By Victoria Heard
What are the common characteristics of growing churches? What are indicators of decline? Kirk Hadaway is the Episcopal Church’s chief statistician and researcher, and he has just published New FACTs on Episcopal Church Growth and Decline [PDF]. This update to an earlier report [PDF] is based on a 70 percent return rate from a balanced sample in 2014. The new document is a gold mine of data for those who want to grow their churches.
Hadaway notes dozens of factors that affect growth and decline. I have picked six that I think are essential for churches to practice or, at least, to consider carefully. One extraordinary factor may grow a church, but growing churches usually attend to several factors. The factors I chose are not geographically specific, nor do they depend on the leadership of the rector, which is always a substantial factor. Throughout, I assume a robust proclamation of a Nicene Christian faith ought to be part of a growing church.
1. A kingdom road map. “Churches that are clear about why they exist and what they should be doing are most likely to be growing congregations,” says Hadaway. Put another way, churches need to be purpose-driven, with a hat off and full bow to Rick Warren. There is no substitute for a real and articulated mission that connects directly to proclaiming Christ and his resurrection. The priest and the leadership of the parish have somewhere to go and something to say. They say it, do it, and go.
That mission is irreducibly spiritual. A church with a God-inspired mission does not involve warm gooey fellowship with candles and endless inclusion of every idea. St. Paul was clear: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Christ Jesus and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul also was grateful for the focused gifts of the Church in Philippi to the poor of Jerusalem.
Hadaway tracks that churches with clear purposes are likely to grow. The goal is clearly laid out in public and is easy to trace by the use of leaders’ time, the use of facilities, and most of all the priorities of the budget. Money is a good acid test. The vestry of a church with a clear road map to mission will not argue about how to spend an undesignated bequest. It will immediately apply the money to the front edge of its mission.
Give a parish a clear goal to create a difference in a neighborhood for young people, as one of our new Hispanic parishes is doing in the Diocese of Dallas. The leaders found a way (with almost no money) to create an after-school boxing program. Their teens are now winning competitions and staying free of the gangs that beleaguer that part of town. Hadaway says that 35 percent of growing churches agree to the statement: “Our congregation has a clear mission and strong purpose.”
2. The children go up front. The mission goes up front: so do the children. An all-adult cast in the sanctuary is a sign of decline. Of course, adults are more reverent and reliable, and they are usually better readers. Still, when the unconscious message is that “children need not apply” families with children will go elsewhere. Hadaway documents that when children are involved and visible in worship parishes have more children and are more likely to grow.
Twenty years ago, I remember having to stop my bored acolytes from making paper airplanes behind my long-winded assistant’s back. They showed up, though, to carry the cross and serve (and play rock-paper-scissors during the sermon). They are now on the vestries of parishes, and one young woman is a priest. Hadaway is succinct: “among churches that never involve children [in worship], only 11% were growing and 74% were declining.” That does not mean that a parish can make young Christians by liturgy alone.
3. Sunday school still works. Parishes that field Sunday schools grow. Yes, Sunday schools were 19th-century outreach programs to teach poor factory children how to read. Still, an excellent Sunday school remains a good way to grow a church. For every priest or warden who has tried to recruit teachers in August’s heat, take heart!
Ancient rabbis, medieval monks, early modern Jesuits and reformers, and early Methodists all focused on the education of children. They all taught content and biblical narrative. In comparison, an Episcopal Sunday school is often flaccid and inadequately biblical or theologically detailed.
Sunday schools need content and lots and lots of exposure to the big narratives of the Scriptures. To be familiar with and articulate about both Testaments requires more than lectionary-based curricula. Children need the Creeds to shape their worldview and should learn about basic Christian faith practices like how to forgive, pray, and tithe. Only in this way will they learn how to live as Christians in a complex world that is increasingly ignorant of basic Christian concepts. If we do not teach them the words of Christ, the world will not.
Sunday school is part of the larger process of catechesis in a post-Christian world. Hadaway has the numbers to prove it: more than one in three Episcopal churches that make Sunday school a “specialty” will grow. Alternatively, your church can join the 96 percent of parishes in decline that say that Sunday school is “not an emphasis.” Churches without noisy, learning children are preparing for the grave.
4. A culture of learning for adults. The new bon mot is that American adults are “spiritual but not religious.” It is not just the children who need to know Christ and the Scriptures. Hadaway says congregations that offer extensive adult learning are the statistical winners. “One of the strongest correlatives of growth comes from the place that a congregation places on adult religious formation.”
Growing congregations usually have more than three educational options for adults on Sunday morning and at other times in the week. Lifelong learning as a focus is essential if we want to move adults to growth as followers of Christ. A hurting world does not need worshipers with a thin Christian veneer covering their otherwise worldly habits and thoughts.
