Everyone knows that bringing about change in a church - or a business or any organization - is challenging. We know that people resist change, especially when it is not their idea! But what is it about change that is so threatening? Recently Chuck Mallue, a member of St. Luke's UMC in Windermere, shared with our planning group the SCARF model for understanding why change is so challenging and how we can make it easier for one another. This has so many practical implications that I thought it worth sharing with church leaders -- who are by definition Christ's change agents.
Many church members today wonder how their congregation could be more welcoming and engaging for persons like their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Here are 7 strategies that effective congregations are using to reach the next generations for Christ.
Several facts suggest that many congregations need to invest significant attention, energy and creativity in reaching the next generations of persons in our community:
*Today, 17.5% of Americans attend church on any given Sunday.
*In 1940, the average age of United Methodist members is estimated to be 40; to day it is around 60 years of age.
*The fastest growing religious group in America today is the "nones: no religious preference." Almost 1 in 5 Americans marked "none" on the U.S. Census.
*1/3 of Americans under 30 maked "none," compared with 9% of those over 65.
In this first part of a two part series, I will share five common - and often unintended! -- roadblocks to the next generations being part of your congregation.
Many congregational leaders have assumed that if they are holding worship, they are making disciples. The evidence is pretty clear that coming to worship alone does not seem to help people become more like Jesus. However, worship that is a fresh experience of God's presence and helps people see and take practical next steps in following Jesus is an essential part of what congregations need to offer to facilitate spiritual growth. Unfortunately, not every worship service is designed to help people grow as disciples. What sort of services do help people become more like Jesus?
The Pareto principle states that in organizations 20% of the people do 80% of the work.(Some have wondered if it may be more like 10% of the people do 90% of the work!) Yet, even a cursory reading of the Gospel of Matthew makes it clear that service is not a nice add on for disciples; service is integral to what it means to be a disciples of Jesus Christ. You cannot become more like Jesus and not serve. If congregations want to help people grow spiritually, they must help them discover ways of joining Jesus in service to others.
What can a congregation do to help people grow spiritually? The third most important thing - and implicit in each of the other four things listed in this series - is to help people take responsibility for their own spiritual growth. In other words, remind them that the church can't do it for them, any more than a doctor can make someone healthy. Now, a doctor can inform, prescribe, challenge and encourage, but ultimately a person has to follow through with what the doctor suggests to get healthier. You don't lose weight because you go to the doctor's office; you lose weight because of what you eat and how you exercise between doctor visits.
We are better disciples together than we are alone, according to the Wesley's. The spiritual life is very personal, but it is not private. From the beginning, when Jesus called people to himself, he invited them into a community of followers focused on learning together to follow him and to serve others with him. Faith is caught, taught, encouraged, shaped and lived out in relationship with others. That's why Steve Manskar writes: "People whose only experience with church is Sunday morning worship and the occasional Sunday school class will never be formed as disciples."
"Get people involved." That's what many church leaders assume is the best thing for new persons. "Get them busy in our church's activities." "Maybe not," according to a study of over 1,000 congregations of different denominations across North America. The purpose of our churches is to help people grow to be more like Jesus - to love God and to serve our neighbor. Being busily involved in church activities is not predictive of spiritual growth.
"What in the world do people want?" Ever asked that question when you thought you knew, shot and were then told you missed? Well, a major study involving over 1,000 congregations of different denominations across the United States and Canada asked just that. The unambiguous answers may surprise you. They also explain why, following the major uptick in attendance for several weeks after 9/11, so many people didn't come back: they didn't find what they wanted. They wondered, "Where's the beef?" So what do people want from their church? Here are the top four things this study found.
Maybe it's just survival instincts. We all do it automatically, unconsciously. We survey the room and determine if anyone "like me" is here. It's one of the first things that happen when people visit our churches. "Is anyone like me here?" And with this query, all sorts of other questions are answered - whether rightly or wrongly. Will they accept me? Can I fit in here? Can they understand what matters to me? Will they listen to what someone like me might say? Is this a place where I can get involved and make my contribution?
