First and foremost is that society doesn’t beleive in the church institution anymore. Churches are not called to grow but to serve. When they serve, they begin to grow. People are not dumb, they can recognize an insincere church right off the bat. They can discern which ones are ice cold, lukewarm or red hot. Most are lukewarm and that is their problem. They won’t grow if they are lukewarm.
Every church has it own challenges and obstacles. Most of the time the hindrances are the people themselves. Growth comes from many avenues: good preaching, good music, a welcoming community, location, parking, energy level, comfortable space, social opportunities, service opportunity and consistency.
A church once asked me to give them ideas to help promote growth and I gave them a list of 18 activities that they could easily organize over the course of a year. They said “I don’t like that one.” “This one isn’t something that fits our community.” “We don’t want to attract those kind of people.” and “Who is going to do all this?” I told them that energy begets energy, that they must incorporate people of all generational, cultural, economic and educational levels into a comprehensive program and, even if they start small they will grow. They whittled the list down to three and then they didn’t even do those three. Survival of the fittest. Not to act is to act.
I think the church needs to be offering the community at least one activity or event each week. Even if the unchurched community is not interested in every topic, at least they will see that this church is active and vibrant and may decide to give it a chance.
I took a church with three services a weekend and after fifteen years we grew to five services and two of them were SRO. There was no one thing that promoted the growth rather a sinuous network of everything. Everything was comprehensive. We got rid of youth, teen and adult choirs and evolved to a family choir. The youth groups didn’t do their own youthy things but rather plugged into all the ministries of the community and church with the adults. Our music too became comprehensive and we did away with the folk group, the traditional choir and the praise band. We did all styles of music at every service and no group owned a particular service.
My suggestions for a church looking to grow are three things; Pastors, get out of your office. Jesus didn’t keep office hours. Get out and be with the people. Establish a beat like the old timey police officer. Regularly visit diners, bars, clubs, senior centers, nursing homes, jails, courts, be seen and heard. Approach people and be approachable and wear your collar. Don’t do it to drum up business, do it to comfort, heal, serve and welcome. Go to the mall, sit on one of the sofas in the hallway and put out a sign, “I will talk to anyone about anything.” Pass out your card for further ministering and don’t worry about your homily. If these things you do, the homily will take care of itself.
Hire a music director who does not worship music, one where music is not his ministry but someone who loves people and music is the vehicle to ministering to them. This person needs to spend time with the staff to come up with creative and diverse ideas and programs and know how to delegate lovingly and compassionately. The children of Israel were taken as slaves of the Babylonians and the musicians were forced to entertain their captors but they refused and hid their instruments in the trees by the river. The Babylonians said play or we will smash your babies against the rocks and they still refused. Likewise, a true music minister needs to know when to put down their instrument and minister. Their job isn’t an hour on Sunday morning. It begins when the service is over and ends the following Sunday when they pick up their instruments to worship – not entertain.
Finally, as I said before, lots and lots and lots and lots of events and activities. One activity can grow into something big. I once played weekly organ recitals at noon on a weekday. We started with about 20 people and after a year there were about 200 in attendance. They didn’t come for the music, they came because it was the place to be. My choir started bringing in refreshments. The parolees in the shelter next door came for the refreshments. A home for disabled adults started busing in residents to get them out of the facility. Homeless people came in out of the cold. The parolees began ushering at the door and cleaning up afterward. The homeless began passing out flyers in the community. Pastors, choir members and organists came to network. Brides came to scope out the building. A police officer came in regularly to chat with the parolees to see what he could do for them. Eventually the parolees started to use the building during the day for their AA and NA meetings. The place was a beehive of activity and people started visiting the church because – something was going on there. As the psalmist foretells in Psalm 66: Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man.
There is another thing, the church needs to give back to the community. It needs to do something that makes a difference. It needs to do several things that make a difference. People want to be part of something that makes a difference, not just sit in a pew and be entertained. When people visit or join the church, have ministries they can immediately plug into and I don’t mean things like altar guild, choir, usher or woman’s club. Things like working the food pantry, prison ministry, mission trips, gun buyback programs, homeless shelter, or do something revolutionary like Canada’s safe injection center (drug users can go there to shoot up without fear of arrest but medical care and counseling is provided in case something goes wrong. These centers have never had anyone die of an overdose while blocks away, people die from overdoses alone and unaided, hmmmph – do something revolutionary and save lives or not?), and, the church needs to tithe to some big program like California’s Housing Works program where they give houses to the homeless. Yup, GIVE. It gets them off the street and gives them stable shelter. A homeless person can cost your county about $20,000 a year in medical care alone because they lack shelter. With shelter and a place to secure a job from, they will be healthier. Dollar for dollar, homeless shelters are not cost effective on the whole and are only a band-aid. Check them out: housingworksca.org. Start one in your community.
Too bad the church can’t focus on some of these problems rather than worrying about growth and paying the bills. Pew people are not “customer acquisitions,” they are saints in the making. Too bad we don’t have institutions that fostered that growth and marshaled those forces. Oh, we do. It is called the DSS. They take care of the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the hopeless, the dying, the lonely, the abandoned, the imprisoned, the evicted, the illegal, the incurable, the different, the despised, the abused, the addicted, the forgotten, the neglected, the invisible, the battered and the frightened. Right there in that sentence is an awful lot a church can set its sights on and grow – instead or arguing over whether to keep the kneelers or not, to put in pew cushions or not, or the new wall color, or renting space to the gay men’s community choir. Not in my church! Think of the children.