Some priests are snobs about prepackaged curricula. I used to be such a snob and wrote my own. Still, many churches do very well with videos and discussion groups or programs like Disciple, Education for Ministry, and Alpha. What are the best programs to offer? Ones that feed both members and seekers: marriage enrichment, money management with a dose of Christian stewardship, and basic surveys of the Bible. Forgiveness, family, and money classes should be on most parishes’ menu. Twice a year at least, in endless loop, there needs to be a short course on basic Christian belief. It is important to have both 100-level courses and, eventually, 300-400 level courses.
The numbers are clear: 36 percent of Episcopal parishes grow when adult religious education is a focus; 4 percent of churches grow when adult education is not a parish focus. So: teach or fold.
5. Hospitality that counts. A successful planter who used to be in business commented on the indifference of churches to new people, in contrast to the focus that any business lavishes on potential customers. “The Church is not a business,” he says, “because if it were, it would be bankrupt.”
The best way to check your church’s capacity to grow is to count something. Start by counting the numbers of “contacts” your parish has for newcomers. New and growing churches have specific ways to reach, welcome, and follow up with visitors. It is not just that visitors are handed bulletins with a smile, it is (1) that they are invited to coffee hour, and (2) that at the coffee hour, parishioners are trained and scheduled to greet them, answer questions, and (3) invite them to future events or classes. Then, (4) there should be at least three to five further follow-up contacts in the first week, a phone call, a welcome note, and email.
Hadaway says that the more “warm and multiple” ways a church has to contact visitors, the more likely it is to grow. There is an 800 percent church-growth difference between “no contact” and multiple personal contacts. If we do not welcome them, the angels go elsewhere (Heb. 13:2).
Hadaway connects growth to social media savvy, especially in order to reach younger generations. A basic attractive website is essential, with the church’s name, location, service times, and contact information, and a capacity to add and change a calendar of events. Facebook and digital newsletters are critical, as are mailed paper notices for special events. Facebook and Twitter may not be sufficient, but they better the odds that the gospel will be seen and noticed.
6. Add a service, stir up the sound. A strong predictor of growth for a church is to have more than one service on Sunday morning. A single service’s numbers tend to plateau when the sanctuary space is three-quarters full. Newcomers think that there is “no space for us.” A single service has to pick a single musical and liturgical style. Many areas have some people who like “traditional” and others who like “contemporary.” A church that can welcome people to worship God in both ways can welcome more people to experience Christ’s love. Adding a service is the single easiest way to grow a church, as one can add a different musical idiom, style of worship, or time slot without disturbing the faithful who are already attending. It has to be done with forethought, excellence, and a willingness to experiment within the framework of the Book of Common Prayer.
Regions vary, but nationally, families with children often prefer services before 10 a.m., while singles of all ages are drawn by later services. Most Hispanic services seem fullest after 11 a.m. In some places, Saturday or Sunday evening services work. Off-Sunday morning hours attract more unchurched people. Try a new service for a season. If it works, add it to the schedule. If not, try a different time or kind of service. Willingness to try but fail is essential to growth.
Regarding services, I end with a final recommendation: if you want to grow your parish, buy drums! If the very thought of drums makes you cringe, try a string bass or something else that keeps a beat. When you add a new service, use drums and music with choruses and rhythm. (This is something one of my choir directors sneered at as “cowboy music.” She is a wonderful classical musician, but her preferences can hinder the gospel’s hearing.)
We do not need to ditch all hymns, but can we sing them with strong rhythm and beat? Since 1549, Anglicans have stressed that worship must be “in the language of the people.” That common language includes music and, for most Americans today, music with a strong beat.
Hadaway points out that growing churches have at least one service for which the worship is described as “vibrant.” Growing churches describe their worship as “fun and joyful.” He reports that more than 40 percent of growing churches use percussion instruments most or all of the time. The next time you sit next to a loud stereo in traffic, consider the implications for an effective 21st-century proclamation of the gospel. Both polyphony and hymns were booed and banned when they were the new musical cutting edge in their generations.
Hadaway records decline in nearly 80 percent of churches that said their services were “reverent” — which means “dying.” Personally, I prefer Bach and silence, but I know I am in the minority. I am done beating that drum.
If you want your church to grow, this is a six-pack of growing church characteristics backed up by data. Define how you do kingdom work and focus on it. Buy the drums, put the kids up front often. Teach children and adults as if their lives depend on it, and welcome people and worship God in multiple ways. And, yes, use Facebook.
The Rev. Victoria Heard is canon of church planting and congregational development for the Diocese of Dallas. This essay first appeared on TLC’s weblog, Covenant.