Tag: small churches

Six Dramatic Trends Impacting Small Churches

Six Dramatic Trends Impacting Small Churches

In his new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, Professor Mark Chaves of Duke University identifies six new trends affecting U. S. congregations, including small churches.

In the chapter titled simply “Congregations,” Chaves examines sociological and demographic trends which are shaping church congregations. These six trends are:

Loosening denominational ties.  Of the 300,000-or-so congregations in the United States today, 1 out of 5 is an independent church, not affiliated with any religious denomination.  And, although this may seem apparent, a full 20% of all Protestants (which includes everybody not Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc) attend an independent church.  In addition, in the churches which are affiliated, funds sent by the churches to denominational headquarters have fallen from 5% of church receipts in 1998, to 4% of receipts by 2006.  While some churches may have stopped or redirected giving to their denomination in protest of unpopular actions, Chaves believes the drop in sharing reflects the “rising costs of running a local congregation.”  My own church reflects this trend as we have shifted the allocation of funds in recent years more to our own local missions efforts and less to our denomination’s.

Greater use of technology.  This trend, unlike some of the others, is obvious and observable, but Chaves provides specific percentages of churches employing digital technology.  For instance, 74% of churches now have websites, and 79% of congregations now communicate with their members via email.  But only 32% are using visual projection in worship.  I thought the use of projection in worship was higher than that, but obviously some changes come more slowly than others.  What we are quick to embrace in our personal lives, we might not embrace so readily in our corporate worship experiences.  Our own church confirms this trend.  While we maintain a church website, and use email and an online phone tree for contacting our members, we do not use projection in our traditional worship service.  In this one area, small churches might be skewing the percentages since there are more small congregations than large.

Increasing informality in worship.  Chaves notes that more churches incorporate “drums, jumping or shouting or dancing, raising hands in praise, applause, calling out amen, and visual projection equipment” in worship than before.  Even in our very traditional service, we have made a conscious effort to “loosen up,” and our members applaud as their expression of appreciation for music or other presentations.  As you might imagine, dressing more informally, especially among younger people, is also part of this trend toward informal worship, which is a part of the larger trend of dressing informally in our social and work lives as well.

Aging membership.  People in the pews are getting older, according to Chaves.  While five of the six trends mirror changes in the wider culture, this trend of an aging membership is ahead of the rest of our society.  In the 1970s, church membership was about 3 years older than society at large.  Today church attendees on average are 5 years older than the wider population.  “Only when it comes to the aging of their people are congregations on the leading edge of a demographic trend,” Chaves notes.

Increasing member education and affluence.  In addition to the increase in age, congregants also have increased in educational level, with more college-educated than before; and, in income level as well.  In my opinion, while these increases are welcomed at the local church level because they represent both enhanced levels of potential leadership and giving, the downside is that congregations as a whole may have moved away from the most marginalized of society – adults with lower incomes and educational levels.  These “working poor” formed the backbone of Methodists, Baptists, and Pentecostal denominations in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  If they are being left behind as church congregations grow in both education and affluence that would be a tragic abdication of the church’s mission in the 21st century.  In our own community, the “working poor” represent the largest unreached population among our local churches.

Increasing growth and popularity of large churches.  Two things are clear in Chaves’s research.  First, there are more small churches than large churches.  That’s the good news for small congregations.  The median size of congregations remains unchanged at less than 100.  Specific estimates range from 75-90 participating adults as the median size, which means that half of all churches are smaller, and half are larger.

But, the second fact brings discouraging news for smaller churches.  While the median congregation has less than 100 participants, the median church member attends a church of 400 participants.  In other words, well over half church participants are in churches that are much larger than the median.

Chaves reports this trend to larger churches by saying: “The biggest 1 percent of Protestant churches, for example, contain approximately 15 percent of all the people, money, and staff” in that denomination.  This trend toward larger churches is growing and is evident across all denominations.  This trend toward larger churches is occurring in evangelical and mainline denominations whether they are growing or declining; and, in liberal as well as conservative ones.

Chaves notes, “There are more very large churches, and the largest churches are bigger than before, but the key development is that people are increasingly concentrated in the very largest churches.”