That's the radical hospitality prayer, isn't it? "Who's not part of our congregation that you would like to be, Jesus?" It's a more poignant prayer than it once was: United Methodist congregations, as a whole, now mirror less and less the demographics of their communities. There are all sorts of reasons -- and many more excuses -- offered as to why this is the case. It seems to me that the only spiritually honest response to our congregations embracing only people "like us," is humbly to pray, "Lord, who would you have me reach out to today with your love?"
I started to write "expect of each of your members" but "hope" really captures it better. What is the minimum that you want to see happening in a person's spiritual journey before you would invite them to join your church? Remember, we are in the business of making disciples not signing up members. So what should be going on in a person's spiritual life before you welcome them into membership? Is it enough that they simply ask to join?
Is your congregation as good at developing mature followers of Jesus Christ as you are at cultivating new members? Would your leaders say there is a difference between fully devoted disciples and good church members? Can you be a disciple and not be a church member? What about the opposite? Can you be a church member and not be a disciple? Should we have church members who aren't disciples?
My five year old grandson is playing soccer for the second year. He did well last year, too, but this year he is clearer about where his team's goal is located. He made more goals last year than any other player on his team -- though a fair number counted for the other team. This year he knows what a win for his team means and all the goals he's kicking have been toward his team's end of the field. Making clear what a win will be for your team is one of the key functions of leadership. Is your team clear what a win for them will look like? Can they define success?
I've often imagine worship guests as gifts from God. How we respond to them while they are with us and how we follow up after their visit is our gift back to God. How are you stewarding the guests that God leads your way? While many congregations work at being friendly while they are with them, I'm often surprised at how many congregations have no organized follow-up system in place. That's like receiving a gift without saying, "Thank you!" And it doesn't have to be terribly elaborate. Let me share with you my top ten ideas.
I have yet to meet a group of church leaders who said, "Our church isn't friendly." But I have met a lot of people who have visited congregations and reported based on their experience: "This isn't a very friendly church." Why the difference? I suspect that the main reason is that people in a congregation are visiting with their friends - and overlooking the strangers in their midst. While that's a pretty natural thing for people to do, it isn't a very welcoming response if you are visiting a congregation for the first time. Here are five quick things to keep in mind if you want to welcome your worship guests well.
Moses was wandering in the desert looking for grass for his flock of sheep and keeping an eye out for predators. He stumbled upon a bush that was ablaze but not burning up. As he approached he heard a voice: Take off your sandals, Moses, this is holy ground. Then God told Moses that he wanted Moses to go to Egypt and confront the Pharaoh about letting God's people, the Hebrew tribes, go free. Moses immediately started back peddling. 'But I can't speak publically.' God said he would send silver tongued Aaron. 'But they won't believe me.' God asks what was in Moses' hand and when Moses responded that it was his staff, God showed him how to use it effectively to do what God was asking. This continues for awhile as God patiently addresses Moses' concerns. But there came a point when God simply said, 'Moses, just do it!'
Have you ever wondered why Cleopas and the other disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus that first Easter afternoon didn't recognize Jesus when he fell in alongside them? It was a seven mile trek heading Northwest, so maybe the setting sun was in their eyes. They were talking about the news of Jesus' empty tomb and what it meant, so maybe they were just caught up in their discussions. I doubt if it was because Jesus was wearing a hoody and they just couldn't see his face. No one today knows for sure, but I suspect that Jesus was somehow different, yet still Jesus. They weren't expecting him in the first place and they certainly didn't expect him to be somehow different. Could it be that like Jesus walking beside them unrecognized, that there are God-given resources within the reach of our congregations that are also unrecognized - and therefore unused in ministry?
The first task of congregational leaders is not insuring their congregation's survival, but their congregation's missional vitality. Because we seldom hit a target we can't see, congregations need their leaders to do two things. First: clarify the mission. And second: constantly keep it before the congregation.
Our society is in love with BIG. Big universities are popular. People flock to big shopping malls. And when we do one-stop shopping, it is at a Super Wal-Mart. The same seems to be true of attendance in United Methodist Congregations. In 1998 the largest attendance by size was in congregations averaging 200-349. In 2003 it moved up to 350-499 and in 2008 it moved up again to 500-749. Does that mean that God is no longer using smaller congregations to reach persons and impact communities? The point of this post is a modest one: it is simply to say, "Absolutely not."
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