Tag: church growth

When Should A Church Close?

The Tennessean, the daily newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee, featured an article today on small churches and when they should close.  In the article, Short on Cash, People, Small Churches Consider Closing, reporter Bob Smietana profiles three Nashville area churches that had to face their own mortality.  Bob was kind enough to quote me in the article, and I appreciate the approach he took in writing the piece.

The article also quoted Dr. Israel Galindo, author of The Hidden Lives of Congregations, which I think is the best book any pastor can read, especially pastors of small, established churches.  Galindo helps pastors and church leaders identify what “style” their church reflects, and where their church might be in the life cycle of churches profile.  I’ve written about this book before, but it’s worth mentioning again.

The article also points out that churches have taken as much as a 40% hit financially in the economic downturn that started in 2008.  When he interviewed me for the article, Bob asked me what factors indicate that a small church might need to close.  The three factors I identified were people, money, and mission.  The loss of any one of those is like kicking one leg of a three-legged stool out from under it — without a significant balancing act, a two-legged stool isn’t going to stand very long.

So, when is it time for a church, usually a small church, to close?   When the combination of people, money, and mission no longer works.  Churches don’t exist just to exist; churches exist for the purpose of mission. When the mission is no longer viable because there are not enough people or financial resources to support it, then a small church ought to seriously consider how it might re-invent itself, or even plan its own funeral.

What do you think?  Are there other factors that suggest when a church might close its doors?  Or are people, money, and mission the big three?

Small groups are the building blocks of small churches

Our church is typical of many established, small town churches.  Three years ago, our congregation was made up mostly of older adults.  Of course, older adults are the backbone of many congregations.  They provide a higher-than-average amount of financial support, they attend with above-average faithfulness, and they love their church.

Our senior adults are wonderful, and they realized that for our church’s future we needed to reach out to younger adults and young families.  But the mass mailings we had tried did not produce new visitors.  To add to our difficulty, the region in which we live has been in an economic downturn for several years.  Few jobs exist for younger adults, and few young families were moving to our area.

But three years ago we started a younger adult Sunday School class with about 5 younger adults.  I’m using the term “younger” because age is a relative thing.  We needed to reach folks in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, but we weren’t going to do that all at once.  We believed that if we started lowering the age-range, we would eventually reach young families with young children.

Yesterday at our church-wide covered-dish lunch, 12 children were running around the fellowship hall while the adults finished eating and talking.  Six of the 12 were preschoolers; 5 are elementary schoolers; and, 1 is a middle schooler. These are our class members’ children.  As the sound of giggles and laughter bounced around the room, all of us were glad to see children playing around us, again.

Our class also had a record attendance yesterday with 19 present. A couple of our class members were out, so the number could have been higher.  These younger adults have already begun taking leadership positions.  One was elected a deacon last year, another takes a turn once a month leading our children’s time during worship, and 6 of the class members are leading our new Family Ministry Team.

Three years ago we started with five.  Now there are over 20.  Our class with their children now account for 20-30% of our attendance each week.

Starting a new class or small group isn’t glamorous, and it’s not a new idea.  But, starting a new class is a strategy that works.  I remember years ago Lyle Schaller, author and church consultant, saying “new people need new groups.”  If you want to attract new people to your church, start a new class, be patient, practice hospitality, and watch as the group grows and matures.  Small groups are still the building blocks of small churches.

Two Churches Die, One Emerges To Reach Out

“I’m the most unsuccessful pastor in Pacifica,” Jonathan Markham observed four years ago.  Markham’s church in affluent San Mateo county southwest of San Francisco was growing spiritually he thought, but not numerically.  Church attendance hovered around 15-20 each week with few visitors attending.  Located near the Bay area, the coastal town of Pacifica boasts an upscale, affluent California lifestyle where churches compete for residents’ attention.  But Markham’s church had failed to attract many from the community.

In an unusual but providential twist, Jonathan Markham was asked to serve as interim pastor of a second congregation which met at a different time.  Attendance at this church ran about 30 each week.  It wasn’t long before Markham wondered if the two struggling congregations he led might become one.  He approached church leaders of both congregations with the idea of creating a new church to reach Pacifica.  By March 2007, both older congregations had disbanded and a new church was born.

This brand-new congregation, New Life Christian Fellowship, opened its doors to the community for the first time in September, 2007.  Attendance shot up into the 80s each Sunday.  But, the real confirmation of their church rebirth came on Easter Sunday, 2009.  The church packed 153 people into its sanctuary, and church members had personally invited each guest.

Here’s how they did it:

1.  One pastor led two congregations. In typical church mergers, two congregations with two pastors have to sort out vision, staffing, finances, and worship styles.  Jonathan Markham was uniquely positioned to guide both congregations toward one dream — a viable, effective church for their community.

2.  Discernment involved each church. An exploratory work group of six people, three from each church, was selected to answer one question posed by Pastor Markham: “Is it God’s will for two churches to die, and another one to rise in their place?”  Markham thought discernment would take six months.  Instead, the group unanimously answered, “Yes” by the end of their first meeting.  The positive responses of both groups created momentum for the new church.

3.  Everything old had to die. After the initial decision to combine congregations, details had to be worked out.  Both groups agreed everything was on the table.  Old church names were scrapped in favor of a brand-new identity.  Meeting space Continue reading “Two Churches Die, One Emerges To Reach Out”

Evangelical leaders overlook minorities in expected US church decline

In a National Association of Evangelicals survey from May, NAE board members polled were pessimistic about the growth of churches in the U.S.. However, according to the NAE website, there was overall optimism that Christianity would grow worldwide, but that growth would primarily occur Africa, South America, Asia, and even China.  The NAE site stated:

“Evangelical leaders are very bullish on the future growth of Christianity, except in America,” according to Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals.

The group surveyed, all NAE board members, is made up of CEOs of 60 denominations, plus other evangelical organizations from publishing to education.

But, are these NAE leaders overlooking minority ethnic groups and churches in their pessimism?  According to Soong-Chan Rah’s new book, The Next Evangelicalism, they might be.  The book is subtitled, Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, and Rah pulls back the curtain to reveal a burgeoning ethnic church that is alive, well, and growing in the United States.  These ethnic minorities, many of them immigrants from majority world countries, are often overlooked in the count of congregations and in leadership conferences.

Soong-Chan Rah, a Korean-American who teaches church growth and evangelism at North Park Seminary, contends that these ethnic churches and their leaders are often invisible to the white evangelical community.

“Contrary to popular opinion, the church is not dying in America; it is alive and well, but it is alive and well among the immigrant and ethnic minority communities and not among the majority white churches in the United States.”  p. 14

Rah cites three areas which he contends form the “western, white cultural captivity of the church” in the US:  individualism, consumerism and materialism, and racism.  These he calls the heartbeat (individualism); soul (consumerism); and residue (racism) of the white church culture.

My online friend Shaun King, a young African-America pastor in Atlanta, recently decried in no uncertain terms the closed circle of white church experts who are featured in conference after conference.  Rah echoes King’s frustration:

“While the demographics of Christianity are changing both globally and locally, the leadership of American evangelicalism continues to be dominated by white Americans.”

The message a sea of white faces sends, according to Rah, is that “the real experts in ministry are whites.  Nonwhites may offer some expertise in specialized areas of ministry (such as urban ministry or racial reconciliation), but the theologians, the general experts, the real shapers and movers of ministry, are whites.”

When you couple Rah’s book with Mark Noll’s new book, The New Shape of World Christianity, you begin to sense that the ground has shifted under an aging, and perhaps ethnically insensitive evangelical church.

Noll recognizes the growing church in the majority world with these words:

But today — when active Christian adherence has become stronger in Africa than in Europe, when the number of practicing Christians in China may be approaching the number in the United States, when live bodies in church are far more numerous in Kenya than in Canada, when more believers worship together in church Sunday by Sunday in Nagaland than in Norway, when India is now home to the world’s largest chapter of the Roman Catholic Jesuit order, and when Catholic mass is being said in more languages each Sunday in the United States than ever before in church history — with such realities defining the present situation, there is a pressing need for  new historical perspectives that explore the new world situation.” p. 10

The question I have about the NAE board is how many are white?  If the answer is what I think it is — probably 95% — then no wonder they are pessimistic about the future of Christianity in the US.  The next question is this — When will we open our eyes to see the diversity of the followers of Christ who may not look like the old face of evangelicalism, but are certainly its new face.

