A pastor I meet with for coffee once a month asked me a pointed question: “With all the work you’ve done over your career in turning around churches, what’s the one thing we can do to get churches to grow again?” Before I had a chance to think, I blurted out, “There’s nothing we can do to grow our churches, but there’s a lot of things we can do to grow our churches.”
We both paused and said, “Wow, that captures it!”
Too often pastors and churches have sought ONE thing we can do in our churches that will turn everything around. Is it being missional? Being spiritual? Being contemporary? Being contextual? Being biblical? Being relevant? Being justice-minded? It’s none of those things,… it’s ALL of those things.
There may be no magic bullet, but there are a lot of mini-bullets we could, can, and should be employing to turn our churches around. Unfortunately, there are strong emotional factors that stop us. The main two are fear and grief.
Pastors and leaders may want change, but we’re afraid of our long-time members and big givers who remind us that if we change things, they may retaliate by not giving, leaving the church, or making life hard by constantly criticizing us.
Also, with change comes grief. Change means giving up parts of church life that we love, such as certain rituals, music, and cherished but ineffective program or missions. We know we’d grieve their loss, so we resist change.
For example, during the past year I preached in a struggling church. A group of members approached me afterwards and asked, “Would you be someone to help us grow again?” I responded, “Are you a church that’s open to change?” One said, “I think we are.” I responded, “Okay, the first thing you’d have to be open to is changing your music.” The woman to my right said, “That’s not going to happen. We love our music.” They were singing out of a hymnal from the 1980s. Fear of change and anticipatory grief over loss.
Recently the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) released their study of the state of congregations over the past 10 years. They found that while America’s population grew by 7.5%, Episcopalians and Methodists declined by 19% each, Lutherans by 25%, and Presbyterians (my denomination) by a whopping 40%. Yet I see almost no sense of urgency across denominations sparking tangible, effective change. Why? Fear and grief. We fear making the changes we need and have anticipatory grief over what we may possibly lose. Meanwhile, non-denominational churches have grown by 72%.
So, if there is no thing we can do to get our churches to grow, what are some of the lot of things we can do? A significant part of my work for Samaritan’s Caring for Clergy and Congregations program is working with pastors and churches to answer that question. Here’s a list of pragmatic things we can do that can spark other “things”:
Begin to create a sense of urgency in the church board about what the future of the church will look like in 5, 10, and 20 years. There’s ample material to draw on. The simple reality is that if leaders aren’t discussing their future, the church won’t have a future. But don’t just discuss. Get them to commit to addressing reality.
Create a church task force devoted to the future of the church that will study the present cultural landscape, explore what other churches are doing to grow, and make suggestions for how your church can adapt. I’ve written extensively and in detail about how to construct and lead such a task force in my book, Becoming a Blessed Church (Chapter 8), which is easily found on Amazon or elsewhere online. If you contact me, I can also talk about how to do it and send articles on it.
Pastors, you need to adopt a different preaching style to reach those who’ve walked away. First, pastors need to study YouTube, Tik Tok, Facebook videos and more to see how younger people are accustomed to being spoken to. Behind-the-pulpit, manuscript preaching no longer reaches people. Younger people are hungry for the connection with God, but not for theology about God. Again, you can find guidance on how to reach these people from my newest book, Preaching to Those Walking Away (also found on Amazon), which is based on my 22 years of growing a church by attracting people who had given up on church.
We need to adopt a collective “growth mindset” where we’re willing to grow together in exploring how we’re called to be in the 21st century rather than continuing to lament the passing of the 20th century. Too many churches and pastors have adopted “preservation” and “survival” mindsets as they try to cling to the past. They’re troublesome mindsets. They lead churches to be constantly inward focused. We can’t be mission-minded if we’re always just trying to preserve and survive. What does a growth mindset look like? It means embracing technology rather than fearing it. It means purposely talking with those who’ve walked away through intentional conversations and focus groups to learn from them what’s caused them seek God elsewhere.
Embedded in these four ideas are pathways that open us up to “a lot of things” we can do to get our churches to grow. With all this said, if we don’t develop a sense of urgency over the present plight, in 10-15 years we won’t have to worry because there won’t be enough churches to matter.
Remember that Samaritan’s Caring for Clergy and Congregations program is one that has helped pastors and churches turn churches around.
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA