Growth or Decline in a Congregation: The Single Greatest Key
by Don Brandt (September / October 2004 — Volume 20, Number 5)
The overall decline in mainline denominations can be blamed on a number of factors. New groups and ministries for new people can form the basis of a congregational mission strategy that reverses this trend.
It's a remarkable document, really. In one sense it indicates that our denomination is capable of an honest self-assessment—not only of its strengths but also of its shortcomings. Consider the following quote from recommendations in the ELCA's Evangelism Strategy: Sharing Faith in a New Century: A Vision for Evangelism in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (adopted at the 2003 Churchwide Assembly): "...the preponderance of...evidence suggests that this church has not yet made significant progress in changing the culture of this church with regard to evangelism.... We believe that achieving significant progress will take a more focused effort with considerably more commitment of time and money on the part of all those in this church, in addition to the discovery of new methods and approaches" (Part 1, page 14).
The ELCA, like most mainline denominations, is in steady decline. Our church and its antecedent bodies have been in decline since the mid-1960s. Yet, ironically, this church currently seems preoccupied by such issues as sexuality and the Lutheran / Episcopalian Called to Common Mission. I believe it is essential that we face a much more fundamental and crucial challenge — namely, our apparent failure when it comes to congregational evangelism.
Regarding the accuracy of the quote from the Evangelism Strategy that the ELCA "has not yet made significant progress...with regard to evangelism," what do the statistics indicate?
|Congregations need to commit to the ongoing creation of new groups and ministries for new people.|
The relevant information is easily accessible on the ELCA's Web site under the Department for Research and Evaluation. To begin with, membership and worship attendance are down. Since 1991, only 25 of the 65 ELCA synods have experienced membership gains. When it comes to worship attendance, from 1997 to 2000, 50 of our 65 synods had more congregations declining than growing. Since the creation of the ELCA in 1988, we have seen a drop not only in membership and worship attendance but also in confirmations, Sunday school attendance, infant baptisms, and adult baptisms.
So what factors contribute to this slow but steady decline?
First, there are cultural and demographic factors. As already mentioned, we share our decline with virtually all mainline denominations. In fact, our decline is less severe than that of the Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, and Presbyterians (USA). We live in a culture that seems increasingly skeptical of the institutional church, and many Americans are registering their skepticism by choosing not to be involved in any local congregation. However, the American public remains open, by and large, to the possibility of church involvement, with a solid majority still indicating some kind of church affiliation. The growth over the past 30 years of most evangelical/conservative denominations confirms this.
Second, the ELCA has been dealing with controversial social issues as a denomination. Along with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopalians, we are in the midst of a prolonged internal debate over issues related to homosexuality. And depending on what develops with the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly vote on this matter in 2005, the effect on our church's growth or decline could be significant.
Third, a significant percentage of our congregations are located in declining rural and inner-city communities. The stark demographic and economic realities have profound (and sometimes irreversible) effects on congregations located in these settings.
However, despite these three factors, I am absolutely convinced that the great majority of ELCA congregations have unrealized growth potential. And whether or not they realize their full potential does not necessarily depend on how they address the factors mentioned here. That's right. For most congregations, their response to cultural realities, controversial social issues, and demographic decline will have a minimal or secondary impact on their future growth or decline. A much more crucial, fundamental challenge needs to be faced.
What about this "unrealized growth potential"? What does make the difference?
The growth potential depends, to a large degree, upon a congregation's willingness to pursue a basic, overriding mission strategy. Congregations need to commit to the ongoing creation of new groups and ministries for new people.
Many people are put off by the apparent simplicity of this strategy. "Nothing is that simple!" Yet proof of this principle's effectiveness abounds, not just among conservative/evangelical churches but with many growing, mainline congregations.
The strategy actually is based on a sociological principle, albeit one that is consistent with the New Testament's vision of a church in mission. On its most pragmatic level, this strategy is about understanding and overcoming the sociological barriers that prevent most congregations from reaching new people and growing. This principle — the creation of new groups and ministries for new people — recognizes that the primary barrier to congregational growth is not theology, lack of faith, or intentional lack of hospitality. The primary barrier is relational. The very intimacy many of us treasure as active, involved members of a local congregation ends up discouraging nonmembers from becoming a part of our faith community. Many congregations, whether intentionally or inadvertently, do not grow beyond the size of a large fellowship group where everyone can be known on a first-name basis.
|The very intimacy many of us treasure as active, involved members of a local congregation ends up discouraging nonmembers from becoming a part of our faith community.|
What are the pragmatic implications of this principle when it comes to congregational growth and change? Consider the ramifications in just three areas of congregational life: generational issues / opportunities, worship, and the group life of a congregation.