Frankly, I am encouraged by both books by Rah and Noll, which are different perspectives on the same subject — the rise of multi-ethnic Christians around the world.  Maybe if the current crop of evangelical leadership looked up from their reams of reports indicating the decline of their churches, they might see the next wave of new believers ready and eager to step on the stage of Christian history worldwide.  What do you think?

(As is my policy, I purchased both books referenced in this post and received no incentive from anyone to mention these books.)

If God were GM, He would close a lot of dealerships

Chrtsler_Dealership_C_4400A_full

Both General Motors and Chrysler have announced that up to 25% of their dealerships will not have their franchises renewed.  Reasons cited were:

  1. Some dealers did not carry the full brand lineup. Chrysler wants dealers who carry their entire line from trucks to cars to Jeeps.
  2. Some dealers also carried competitors’ brands. That’s pretty common in smaller communities where one dealership might carry brands and models most suited to their market.
  3. Most of these dealers under-performed. Chrysler said that 25% accounted for only 15% of its total sales.
  4. Some brands are being discontinued. Wouldn’t want to be a Pontiac dealer right now, would you?  Also, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab are on the chopping block one way or another at GM.

But what if we applied that same criteria to churches?  Would your church be in business next week?

Some churches don’t carry the full lineup.  Many prefer to emphasize only the spiritual side of the faith, while leaving off any attempt at physical ministry.  Others are just the opposite, with lots of social programs, but little in the way of evangelism and discipleship.  You get the picture.  Should these churches keep their doors open?

Some churches carry the competitor’s brands, too. Okay, we’ve got to tread carefully here, but I’m thinking particularly about Fred Phelps’ church, Westboro Baptist.  They spew hate and venom towards any and everyone at any opportunity they can get.  They would be the extreme example, but other churches also help the “competition” by either not living the difference Christ makes or by taking a stand in an unloving manner.

Some churches under-perform. GM and Chrysler use an objective criteria to weed out the under-performing dealers — sales numbers.  But, some churches also under-perform in attendance, missions, programs, and outreach.  What should happen to these churches?  I have often contended here that we need to measure more than attendance, especially in small churches; but, even when measuring other factors some churches aren’t cutting it.  What should they do?

Some brands are being discontinued. Denominational identity is fading, as are a host of other emphases that once were very popular.  Remember the 1970s charismatic movement, or spiritual gifts surveys?  Lots of “brands” come and go, and if a church is heavily invested in one narrow perspective, it may find itself out of business in a changing culture.

Fortunately, God is not GM or Chrsyler and churches aren’t dealerships.  Churches tend to rise and decline in an organizational life cycle which can be accelerated by forces outside the church.  But even if we aren’t automotive dealership managers, it might help us to take an inventory of effectiveness periodically.  We might be either surprised or horrified at the result.  What do you think?

101 Outreach Ideas for Small Churches

I’m playing around here and this is the rough draft of  101 Outreach Ideas for Small Churches.  Any others you want to add?  I’d love to hear any stories you have about any outreach ideas you’ve used.  I’m working on a book, and would like to include real stories from real churches.  Time for your 15-minutes of fame!  Here’s a start —