However, Chaves also notes that on the whole, religious participation in America is declining.  He cautions that this trend toward “concentration (more people in bigger churches) has not increased because megachurches have figured out how to attract the ‘unchurched.’”

The implications of Chaves’s findings in this rise of larger churches is, first, the obvious one that the movement of participating church members is from smaller congregations to larger ones.  But, secondly, that movement may or may not be solely the result of the attraction of larger churches, but may also result from the shift of population from rural to urban areas.  We are, in other words, swapping members from smaller to larger, from rural to urban churches.

Chaves also notes that the rise of megachurches creates the illusion that church participation on the whole is on the rise. That is not the case, however.  Although an amazing 60% of American adults have attended a service at a congregation in the past year, only about 25% attend church on any given week, and that number is unchanged over several years.

Additionally, if you think that emerging churches, or “spiritual but not religious” are outpacing the traditional local congregation, think again.  Chaves reminds us that traditional, institutional churches remain by far the “most significant social form of American religion” in our culture.

Mark Chaves offers small churches a mixed bag of information to deal with in his book, American Religion.  Some of these trends are observable (aging members, more technology), some are welcomed (higher education and affluence levels), and some are problematic for small churches (neglect of working poor, and more members in more larger churches).  But the startling fact that should spark our imaginations in both small and large churches is Chaves’s conclusion:

 “The religious trends I have documented point to a straight-forward general conclusion:  no indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is going up.” – American Religion:  Contemporary Trends, Kindle loc. 1209.

 This observation should spur both large and small church leaders to a renewed sense of mission, critical self-examination, and innovative methods of outreach.  Whatever the realities of the small church versus megachurch conversation, American Christianity as a whole is falling further and further behind in reaching and impacting the people around us.  That is the most disturbing trend of all, in my estimation.

Disclaimer:  I purchased American Religion: Contemporary Trends from Amazon at my own expense, and received no inducement or other consideration to quote from, or use this book.  This article is the result of my own reading and reflection and was not suggested by the author, publisher, or publicist connected with the book. -CW

Changing Demographics to Impact Small Churches

 

MSNBC reports this morning that “For the first time, minorities make up a majority of babies in the U.S., part of a sweeping race change and a growing age divide between mostly white, older Americans and predominantly minority youths that could reshape government policies.”  

But not only will this demographic change to a “majority of minorities” impact government policies, it will also impact small churches.  The article points out what we already knew:  minority populations are growing at a faster pace than the aging white population.  The previously reported American Community Survey had pegged white children under 2 as 51% of that demographic, but larger than estimated rates of minority births have moved the needle.  White children under 2 are now just below 50% of that group.

What does this mean for small churches?  First, small churches, especially rural or small town churches, tend to be segregated by race.  Obviously with a declining white population the handwriting is on the wall.  Small, predominantly white churches will either broaden their outreach or eventually die as their members age and die.

But, white churches cannot just say “We need minorities to survive” because that demonstrates a self-serving attitude that is not biblical.  Attitudes change slowly among older church members, but even older members can be led to broaden their vision, and begin to take intentional steps to reach out.

Most small churches will need to develop what Wendell Griffen calls “cultural competency.”   This involves an understanding and appreciation for the ethnic diversity of God’s creation.  And, it involves understanding that to meaningfully reach out to others means more that “signing them up.”  It also involves sharing decision-making, leadership, and authority.

Professor Soong-Chan Rah, who wrote The Next Evangelicalism:  Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity, has excellent insights to offer in his book, and on his blog.  If you haven’t read his book, it is one of the must-reads for this decade, and will give you (if you are white) an entirely different perspective on how other ethnic groups view evangelicalism as a whole.

Add to this new perspective, the additional insight that now married couples comprise less than 50% of US households for the first time; that same-sex couples are now 1-in-10 of unmarried couples living together; and, that several states, my own Virginia included, will flip to “minority-majority” status in the next 10 years, and we have the ingredients for major sociological shifts.

What we do not need are shrill voices of doom using these figures and trends to forecast the end of society as we know it.  Social patterns, including family patterns, in the US and world are changing.  These changes present challenges to churches in communicating the gospel, and in reaching out to include a diverse representation of our communities within our congregations.