Generational Issues / Opportunities
More congregations need to seriously consider the importance of new groups and ministries for new generations. Implications of this principle include organizing groups for nesting-stage parents as well as new groups and ministries for youth. Granted, we want many of our ministries to be cross-generational. However, there are parents and youth who will respond only to ministries involving their peers.
It is especially crucial that this reality be understood by congregations where the median age of members is older than that of the surrounding community. For example, nesting-stage parents are unlikely to consider involvement in a congregation that neglects their needs as parents and the needs of their children. Of course, the time may come when there just aren't enough kids to have a viable youth group, Sunday school, or children's ministry. The key here is to staff for these ministries before it gets to that point. One of the best long-term congregational investments is to hire part-time lay "specialists" to lead and organize ministries for children and youth. But do this before you get to the point where these age groups are already absent from congregational life.
Though the launching of a new worship service represents perhaps the best single congregational growth strategy, this is not an option for many churches. Some have too few people in their existing service(s) to consider offering a new, weekly worship opportunity. Others don't have an appropriate space for a new and (at first) smaller worship group. Still other congregations already have two Sunday morning services and don't consider it appropriate to offer worship concurrent with their Sunday school.
However, if these factors are not issues for your congregation, consider a new worship service designed to reach new people. When designing such a service, use music that is appropriate for the constituency you are hoping to reach. Recruit a core group of members to attend the new service, organize a music team, plan for a very intentional hospitality ministry before and after this service, and get the word out to the community. And remember that one of the most important keys to this new service being "successful" is dynamic music leadership and songs that are participatory.
More congregations should consider a major, long-term effort at establishing a congregation-wide, lay-led small group ministry. This ministry should be woven into the fabric of congregational life. Benefits for participants in these groups include education, discipleship training, a setting for effective member-to-member pastoral care, and a renewal of prayer life. Most important, this kind of effort provides a ministry context for the ongoing application of the "new groups for new people" strategy.
What is a small group? Many things. However, it is always a relatively small community (six to eighteen individuals) where the gatherings (every one or two weeks during the program year) are discussion oriented. Apart from that, the group might be a Bible study, a topical study discussion group, a prayer group, or a support group. Some groups will be generation or life-stage specific (e.g., parents with young children, retired, single parents), while others will be cross-generational.
Once your congregation has such a ministry in place, you have an ideal framework and foundation for asking the questions "What new groups do we need?" and "What people (whether members or nonmembers) are we not yet reaching?" The congregation I serve currently has 24 such groups; this in a church with a weekly worship attendance of about 470. We are constantly revisiting the question "What new group needs to be launched to minister to people not yet involved in one of our small groups?"
One more point: Most new groups typically shut down to "outsiders" within twelve to eighteen months after they are started. Ironically, the very intimacy they provide contributes to a perception by outsiders that they wouldn't fit in. And the longer a given group has been in existence, the more likely this perception is.
The only effective solution to this problem is to commit, as a congregation, to the ongoing strategy of adding new groups and ministries. This strategy is an outreach ministry only as long as there are relatively new groups meeting and being organized. Sound exhausting? It is if you make the assumption that all of your groups need to be led by the pastor or paid staff. This growth strategy is only feasible as long as you commit to lay-led groups.
Embracing this kind of overall congregational outreach strategy requires a concerted effort by pastors and congregational leaders. An appropriate context for introducing this ministry model might be an annual council/staff retreat, or a special congregational event, possibly with a guest motivational speaker. And, finally, all of this needs to be framed by, and in the context of, our scriptural mandate to be a church in mission.
For further reading on the issue of multiplying congregational ministries and its impact on bringing new people into a congregation, Don Brandt has chosen the following resources. He has indicated specifically on which page(s) the author is dealing with similar concerns.
- How to Reach Secular People by George G. Hunter. (Abingdon Press, 1992). See pages 68-69.
- 44 Ways to Expand the Teaching Ministry of Your Church by Lyle Schaller (Abingdon, 1992). Pages 82-88, and pg. 152.
- 44 Ways to Increase Church Attendance by Lyle Schaller (Abingdon, 1988). Pages 49-61.
- Natural Church Development by Christian A. Schwarz (ChurchSmart Resources, 1996). Pages 68-69.
- One Church, Many Congregations by Timothy Ahlen and J.V. Thomas (Abingdon Press, 1999). The entire book is relevant to Brandt's focus.
- The Seven-Day-a-Week Church by Lyle Schaller. (Abingdon, 1992). Page 74.
- Turn-around Churches by George Barna (Regal Books, 1993). See chapter seven for pertinent material.
- 21 Bridges to the 21st Century by Lyle Schaller (Abingdon, 1994). Page 95.
Don Brandt is pastor at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Salem, Oregon.