101 Outreach Ideas for Small Churches

  1. Sponsor a school or classroom
  2. Angel Food Ministry
  3. Family movie night
  4. Super Bowl party
  5. Resource center for senior programs, etc
  6. Host a music concert
  7. Block party
  8. community festival
  9. Halloween alternative
  10. Community heroes
  11. Christmas nativity tour
  12. community garden
  13. art show
  14. build a labyrinth
  15. free hotdog lunch
  16. school supplies
  17. parents’ night out
  18. mothers morning out
  19. partner to raise money for a local cause
  20. invite former members back — homecoming
  21. themed worship
  22. recognize special groups
  23. pulpit exchange or joint worship with other congregations
  24. community vbs
  25. community thanksgiving service
  26. thanksgiving for singles, seniors, and others
  27. trunk-or-treat
  28. day camps
  29. multi-generational groups
  30. crafting, scrapbooking, quilt-making groups
  31. day trips for seniors
  32. senior adult programs, lunch
  33. talent show
  34. church yard sale
  35. blessing of the animals
  36. free carwash
  37. make a difference day
  38. martin luther king day events
  39. english as a second language
  40. computer access 
  41. computer training
  42. grief workshop
  43. grandparents day
  44. mothers day
  45. fathers day
  46. advent activities, booklet, devotion guide
  47. milestone celebrations — anniversary, debt-free, etc
  48. achievement recognition — ball teams, championships, etc
  49. election day activities
  50. county or state fair booth
  51. tradeshow booth
  52. tourism booth
  53. homebound ministry 
  54. grief ministry
  55. nursing home ministry
  56. report card rewards
  57. skate park
  58. soundcheck like event
  59. lock in
  60. lock out
  61. youth service corps
  62. door-to-door food collection
  63. christmas parties for seniors, kids, families, target groups
  64. school recognition
  65. college day
  66. financial peace courses
  67. driving courses that target very young or AARP groups
  68. election forums
  69. non-profit helping agency fair
  70. volunteer recognition and thanks
  71. social services, community action partnerships recognition
  72. literacy program
  73. addiction programs
  74. single adult programs
  75. single parent groups
  76. special needs events
  77. health screenings
  78. diet and cooking classes
  79. book discussions
  80. neighborhood inventories and assessments
  81. prayer ministry
  82. open sanctuary or prayer room
  83. daily office
  84. taize services
  85. community celebration events
  86. community unity events
  87. community newsletter or bulletin board
  88. newborn gifts
  89. newcomer welcome baskets
  90. graduate recognition
  91. community music program for children, seniors
  92. helping resource inventory and volunteer directory
  93. home blessings
  94. weddings and funerals
  95. boy scout, girl scout, b&g club sundays
  96. second sunday fellowships
  97. personalized invitation
  98. Easter, palm sunday invitations
  99. food, clothing, and cleaning supplies pantry
  100. civic club sunday
  101. family skate nights

“Summer” for churches is over

Debbie and I have learned a lot about growing vegetables this year.  We learned that mulch under your raised beds acts like a big sponge and makes the beds too wet.  But, we also learned when you remove the mulch and create drainage that the beds return to a productive, healthy state.  We learned not to fertilize beans because you get more vine than beans.
 
We also learned that plants start to play out as the season progresses.  Tomatoes get smaller, insect attacks increase, and the general quality of the veggies is not as good as the first harvests.  I think we picked the last of the tomatoes last week.  We pulled up some plants a couple of weeks ago, and the rest will go this week.  We also learned that voles like potatoes, especially russets, and that they will chew on as many potatoes as possible, without actually eating a whole one.  We lost most of the russets that way.  But apparently voles don’t like red potatoes because they didn’t eat the Cranberry potatoes.  Or maybe the voles had so many russets to eat they didn’t make it to the red potatoes.  But, either way, we harvested some late red potatoes that are delicious.
 
The garden looks pretty sad right now.  All the lush cucumber, watermelon, and cantaloupe vines are gone. The sugar snap peas gave out long ago.  The remaining tomato plants are stalky and almost leaf-bare.  The bean vines are drying up, and the compost heap has grown dramatically.  To look at it, you might think that the garden was dead.
 
But it’s just the end of a season.  We have already received our lettuce and celery seeds, plus we’ll plant more spinach, too.  As you know, these cool weather crops don’t like the July and August heat.  But, this fall, if all goes well, we’ll have fresh salads again.  Plus, the freezer we bought this year is over half full of frozen tomatoes waiting to be made into soup and sauces; frozen apples that we bought locally; frozen blueberries picked in July; some beans from the garden; and, frozen peaches.
 
My point in all this is that seasons bring changes to gardens and churches.  What works in the garden in the summer doesn’t work in the fall and winter.  Experienced gardeners know that and adapt.  Experienced church leaders do the same.  Our culture is changing, and so must our churches.  Church attendance nationwide has fallen from about 40% of the population to only 17.5% on any Sunday.  “Regular church attendance” is now considered to be 3-out-of-8 Sundays. Older adults are more likely to attend church than younger adults.  And the list of changes goes on.
 
We can bemoan the fact that it isn’t “summer” for churches anymore.  But, like the garden, that won’t do us much good.  Instead we can figure out what will “grow” in this new environment we find ourselves in.  Like our experience in the garden this summer, we’re still learning.  Some things will work and others will not.  But churches, like gardeners, are optimists.  We believe that next year will be better.