Some thoughts on how to grow a congregation numerically


Conventional thinking about church growth and evangelism is analogous to the challenges of selling printed encyclopedias in our internet dependent era. Until the last third of the twentieth century, Christian congregations generally grew when current members had children, people who relocated to the area sought a congregation or after developing a distinct identity, e.g., a congregation with the best traditional worship music in the area.

No more. Even the once significant number of persons raised in the faith who left Christianity as teens or college students and subsequently returned to it in their late twenties or early thirties with spouse and young children is rapidly vanishing.

People used to belong to a Christian congregation and to attend worship for one or more of these reasons:

  • Christianity was the religion in which the person had been raised and the individual never deeply questioned whether to belong
  • Cultural norms, forces or perceived social benefits kept the individual involved in his/her inherited religion
  • Persons accepted the Bible as the true word of God, generally trying to obey its injunctions about worshiping weekly and belonging to a Church
  • Individuals believed that Christianity was the exclusive path to heaven and worried that they, along with all other non-Christians, would go to hell after dying

No more. The enlightenment, globalization and changing cultural norms have eroded those reasons for belonging to a Christian congregation and regular worship attendance.

Consequently, congregations now have two choices for growing numerically.

First, congregations can grow by attracting Christians currently affiliated with another Christian congregation. Most commonly, a person moves from one to another congregation because the person’s theology or liturgical preferences change, a specific program attracts the person or his/her family, or someone with whom the person has developed a painful relationship is part of the person’s current congregation. Those dynamics are in addition to persons relocating from one geographic area to another, a dynamic that boosts suburban congregations while disadvantaging rural and inner-urban areas.

This growth strategy has some merit but overall describes a zero-sum game in which the number of Christians remains roughly constant. Relying only on this strategy unintentionally circumscribes a congregation transformative vision and power.

Furthermore, Christianity’s future depends upon numerical growth. Each year, more pews are empty, parishioners’ average age increases, balancing the budget becomes harder and the backlog of deferred maintenance expands.

A second path to numerical growth – attracting persons unaffiliated with any congregation, perhaps even unaffiliated with any religion – can potentially fill pews and reverse Christianity’s current numerical decline.

Forget evangelism. Forgetting about evangelism advantageously renders debates about the relative roles of God and Christians in converting a non-believer to Christianity moot.

Instead, think about marketing and sales. A small nucleus of Christians grows into a megachurch by targeting its programs to meet the perceived needs of a well-identified target market of potential members. Those needs typically include enthusiastic and confident reassurance of God's presence and help, contemporary language and music, opportunities to participate anonymously in large groups and to connect in small groups and content clearly designed to help one live a happier, healthier, more fulfilling life. Marketing starts by identifying a target population’s needs and desires; successful sellers draws potential buyers into understanding how the offered product or service will satisfy those needs.

Ask people, current members and more importantly non-members, why a person might want to attend or to belong to a Christian congregation. Be careful to keep current members’ answers separate from non-member answers. Among possible responses are (listed in no special order):

  • Opportunity to meet people and perhaps to become part of a community (this is not to burnish one’s reputation or professional contacts but as an antidote to the pervasive problem of loneliness)
  • Wanting to support with time or money a specific social program, e.g., a foodbank, hygiene opportunity for the houseless, advocacy of a proposed local/state/federal legislative initiative, etc.
  • Enrolling in an art course (e.g., painting as a form of spiritual journaling), a class in meditation (to learn a technique or to meditate weekly as part of a group) or a seminar on a theological subject (e.g., the interface between Buddhism and Christianity)

Then, compare the collected answers to the reasons prior generations attended worship and belonged to a congregation. People still want to connect with others, to make a difference in the world and to satisfy their spiritual hungers. But how they articulate their quest today sounds very different from prior generations.

With the analyzed survey results in hand, assess the congregation’s current programming. If honest, that examination will quite likely yield disconcerting if not painful results. Frequently, existing programs poorly align with expressed desires of non-members. Programs traditionally deemed the heart and essence of a Christian community’s life may have little or no perceived relevance to surveyed non-members. Illustratively, current members may highly value Sunday worship services, a program toward which non-members may feel total indifference. If this were not the case, pews would be much fuller.

Similarly, programs once viewed as church entry portals are no longer effective. For example, Sunday Schools once attracted new parents to return to the churches they had abandoned as teens or young adults. Parents wanted children baptized and raised in the faith. Nonetheless, adults in their twenties and thirties still have spiritual and personal needs that Christianity can satisfy when the Church listens and responds appropriately. Numerical growth is possible.

Only a relative handful of congregations have the financial resources to continue existing programs while concurrently establishing new programs that target non-members. In all other congregations, facilities, money or time may impose limits on new initiatives targeting non-members.

Consequently, the next step for most congregations entails insistently and ruthlessly pruning existing programs to free the resources necessary to support new initiatives. Many church facilities are underutilized. New uses in small or fully utilized facilities may require ignoring present norms/restrictions or dramatically altering current configurations, e.g., replacing pews with chairs to permit the nave to function as a gathering space for sacred and secular groups (this returns to the practice of medieval churches which were often a town’s only public building and thus utilized for markets, meetings, and so forth). Monies that fund religious education, aspects of worship (e.g., the Sunday worship leaflet) and other legacy endeavors may need reprogramming. Potentially most controversial, staff time, especially that of the clergy, will need realigning from prioritizing pastoral care and worship to prioritizing new initiatives. Small congregations may need to renegotiate with their current clergy to reduce hours worked and/or compensation. The Church does not exist to support clergy financially. Although realigning resources will not guarantee growth, the converse is true: Growth without the commitment of adequate resources is impossible.

When was the last time the congregation embarked upon an entirely new ministry or mission initiative, an initiative adequately supported by staff and funded with $10,000 or $20,000 or more? Of course, larger or better resourced congregations may want to think in terms of $100,000 or $200,000 or $1 million. Did non-members’ expressed desires and needs shape that initiative? Do congregants embody a subsistence mentality or is the congregation – regardless of its size – excited about being a seed of God's loving, life-giving and liberating power in its community? Is the congregation’s vision focused inward or outward? Is the congregation focused on maintaining or at least prolonging its baleful existence or is the congregation willing to risk all, confident God intends a more positive, transforming and fulfilling future for the congregation in the local area?

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