As you come to the end of one calendar year and another is about to begin, it is often an excellent time to stop and reflect. Right now, my mind is drifting back to memories of me serving in many small congregations. Christmas was supposed to be one of those high yield attendance periods of the calendar where we could make that final push to bump up the overall attendance numbers for the year. If we had a good Christmas season, then I could begin the next year not feeling like such an abysmal failure as a shepherd.
I know we should not concern ourselves with people in the pews but instead focus on the feeding and care of the flock, but is it so wrong to want a larger flock to care and feed? I would often search for some metrics that we as leaders could measure to keep morale up in our small band of Christians. It is more than likely you are attending a small church. It is possible you are also searching for something that will give your church hope for the future. Looking ahead for 2017 here’s a bit of encouragement.
Three things that any size church can do:
- Invite your unchurched connections to attend a church sponsored event.
The Statistics: After surveying 10,000 people, the Institute for American Church Growth concluded that 79 percent began attending church after receiving such an invitation. Only 6% were attracted by the pastor, 5% by the Sunday school and 0.5% by an evangelistic crusade. -Focus on the Family, July 1984.
Notice that I did not encourage you to invite them to a worship service. Worship services are usually geared for church folks. Encourage your connections to a worship service first is like asking someone to drink water from a firehose. It may be a good strategy to connect formerly disconnected people to several non-stressful church sponsored events as an entry point. Those encounters will give the new person a chance to interact and get to know Christians in a setting that is more conducive to building a relationship. Then when they do come on Sunday morning, they have already formed some relationships and do not feel like a stranger.
We typically design Sunday morning worship to build up the already converted. We use insider language and complicated concepts like grace, salvation, sacrifice, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For the visitor coming in for the first time, we often begin by asking the visitor to bear their personal secret sins before a foreign god and beg for forgiveness. A little much too soon, maybe? It might be a better approach to ease them into a relationship with God.
- Create a welcoming and loving environment.
Show me a church where there is love, and I will show you a church that is a power in the community. In Chicago, a few years ago a little boy attended a Sunday school I know of. When his parents moved to another part of the city, the little fellow still attended the same Sunday school, although it meant a long, tiresome walk each way. A friend asked him why he went so far and told him that there were plenty of others just as good nearer his home. “They may be as good for others, but not for me,” was his reply. “Why not?” she asked. “Because they love a fellow over there,” he replied. If only we could make the world believe that we loved them, there would be fewer empty churches and a smaller proportion of our population who never darken a church door. Let love replace duty in our church relations, and the world will soon be evangelized. – Moody’s Anecdotes, pp. 71-72.
Every church no matter the size can create the kind of atmosphere where people feel loved and welcomed. In the illustration above this young boy felt such love, support and connection to the people of God that he would go out of his way to remain a part of that community. Imagine, being in a church like that. It reflects the model we see in the Book of Acts.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42-47
Look at the picture of the church Luke is painting here. A place where believers gather together to study God’s word, live in fellowship with one another, share the gifts of the Jesus’ Body and Blood, stand in awe of the power of God at work among them, giving sacrificially to care for those in need, bonded together in prayer and praise. In that setting, God blesses the church with growth. But I suspect they were not all that concerned about the number of people attending worship every week nor the amount of money collected in the offering plate; those were not the metrics we should place our focused. This change in focus leads me to the last point of this article for the small church, how does the church grow?
- Stop putting unrealistic pressure on yourself to grow numerically.
One of the most hurtful things the idea of church growth has planted in the America Christian psyche is that “if you are not growing as a church you are a failure.” So, we play the comparison game with other churches around us. And we judge our shepherds on the number of new converts. If you want to stop that madness, then we need to find new ways to gauge congregational health. By putting the health report numbers of attendance and weekly offerings in the Sunday bulletin, we are asking those to read it to judge our success on those measurements. When the church continues to miss the mark of the weekly recording of those numbers it only serves to further demoralize the membership. So, if you don’t want to be judged by those figures and feel like you are losing the battle, start tracking other things. Track numbers that help hold your church accountable for those things that the church in Acts was measuring: people studying God’s word, the number of individuals engaged in living life together, the number of people helping with the offerings of God’s people, the number of prayer gatherings. Imagine measuring in church what God is doing among his people vs. the number of individuals coming on one day a week? Isn’t faith a 24/7 thing not just one hour on Sunday?
This article is just the beginning of a series designed to provide hope for the smaller church and hopefully the church at large. Have a blessed New Year. Look for more on Tuesday.