Blunt truth about church growth


David CollinsHow to make your church swell
Faithfulness and the growth of our churches don’t have to be at odds.

by David R. Collins

We’ve all heard the statistics about decline in the church. Some comments on Facebook estimate that last year alone the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lost around 8 billion members, which may or may not be an overestimation given that there are only about 7.3 billion people on Earth. Every church has those two or 20 elders who love to talk about the glory days, when all the pews were full and all the children were better behaved without their iPads and their selfie sticks.

In fact, you might even call it a denominational obsession to revel in the fact that the church is dying, that those of us left are the last of the faithful, and that there’s really nothing we can do about any of it.

But that’s just not true.

Churches are growing. Even churches without fog machines! I pastored a small church for nine years in a difficult location with no extra money, and it grew. Now I’m co-pastoring a big church in a great location with a big budget, and you better believe that it’s going to grow!

There are many growing congregations in the PC(USA) that are growing. And there’s one weird thing that all of them have in common.

No one cares.

See, the popular story is that faithful churches are shrinking. Therefore, churches that are growing must be in some way unfaithful and not worth paying attention to. We believe this story because we imagine mega-churches as weird and scary. Now, certainly, there are faithful churches that aren’t growing numerically; their growth may be in discipleship.

But membership growth is possible for just about any faithful church out there. That’s why I’m writing this column. There are small, practical changes any church that wants to grow can make or at least try.

My blunt principle for church growth: Preach the gospel, one point per week, in an engaging, persuasive way, in a community worth being a part of.

Simple, right?

‘There are small, practical changes any church that wants to grow can make.’

I’m going to unpack that statement in a series of articles, but I want to start with what has become for some in the PC(USA) a sacred cow. If you want to jump-start your growth . . .

Don’t do the lectionary. Do a sermon series instead.

Contrary to popular belief, the lectionary is not one of the “essential tenets of the Reformed faith” that we all agree to uphold in our ordination vows. (Actually, it might be, since it’s not listed anywhere what those essential tenets actually are!) It can be a great tool to use, especially during the holy seasons of the year, but when it comes to welcoming others into the church, it just might be the log in our denominational eye. So try getting rid of it, maybe just for a while. (It will still be there later.) And replace it with . . .

A sermon series (preferably with a gripping title and eye-catching art)!

Here’s how:

First, pick a felt need in your community and speak to it for four to six weeks. One consistent need is knowing how to deal with family and other relationships. So is the search for meaning in an uncaring world. There are plenty of Scripture texts to exegete on these subjects, no matter what Sunday it’s supposed to be in the church year. Do that four to six weeks in a row, and “baby, you’ve got a stew going!”

Or pick a doctrine of the faith and preach about that. What does the Bible really say about the afterlife? How do we know that God cares about us?

Or pick something that someone has already done. There are hundreds of examples online of good sermon series about great subjects. Make a choice, and go with it, because there is more to do.

Second, begin the sermon series on one of the three Sundays when attendance is already high. Try the following dates: Easter, one month after school is back in session in the fall, and/or the second Sunday in February.

Third, equip the people in the congregation to invite their friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family members to come with them on that particular Sunday. There is no such thing as too much communication, the most useful of which is an invite card. 

The best invite cards are for just one purpose: inviting people to worship on the Sunday when the sermon series begins. It is not the medium to share the church’s history, lengthy mission statement, or advertise next summer’s flea market. Just put the catchy title, snazzy art you’ve picked, the date and time it starts, and the name and address of your church on the front.

On the back, flesh out a bit about the series, maybe add a map to the church, and cap it all off with the magic words, “You are invited!” Put them in each bulletin for the month leading up to the big Sunday, and every week, tell each person in the pew why they should invite their friends. Go door-to-door in the area surrounding the church and invite the church’s neighbors. Get to know them yourself, whether you’re the pastor or not.

Do it, and I’ll bet you a nickel that your attendance swells, and if you follow up with the new folks in an authentic, non-threatening way, you’ll see actual growth.

There’s more to it, of course, and this blog will return next month to offer more blunt truth about church growth. But if you want your church to grow, give this a shot. If you’re the pastor, and you start now, you can get a sermon series off the ground for October. And if you’re not the pastor, there’s plenty of time to get the appropriate committee together and get your pastor on board to try this for Easter 2016.

Be swell!

David R. Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, Florida.