One of the things that I share consistently with Episcopal Church Leaders is this: Running a church well and growing it is NOT the same thing. Why is this true and why is this important?
Most mainline church leaders, and this includes Episcopalians, have been taught to believe that “If we run it well, they will come.” There was some truth to this idea back before 1965 when we lived in what could be called “the Protestant Era.” During this time, there was a cultural expectation that most people would be members of a church and, if the church was run well, it tended to grow. I remember a priest who was about to retire in 1971 telling me that in his younger days, “if you preached a credible sermon and provided Christian Education for children, people joined your church.” Even though this has not been true for many years, the idea that running a church well is all we need to do still persists.
Here is a typical example: the Rector and staff of St. Swithen’s are gathered to plan the Lenten Program. As they discuss it, they decide they need to make a few adjustments. This year they decide to add a lite supper, an alternative class, and something for the youth of the parish. They may spend a great deal of time working on this. It is possible that an improved Lenten program may lead to more “members” attending the event, but this will not lead to more non-members or un-churched folks attending. The same principle applies to Sunday Worship, Adult Education, Church School, fellowship groups and on and on. The underlying principle remains, “Run the Church well, and they will come.”
This especially applies to mainline attitudes toward worship. I often meet church leaders, especially clergy, who believe the number one thing they need to do to help their church grow is alter their Sunday morning worship. This might mean lengthening the sermon or shortening it. It may mean taking out the traditional organ and replacing the choir with a “contemporary music” group. This may mean dropping the Rite I liturgy for Rite II or dropping the Rite II service for something more culturally relevant from the Alternative Service Book. One I find especially interesting is incorporating some things from the New Zealand Prayer Book. The truth is that such changes, the more radical they are, usually lead to a decrease in attendance, or even worse, major conflict.
Here is how to demythologize this belief. Studies of new members show that most people decide within the first 5 minutes of driving on your parking lot whether they will return again. By 15 minutes almost all of them have decided this. What this tells us is that how people are welcomed and greeted is far more important to connecting with new people than the style of music. And I should add for the benefit of clergy, this includes the sermon. Clergy sermons come far too late in our service to be the primary ingredient in determining whether new comers will return.
Now, of course, I am not arguing for bad liturgy or bad anything in church life. What I am saying is that the skills necessary to help grow a congregation are DIFFERENT from those required in running it well, and that most of us focus most of our energy on running it well.
If you want to grow a church, you will want to focus on two important dynamics. The first is what we generally know about the front door of a congregation. The front door involves three important tasks:
1. Inviting people: this involves signs, internets, Special Sundays, advertisement, and in today’s world, social media.
2. Welcoming people: this involves the hospitality ministry of the entire congregation. It is what happens in those first 5 to 10 minutes of new people arriving. For example, very large, growing, mega-churches often have volunteers greeting folks in the parking lot and helping direct them to the right place.
3. Assimilating people: This involves the conscious and intentional actions and activities of the congregation to move people from first time visitor toward both membership and discipleship. I urge every congregation to have a clear path to both.
You can learn more specifics on each of these tasks in my book Five Keys for Church Leaders in the chapter on “Opening the Front Door.”
The second dynamic has to do with size or “culture” of a congregation. If you lead a Pastoral Size Church, the activities and events that will lead to growth are most predictably those that fit the style of the congregation. If you lead a larger Episcopal congregation with attendance over 400, the activities and events that will lead to growth are very different from those of smaller congregations.
You can learn more on this topic by reading my book The Myth of the 200 Barrier where I describe these different dynamics.
Are you laboring under the assumption that working hard at running your church well will lead to growth? If you are, learn the skills of growing a church. These are not the same as running it well. There is a relationship between these two, of course, but it secondary to focusing at the right issues.