A Heart for Others (Suddenly Surging Part 2)

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(Part two of five in David Roseberry’s Suddenly Surging series on church growth.)

In the first of this series, I mentioned signs that churches might be growing and offered reasons why that might be. I have no proof for this beyond anecdotal evidence and what has been on X in a few places (here is a longish tweet thread). And in our own tribe, the Anglican Church in North America, it also seems to be happening. Over the next few posts, I’ll provide some of my thoughts about what we should do. Because whether or not growth is happening, the church should nevertheless try to grow. Healthy things grow.

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In this post, let’s look at a central idea: How can churches respond to or even invite growth? How can a congregation plan and prepare for a growing number of visitors, interested folk, and what we often used to call “Inquirers”? How should our churches be thinking, and how should their hearts be ready for growth? What changes in attitudes, priorities, and emphasis should congregations undertake to try to grow or to meet the growth that we hope is ahead?

The Pernicious Plateau

In many churches, Sunday morning attendance is flat. That sounds harsh, doesn’t it? No one likes to say that their church is flat. But let’s face it: up until this recent unscientific Twitter trend, many, if not most, of the churches in the ACNA would admit their attendance had plateaued.

There may be new members this year that weren’t there last year. Some names are different, to be sure. But for a large number of congregations, this year’s attendance looks like last year’s, which looks like the attendance from five years ago. Is your church on a plateau?

Identifying a Plateau

It is not easy to tell if your church is on a plateau. The ASA, or “Average Sunday Attendance,” goes up and down for reasons that can’t be avoided, even if they could be predicted: holidays, sports, weather, etc.

To complicate matters, despite recent Easter-like numbers, most statistics indicate people are leaving the church in large numbers. A 2019 Gallup report says the percentage of Americans who belong to a church reached an all-time low, averaging 50% in 2018—a significant decline from 70% in 1999. The same report reveals that the percentage of U.S. adults who attend religious services at least once a week has also been declining. It went from 42% in 2008 to 36% in 2018—these figures are alarming and disheartening.

But there is more. Younger generations, such as Millennials and Generation Z, have shown to be less likely to identify with a specific religion or attend religious services regularly than older generations. Increasing secularization, changing social norms, and a growing preference for individual spirituality over organized religion compound this, and it all may contribute to the decline in church attendance.

Getting Off the Plateau

There are plenty of reasons why your church might be on a plateau. The good news and the bad news is that plateaus do not last forever. Either the church will find itself stagnating, which is the precursor to decline and possibly extinction, or your congregation will find a way to consolidate, innovate, and connect with both current members and potential visitors.

The die is not cast for your church. Or rather, it doesn’t have to be. Your church can start to grow again. But how? There are some matters of the heart, of the head, and of the hands that must be developed and strengthened. A congregation’s heart (what they value and understand about their mission), their head (what they understand about the Gospel), and their hands (what they do to open their church to new growth) are all part of the equation.

Today, let’s examine the first part of this question: What is the heart condition that a church needs to have?

Discover and Cultivate a Heart for Others

At the core of any thriving church is a heart that shares Jesus’ heart—to see people connected to God and to one another. We remember Jesus looking upon the crowds, filled with compassion. He saw they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). This same compassion should drive pastors and church leaders to prioritize reaching people disconnected from the life-giving community of your church.

If you are reading this, you know you want a place—and you need a place, a people—who will love, accept, and want God’s best for you. If you have found this, you have probably found it first in your family (I hope). But the next best place to look to find community and authentic connection is your church, your congregation. If you have found these things in your family or your church, know that almost everyone you know wants what you have.

To step up off the plateau, a church’s leaders and members need to discover or rediscover the Lord’s heart for others. If your church was planted within the last dozen years or so, you will remember the excitement and joy of growth when new people were added to the church’s rolls and when visitors came to see and discover what you had already discovered.

But over time, as the congregation matures, many people in the church will notice their entire friend group is in the church. They have become good friends—in some cases great friends—with fellow members. Thus, the growth momentum slows because people have what they look to a church to provide: warm, loving friendships and fellowship. The stream of new people being invited to attend the congregation slows to a trickle, and then it dries up.

Crickets

A few years ago, I was consulting with a congregation on an attendance plateau. The Rector wisely was concerned. He had tried over many years to move, push, and shake the church members out of their comfortable, steady state. I asked the Rector and Vestry to organize a focus-type group visit and to ask a few questions. One evening set aside, I arrived with my notebook and a set of prepared questions. The last one was the killer.