How I Spent My Summer

Where did summer go?  I’m sure yours has been busy, too; but, I can’t believe how summer has flown by.  School starts tomorrow here in our community, and we resume our regular Wednesday night schedule at the church starting this Wednesday.

June was taken up with Vacation Bible School — getting ready and then the week of VBS itself.  In July, I finished my last course paper for my DMin at Fuller on the subject of forgiveness.  Lots of reading and time in this last paper, but I hope to do my final project on forgiveness, so this was kind of an abbreviated trial run.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at a Sunday School workers’ banquet at a neighboring church in Hurt, VA, and then preached a three-day revival last week at Mulberry Grove Baptist Church in Buckingham, VA.  In both places, they were some of the nicest folks I’ve met.  The pastor at Mulberry Grove is finishing his PhD from Edinburgh in early Christianity, so we had some interesting conversations.  Trey and Lou Ann are great folks that are enjoying serving a small church in a small community in rural Virginia.  While I was there, the local Baptist association of churches invited me to do a Tuesday morning seminar for pastors and lay leaders.  The association has 18 churches, all of them small, and 8 churches were represented among the 22 people in attendance.  We had a great morning sharing together about small church ministry, and I got some very good ideas from some excited pastors and church leaders.

So, that’s my summer so far.  Of course, like any time of the year, there are funerals, hospital visits, and church stuff that continues.  The garden shows the neglect of a too-busy summer schedule this year, but maybe next year I’ll have more time for the tomatoes.  I hope your summer was a good one, and I’ll be back here a little more often as fall moves toward winter.

Get Your Own: Outreach Magazine’s “Small Church” Issue

Outreach magazine’s annual small church issue is on its way to subscribers right now.  For those of you who don’t subscribe, you can order this single issue from Amazon. That’s right, the entire issue is available to you today from the friendly folks at Amazon.com.

After you check out this one issue, you’ll want to get your own subscription so you won’t miss any of Outreach, including my column – Small Church, Big Idea – in each issue.  Let me know what you think.  End of commercial.

The Problem with Twitter and being clever

The problem with Twitter is you only have 140-characters to make your point.  The example above has been re-tweeted about a million times in the past two days, and frankly, I find it a little annoying.

Okay, so Rick Warren is a megachurch guru, no doubt.  Warren has over 65,000 Twitter followers — I have less than 2,000.  But the problem here is I think Warren is trying to be clever (who doesn’t occasionally?), but is sending a lot of mixed signals.  Here’s what I mean:

  • Being a small church is nothing to be ashamed of. Okay, right there is the first problem.  The implication about small churches, of course, is that they are something to be ashamed of.  If not, why would we  need to be reassured that they’re not?  I’m a small-church pastor, and a small-church advocate, and frankly, we don’t need megachurch pastors as apologists for the churches we lead.
  • Being a small-minded church is disobedience to Jesus’ Great Commission.  This struck me two ways — first, small-minded gets connected to small church.  Not the same, but a clever bridge to make his point.  But in making that point apparently Warren is challenging small churches to not be small-minded.  Whatever that is.  As though small-mindedness leads to small numbers in church.  Does anyone really think that megachurches are small-minded?  Of course not because everything they do is big — buildings, parking lots, staff, programs, and so on.  They’re megachurches and by definition are de facto not small-minded.  Second, why is small-mindedness disobedience to the Great Commission?  Why isn’t it poor stewardship, or failure to love, or  bad marketing, or a host of other inadequacies?

Okay, I’ll stop before I get 50 comments telling me to lighten up.  My point is this — aphorisms can be clever, but they’re also simplistic and shallow.  I personally believe Rick Warren is a good guy, so this is nothing personal.  And, he takes his share of hits for everything from gay marriage to his recent appeal for funds.  But please, Rick, if you’re trying to pay small churches a compliment, don’t be so clever in the future.  Thanks.

The differences in old small churches and new small churches

Knox Life Church at Remedy Coffee in Knoxville, TN
Knox Life Church at Remedy Coffee in Knoxville, TN

Les Puryear posted an interesting list of small church distinctives this week.  His list got me to thinking about the possible differences in “old” small churches and “new” small churches.

