Sunday, February 27, 2011

How to Help Your Church Grow

Hint: It's not about whether you play modern music.

This morning DairyStateMom and I went to her church, where the pulpit guest was the Rev. Sarah Drummond, Dean of the Faculty at Andover Newton Theological School, a United Church of Christ seminary.

After the sermon (which I'll refer to in a moment), the Rev. Drummond gave a short talk about a research project she did that was written up last year in the magazine published by the Alban Institute, a sort of church think tank.

The study, described in the link at the top of this post, looks in depth at one UCC church that reversed a long and seemingly unstoppable decline: First Church in Cambridge. Drummond recalled visiting it when she was a student at Andover Newton back in the early 1990s and being overwhelmed by a musty smell that signaled decay.

A decade passed, and when Drummond returned to Andover Newton to join the faculty, she was struck by how that decline had reversed itself: the congregation was now thriving, welcoming new members by the dozen, most of them in the 21-35 age group.

In response to this phenomenon, the church, along with seminary students and Drummond, embarked on a study of its new members in order to learn how to better serve them. In the process, they learned what it was that drew and kept these new members.

The whole article fleshes this out, but here's the summary:

1) The new members welcomed high expectations of them for belonging to a church, but wanted and needed flexibility in how they might participate in the life of the church.
2) They appreciated being welcomed -- but when the welcome had a whiff of desperation, it was creepy and a turn-off.
3) They found comfort in a clearly stated belief system -- but wanted acceptance of their doubts and questions: belief without dogma, if you will. They also were drawn by the awareness that the church was living out its beliefs.

Oh, and by the way, this was a church that throughout the period of both decline and growth has remained liturgically (including musically) traditional within its denomination. Indeed, the sense of calmness and the sense of a space apart from the world embedded in its worship aesthetic was attractive to the many people who joined.

During the Q&A today, someone asked Drummond what at the church had preceded this influx of new members -- had there been some kind of strategy or marketing campaign launched?

The answer, she said, was that the church had engaged in a deliberate examination of what its vision for itself and its role in the community should be. As a result, it became much more connected with the wider needs of the community -- for example, connecting volunteers with a local homeless shelter that had been operating separately in the church's own basement for years.

"I'm hearing you say," I said, "that what the church did wasn't focus on, 'How can we recruit more members,' but rather, 'How can we be more authentic.'" Drummond agreed.

In a sense, it really was a case of "Build it and they will come" -- with "it" being not "a place that will attract young adult members," but rather "a principled religious community."

My point here is not to condemn contemporary music in worship or alternative worship styles. Rather, my point is simply to say that to the extent those are matters of style, they won't accomplish much for people who hunger for substance.

Driving home, I connected the insight with the text from Matthew that had been the topic of Drummond's sermon that day: Matthew 6:24-34. Specifically, I recalled how the passage ends:
31. Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32. For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
So it appears to have been with FCC: Instead of fretting about how to market itself to more people, the church thought about how to seek the kingdom of God. And that's what made the difference.

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