We talked about the congregation. The group spoke about its mission and history. The people in the room were happy with their congregation. These people loved their Rector. They loved the preaching and the music on Sunday mornings. They also admitted how friendly and outgoing their church was, especially when new people came. But, as their attendance indicated, new people weren’t returning. People came. They saw. They left.

At the end of the session, I surveyed my notes and asked my pre-prepared killer question. I handed each of them a 3×5 index card. Then I simply said, “On this card, please write down the name of the last person you invited to come to church with you. And include the year you made the invitation.”

It was an awkward moment. There were crickets. In truth, no one in the focus group—a representative sample of the entire congregation—could remember a single person, much less a date, when they had invited someone to their church. Their church was friendly to people if they came on Sunday. However, not one of these members had asked someone to attend their church.

Why? These were good people who had many friends. They worked as teachers, realtors, accountants, nurses, and service providers. These jobs put them in touch with many people throughout every day. They lived in safe neighborhoods and were raising families, sending kids to school, and going to gyms. Indeed, they were around people all day long. Why were they silent about their own church?

As we talked about their awkward silence, it was quickly clear that they all shared something in common: most of their very good friends were already members of their church. And the rest of the people in their circle of acquaintances—well, the topic of the church never came up!

These were faithful members of their Anglican church, but it had become, for them, an enclave of believers who enjoyed worshipping together and “doing church” together. Their church had become a club—and a private one at that!

What is Your “R Number”?

We know our culture needs the church to proclaim a “Three R” message of Repentance, Redemption, and Restoration in Christ. But there is one more R that is essential: Reaching, or we might even say “Replacement.”

Do you remember the “R number” from the days of the pandemic? It was the rate at which the virus spread from one person to another. A high number (R-3, R-4) was bad news. Low numbers were good. An R number of less than one meant the virus was dying off. There were fewer contagious people and fewer being infected.

Researchers applied this concept to the church and the results were not encouraging. Consider this from the Church Times from 2022. The lead was sobering: The Church of England faces extinction within 40 years because the faith it proclaims is not “contagious” enough, a new study reports.

In other words, our churches are not growing because our members are not contagious. They had a very low “R” score. Members are not able to replace themselves with newer converts. Perhaps they are not even infected with the Gospel message!

We might think we cannot make people love others. But that is wrong. We can. The Lord commands us. As was his heart, so should our hearts become. Our congregations should be teeming with people who love the Lord and who are striving to love and connect to the people he died to redeem.

In our Anglican heritage, the definition of a church is very simple. The church is where the Gospel is preached, and the Sacraments of new life are duly administered. But the Good News and the Sacraments do not leave us as we were. The people of God can become the people for God: the people God uses to bring the Good News of God’s Redemption to a broken and hurting world.

When a church’s leadership is driven by a deep love for people and a desire to see them experience the power of the Gospel, it creates a ripple effect throughout the congregation. Members become inspired to reach out to their neighbors, coworkers, and friends. They know that a church family that shares their passion for seeing lives changed supports them.

By keeping the heart of Jesus at the forefront, church leaders can create a culture of welcome, compassion, and inclusivity. This will naturally attract those searching for meaning, purpose, and belonging.

What to Do?

Each of these essays will have a few thoughts about how to take action, make plans, and develop a team to find, recruit, welcome, and engage new people in the church’s life. These ideas are my own, and I invite you to adapt, adopt, or replace these thoughts with your own. But for now, consider these ideas and suggestions:

The pastor should preach biblical sermons 5-6 times a year that help people see their neighborhood, school, soccer teams, kids’ friends, community, and work environment as a mission field that Jesus wants to reach.

The Rector, Vestry, and staff should review, step by step, how the congregation recruits, identifies, welcomes, and communicates with new visitors. Who is in charge of this process? The church should train everyone—not just a committee or group—to invite their friends.

Consider taking four weeks to ask the Killer Question in different settings. Then, lead the congregation in answering it differently. Challenge every member to invite someone in the next four weeks.

Conclusion

Stepping up off the plateau and reigniting church growth requires a heart for others, a clear understanding of the Gospel message, and practical actions to reach and engage new people. By cultivating compassion, becoming “contagious” with the faith, and intentionally inviting others to experience the life-giving community of the church, congregations can overcome stagnation and thrive once more.


Photo by digitalskillet from GettyImages, courtesy of Canva.

Published on

April 24, 2024

Author

David Roseberry

David Roseberry leads the nonprofit ministry, LeaderWorks. He was the founding rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and is the author of many books. He lives in Plano with his wife, Fran.

View more from David Roseberry

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