church profiles or job descriptions you pursue are prominently recruiting for a new pastor who will help their church grow and, especially, attract new young families. Growing the church has become one of the premier skills sought in new pastors. Today’s currency for congregations:  Can you bring them in? Can you attract new members, build attendance and increase participation?

The need is obvious. Charts of church membership look like a skier plummeting off a steep cliff. Church school enrollments break new records for decline. Sports and community activities now think nothing of scheduling their events for Sunday mornings, drawing away young families who feel bad about it, but you know, folks, that’s the way it is today.

Choirs become depleted and regularly beg for people to join them, even those who cannot hum a tune. Church school teachers are an ultra-rare commodity, and with safe church policies encompassing every congregation, now two teachers are needed to replace the one who did it before.

Church giving is in regular and steep decline as members dwindle, and one more time, year after year, there are no raises for the staff, needed maintenance is deferred and program funds are trimmed to nil. The fund-raisers which once filled in the gaps die a natural death as volunteers no longer have time, energy or willingness to commit to large-scale fairs, sales, dinners or auctions.

The clergy themselves try as they can to maintain a positive attitude but become disheartened and wonder, “Is it me?” Congregations wonder the same and fantasize about a dynamo in the pulpit who might restore their fortunes to the glory days gone by.

Clearly, most churches want to grow. Every church would love to see young families and new members streaming in the door. “We must be doing something right,” they say when attendance rises. It feels good, fuels the budget and staffs the volunteer needs of the choir, educational program and committees. When attendance declines, the refrain instead is, “We must be doing something wrong. Maybe we need to get a new pastor, change our music or advertise in the newspaper.” Herein lies a theological conundrum:  Attendance is linked to feelings, mood, morale and a confirmation that something is either right or wrong.

We are desperate! (Though the church hopes this will not be too obvious!) We need money. We need people to fill all the empty seats. We need leaders. We need more choir members. We need more teachers. We need. We need. We need. We are needy. Any new prospective visitor stepping foot inside the sanctuary may be greeted by observers silently asking themselves, “How can we use you?” New attendees can smell this a mile away and it turns them off.

The fact of the matter is that your attendance growth or decline is linked more to the demographic shifts of your zip code than anything else. If your zip code is growing ten percent a year, you will likely see growth in church attendance even if you are flubbing everything. On the other hand, if your zip code is shrinking ten percent a year, you will likely see a decline in church attendance even if you produce the most spirit-filled, vibrant and inspiring worship services ever created.

In reality, growth and decline link significantly to demographics and culture. If the culture reflects a decline in membership-based organizations (churches, country clubs, teams, museums, musical organizations, etc.), recognize that good programming alone will not swim against the strong tide of the culture’s inclination to avoid the commitment of belonging to an organization.

There are strategies your church can employ to build attendance and participation if it has the will and the willingness to invest, but first and foremost it must choose the right reasons for desiring growth. In other words, what is your theology of growth? Why do you want to grow?

Churches that have started enthusiastic campaigns to stem the tide of decline and bring in more people, so that the church will possess more of everything it wants, seem to burst with initial excitement and then fizzle out with few, if any, results. Perhaps it boils down to the intent. Is our motivation us-directed or other-directed? Us-directed campaigns are about meeting our needs, our wants, our budgets and filling our empty seats. Other-directed campaigns are targeted specifically toward meeting the spiritual needs of others.

People do not want to belong to a needy organization. They want to belong to an organization that meets needs!

People do not want to belong to a needy organization. They want to belong to an organization that meets needs! The moment a church shifts its attention to meeting their needs, it becomes spiritually-centered in offering in service to another that which the church possesses. Is that not a definition of ministry? Is that not the intent of Jesus’ call to “Go ye into all the world…” (Mark 16:15 KJV)? It is not about our needs, but their needs.

The epicenter of building attendance and participation revolves around the God-like attitude of wanting to meet the needs of others. Your congregation meets the spiritual needs of participants better than any other human organization. Your church meets the needs of the whole person and recognizes that a person cannot be whole without God in his or her life. When a person is not whole, he or she is fragmented. For people whose lives feel fragmented, your church offers a pathway to becoming whole. The key question becomes, “How can we meet more of people’s needs?” Hold high the banner declaring that your intention is first and foremost to meet needs.

To put this in theological language: People are lost and God wants them found; or, people are seeking and you know in your heart that your church meets needs. Many of your people have testified so. Adopt the right reasons for growth: to meet the needs of others in your community. Then the tools, strategies and investments you choose will follow the right goals for the right reasons.

The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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