Wednesday, May 13, 2015


We church folks these days are frequently checking our pulse to see if we are still viable. I do it as often as anyone, so I can’t criticize. But we seem to do a poor job of social science and are more inclined to skew the numbers toward our preferred view of the world. Some churches get downright angry when confronted with the fact that they are not actually doomed and have the life option to take it if they choose. “I set before you life and death. Choose life.” Deuteronomy 30: 19 Certainly there are congregations that choose not to grow. We need to honor their choice. But sometimes we need to name it as a choice and not a fate.

There is a stir this week about a Pew Forum survey showing a general numerical decline of churches, including the Episcopal Church. Mainliners like us declined by a whopping 3.4% in the past 7 years.

I am not sure that 3.4% is all that dramatic a number, at least not worthy of the hoopla it is getting from the vulture pundits. Those numbers do not dissuade me from the case for our vitality in My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians In The 21st Century by Gregg Garrett. But if we are going to talk about numbers, let’s use them in a way that is both accurate and helpful. I commend to you the more precise and edifying statistical analysis in New Facts On Episcopal Church Growth and Decline by Kirk Hadaway.

Region. First, my fellow Nevadans, remember that the Pew numbers showing the 3.4% decline are national statistics. We are in the West. The numbers of growing Episcopal congregations in the West is 27% as compared to 17% in the Northeast and 13% in the Midwest. We are the growing-est region in the nation. Hadaway notes: “The Episcopal Church has fewer churches in the West than in any other region but many of the churches are doing well. And this is part of the odd context of the West, where overall levels of religiosity are lower than other regions, but where the religiously engaged segment of the population is quite active – resulting in more rapidly growing churches than in other parts of the county.”

Theology. Next we need to ditch the notion that we are too progressive to attract people who are religious at all. We simply do not decline because of being “liberal.” Actually, “Conservative Episcopal congregations are the least likely to grow . . .; whereas the most liberal churches are the most likely to grow and the least likely to decline.”

Spirituality & Mission. Our region is right. Our theology is right. The issue is more apt to be our spiritual vitality and sense of mission. 36% of congregations that that strongly agreed with the statement “Our congregation is spiritually vital and alive” are growing. Only 7% of those disagreeing with that statement are growing. A congregation does not just affirm its own spirituality unless there are programmatic supports – meditation groups, discipleship groups, contemplative prayer experiences, labyrinth walks, Christian yoga classes, etc. Those programs don’t just happen either. Someone has to take the initiative to put them in place.

Congregations with a clear mission and purpose beyond surviving and holding the usual worship services are growing – 35% as compared to 8% among those who lack such a mission. Purpose Driven Life may not have been the best book, but the title is the key to congregational vitality. Reflecting and acting on the mission – all 5 Marks of it – is the fuel for growth.

Recruiting.  An intentional effort to invite people to worship and to recruit them into ministries where they feel at home makes the largest difference. Do the greeters collect contact information? Does someone follow up with new people to invite them back? Beyond even visitors. “Many congregations also make sure they collect the names, mailing addresses, or email addresses of person who attend special events or support groups or visit their web site.” 39% of congregations who recruit “quite a bit” are growing. 40% of congregations who recruit “a lot” are growing. Whether to recruit or not is a decision. “I set before you life and death . . .. “

Change & Conflict. Many of our congregations are decidedly averse to change but as Hadaway says “Living things change.” 36% of congregations that embrace change are growing. Only 7% of the change resisters are growing. But change does invite conflict and how we manage conflict is crucial. 62% of congregations with serious conflict are declining. No surprise there. But note, “Decline was not pervasive among the 39% of Episcopal congregations with only minor conflict.” The point is not to avoid conflict but to contain it with essentially healthy relationships and commitment to a shared mission.

Number & Style Of Worship Services. This is a simple no-brainer point that I am surprised does not get implemented. “The more worship services a congregation has, the more likely it is to have grown.” People are available to worship at different times. People have varying spiritual styles. If we set ourselves up to serve only people with one particular style who are available at one particular time, we have narrowed our mission field considerably. More worship services = more growth.  

But there are two more points about worship beyond number:

Churches that supplement their main course of Rite 1 & 2 Eucharists with “non-typical services” (Compline, Evensong, Taize candle light, meditation, children & family liturgies, informal ritual gatherings, family table services, Messy Church, Out of the Box, etc.) are growing. 32% of congregations with 1 weekly non-typical service are growing compared to 15% of those who do not. But wait there’s more: you can double that number. 32% of churches with 2 non-typical services are also growing. Now here’s the kicker for those who can do it. If one of the non-typical services is Non-English or Bi-Lingual, 70% are in growth mode.

The other variable is children. If children often play a worship leadership role (other than acolyte) then 28% of such churches are growing. We are talking about having children read lessons, lead the Creed, say the Intercessions, serve as greeters and ushers, preach, etc.

Coffee Hour. It matters. If there is no coffee hour, only 9% are growing. If it is a typical formal coffee hour, that’s even worse – 7%. But if the coffee hour reaches the level of vibrant, 27% grow; and if it is downright “chaotic,” 30% are growing.

Social Media Platforms. Bottom line. Have a web site or close the doors. But a web site is no longer enough to insure growth. Facebook, Twitter, Pintarest, e blasts, etc. – are growth engines. More cyber platforms = more growth.  36% of congregations with 6 cyber platforms are growing as compared to 7% of those congregations that have only one.

The question you ask: Werner Heisenberg put it less bluntly but it came to this: The question you ask determines the answer you get. I strongly suspect that other questions would have shown stronger factors correlating to growth and decline. One would be the number and kind of education offerings the congregation provides. I suspect a congregation with no education is the least likely to grow. Next least is the Bible Study only. Next least is the Rector’s Forum only. Churches with multiple offerings of diverse interesting subjects would be where I’d put my money to bet on growth.

Another would be how much and in what way is the congregation involved in the life the wider community. I suggested earlier that congregations without a web site should close the doors. I meant figuratively. Literally, the challenge is getting them to open the doors. I am amazed at how many churches keep their doors closed during the time leading up to worship. Not a welcoming message. Of those who do open a door, many will open one and keep another closed to exhibit their ambivalence. I have observed that congregations that open their doors for worship have more people in the pews than those that keep their doors closed. For a long list of practical steps to make a church more hospitable, the Bible is Welcome by Andrew Weeks.

In conclusion, I am not shaken by a 3.4% decline over 7 years. (Would that be less than .5% per year?) I do believe God is calling us to life and that God has considerable influence in these matters. “I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans to give you hope and future.” Jeremiah 29: 11 But I also believe that God will not compel us. He invites us to choose. What it takes to grow a church is not rocket science. It won’t be hard to figure it out. What happens turns primarily on our own decision.

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