By “old” I mean what we typically think of as a small church whether it’s in a rural, small town, suburban, or even urban setting.  “Old” means established and conventional.  By conventional I mean that an old small church has worship; usually has one pastor and maybe some part-time staff;  focuses on typical church programs and activities; and operates primarily on gifts from its members.

By “new” I mean churches that have taken new models, like KnoxLife Church in Knoxville, TN that operates a coffee shop and meets in that same space for its weekly gathering.  Matthew’s Table in Lebanon, TN is another example of what I call a “marketplace” church — a church that runs a business to create revenue and engage its community, but also has some forms of conventional church such as a weekly worship gathering.

My guess is that in these “new” small churches, pastoral care is performed by more than just the pastor (if there is a solo pastor in the new church).  And, some of these small churches have multiple leaders, some (or all ) of whom may not be paid anything.

My point is we may have to rethink what we mean when we say “small church.”  Neomonastic communities are small churches, marketplace churches are small churches, mission-driven groups like Scott Linklater’s church in Las Vegas are small churches, but none of these would have all the common characteristics of conventional small churches.

We might need whole new categories to distinguish conventional churches from unconventional.  Personally, I think the “un-s” are the group to watch for clues to the future of all churches.  But, that’s just my opinion.  What do you think?

13 Triggers for Anxiety in Churches

415NP4SGRSL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_

Peter Steinke has written a helpful book, Congregational Leadership In Anxious Times.  Steinke subtitled his book, Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What.  Good advice for these anxious times.  In my presentation to small church pastors at The Cove last week, I borrowed Steinke’s “13 Triggers for Anxiety” in churches.  Here’s his take on what causes the panic meter to go up in congregations.  The categories are Steinke’s, the comments are mine:

  1. Money. We have lots of financial anxiety now, including at our own church.
  2. Sex/Sexuality. Does this really need explanation?
  3. Pastor’s Leadership Style. Whatever yours is, it’s not like the previous pastor’s and that can be good or bad, but in any event it’s different.
  4. Lay Leadership Style. Either doing too little or doing too much, or acting out in other ways, lay leaders can create anxiety in a church by their actions and reactions.
  5. Growth/Survival. Fears of survival, or anxiety about “all these new people” — either way growth or the lack of it can create tension in a congregation.  After a church I pastored had grown from 400 to 600, and had baptized 40 people in less than one year, the main concern of one deacon was that “we don’t have as much money in the bank as we used to.”  Growth is not the end of all your problems, it may be the beginning.
  6. Boundaries. Folks who cross them, intrude on the turf of others, or act inappropriately can cause lots of social anxiety.
  7. Trauma or transition. Changing pastors, relocating, natural disasters, community tragedy — all can take their toll on a church.  Just ask the churches in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
  8. Staff Conflict. Self-explanatory.  If God’s leaders can’t get along, who can?
  9. Harm Done To A Child, Death of a Child. Churches want to believe that they are safe places for children, but when a child is harmed or dies in the church’s care anxiety levels rise dramatically.
  10. Old and New. I’m sure you wondered when Steinke would mention this conflict.  Ever try to change anything in a church.  You know what this means.
  11. Contemporary vs. Traditional Worship. They don’t call it the “worship wars” for nothing.
  12. Gap between the Ideal and the Real. “We should give more to missions, but we can’t make the building payment.”
  13. Building, Construction, Space, and Territory. Having been through several remodeling and building programs, this is an anxiety creator for everyone involved — pastor and people.

Steinke says these are listed in no particular order, but any one can create anxiety in a congregation.  Mix two or three together — pastor’s style, growth, money, and a building program — and you have a recipe for high anxiety goes to church.  What anxiety triggers would you add to Steinke’s list?  I notice he doesn’t have any references to pastoral care or preaching, which would make my list if either is done poorly.  What would you add?   Tomorrow, How Not To Behave Like a Cat in a  Roomful of Rocking Chairs.

Disclaimer: I purchased this book from Amazon and did not receive any consideration from anyone for this post.