One way to grow a congregation is to create outposts into the community to attract seekers, and then invite them to participate with the parent church (even if they never actually join).  This takes a mix of business innovation and marketing savvy, but is not hard to implement.  A good place to start is an article by Outreach Magazine, “The Church Needs a Skunkworks.”

A skunkworks is a group within the organization that is given broad powers to try out new ideas.  There is an expectation that some of the ideas will fail, or will never achieve popular approval, buy by allowing the group to think way outside the box, they have the opportunity to find disruptive ideas that make major progress.  It was a skunkworks that created the atomic bomb.  Another one created the laptop.  The copying machine (Xerox) came from one.

Dean Kelly, the late former leader of the National Council of Churches, in his book Why Conservative Churches are Growing (1972) suggested growth could come by creating an ‘eklesesia’ – a congregation within a congregation, and allow them to worship differently, reportable only to the pastor or a small group of elders, until the ideas being tried are evaluated. (The Oureach article notes “it  is better to establish some boundaries in the beginning rather than let them be discovered…by hitting a brick wall later.”)  It may be their ideas are later adopted church-wide, or that they eventually become a new church plant sponsored by the church, or that the group dissolves, leaving the leaders better trained for future service within the congregation.

One phrase from the Outreach article argues for this group to start outside the church:  “Once you start on church grounds, the likelihood of ever getting off campus is weak. But if you start off campus, you will find fewer restrictions in the future and more opportunities in the present. Besides, it is healthy if the church finds itself out in the community figuring out ways to bring the kingdom of God to a place.”

The other reason comes from in internet marketing space.  Savvy marketers will establish multiple ‘feeder’ sites whose only purpose is to attract a subset of the market and draw them toward the main sales site.  By establishing themed ministries in the community, we establish connections on topics that interest them, and then use those relationships to introduce them to the church itself.

If you need help establishing your own skunkworks, let us know.

What does it mean to  be ‘missional’?  Is that different from being ‘mission-focused’? Does it matter what you call it?  Does it matter if you do it?

I’m not sure the difference between being missional and being mission-focused.  I suspect they are at least close to one another.  Both move a congregation to being aware of missions, and into actually participating in missions.

I know from experience it starts with being aware of the need.  It means going deeper than just ‘bless all the missionaries over there’ to knowing about what a specific missionary does day to day in relationship with a specific people group.  The congregation begins to pray for and to give  donations to that specific missionary over and above the generalized denominational offerings.  Finally someone breaks out and goes somewhere.  Over time, if nurtured properly, the whole congregation gets behind the movement and a sizeable portion of the congregation gets involved.

It’s transformative.

In almost every case, it pulls the members closer to one another and closer to God.  They get a sense that what they are doing is important, and if they didn’t do their part, people would starve or die from disease, and people would go to hell without Jesus.

Perhaps the difference I’ve seen are those that focus their attention on the unreached peoples elsewhere in the world, and those that serve the forgotten, abandoned and estranged people in their local community.  Both are important.  Both should be celebrated.  And people need training in how to be ‘on mission’ in both locations.

Enter Church Publishing Incorporated (CPI), a publishing source for Episcopal support materials.  The story I get from the CPI press release is that their initial offering is five books of practical wisdom.

  • Starting from Zero with $0: Building Mission-shaped Ministries on a Shoestring, By Becky Garrison
  • Mission-shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions in a Changing Context
  • Mission-shaped Parish: Traditional Church in a Changing Context, by Paul Bayes, Tim Sledge, John Holbrook, Mark Rylands, and Martin Seeley
  • Mission-shaped Spirituality: The Transforming Power of Mission, by Susan Hope
  • Mission-shaped Questions: Defining Issues for Today’s Church, by Steven Croft

I haven’t read them, but the titles seem interesting.  (I just received Becky’s in the mail this weekend.)  If you’ve read one or all, let me know what you think.  If you want to get a copy, they are available from the CPI Bookstore.

“This generation wants meat. They are tired of silly events that have a little Scripture thrown in, or events where junk food is served up large and the Bible doesn’t make the menu. ”

Alvin Reid is one of my favorite thinkers, especially where it comes to young adults.  He’s been looking at the spiritual landscape and calls today’s rising young adults “A Generation of Carnivores.”  They migrate to and fill a church where the pastor will “teach the Bible verse by verse, sometimes an hour or more weekly.”  It takes some preparation and presentation, but they will respond.

Not so, he says, the older generations.  We’ve trained them to need “dumbed-down” sermons” of spiritual milk.  But if you do that, you can grow a crowd without growing a church. It will  take staff and effort but have no base, and very few committed tithers.  Those kinds of members “donate” a little time and money to the cause-of-the-month, but have no staying power.  We know that won’t work to sustain your church long-term.

There is a younger generation of believers who are tired of “do the minimum” Christianity. They want it straight, they want it real, and they want it now. If you teach the Bible, and if young adults you teach sense you genuiely love them and love Jesus, you can get right in their grills. In fact, you must. If however they perceive you as a smart aleck, or you stereotype them to the extreme, you will lose them. And you will never have a chance with unchurched  young adults.

Do this and live.


Dr Alvin Reid is Professor of Evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, author and frequent speaker at youth events.

I saw a church sign like none I’ve seen before.  Instead of using their curbside advertiser to spout cute sayings, Mount Zion Baptist in Hampton chose to honor someone never seen or noticed by most.

How many churches have you seen honor an usher?  Generally, it’s the pastor, or some other senior staff member.  Not an usher.  Ushers stand in the parking lot, or at the door, or in the aisle.

When the visitor overcomes intertia and comes, these special volunteers help them find a place to park, help them know where to take children, and find them a place to sit that meets their individual preferences.  A good usher makes the hesitant first-timer feel like an old friend.

So when someone passes a milestone like 25 years of faithful service, the good churches will make a big deal out of it.  It’s one of the reasons that church was in the middle of a building campaign for more education space.

I read a post a couple of weeks ago suggesting we walk into church expecting a miracle.  That part I agree with.  The second half of the statement suggested that if a miracle doesn’t show, then something is wrong in our preparation.

I lead worship expecting a miracle, a holy fire to come from heaven and empower us all for great work.  But if the service ends without an outpouring of converts, it’s not necessarily a sign of the lack of God’s presence.

I’m not talking to you who are not doing what you can to be ready.  Evangelist Alvin Reid recently quoted a statistic that 54% of pastors had not shared their faith in the past six months, and only 21% of active church members invite anyone to church in a year, only 2% invite an unchurched person.  As my uncle used to tell me about gardening, it won’t grow if you don’t plant the seed.

The passage I look to is the life of Elijah, one of the greatest prophets in the Bible.  Of his whole life, barely a dozen days get mentioned.  There are long stretches of no word from him. Three years with the widow waiting on God to say “go.”  If God’s timing is for my congregation to wait, and I’m actively waiting, planting and watering, weeding and pruning, then the harvest will come in its season.

It just won’t be harvest every week, all year long.

Most struggling churches see the solution to their problem as growth.  They will look to consultants and literature for  methods and options for growth.  But before we jump to conclusions, we need to know the outcome we want to see when we’re done.

The first question is to know why you want to grow, and in what areas.  If you just want numbers there are a number of gimmicks you can try to attract folks to come and sit in the pews, but never engage deeply in the life of the congregation. There are a number of mega-churches that seem to use that model.

If you want a community of deeply devoted followers of Jesus Christ, growing in understanding, compassion and mission, that’s a different problem.

People return to a restaurant where the food is good and the service is good.  They become regulars there when they can find community in  the place, knowing and being known by the staff and the other patrons.  They are more likely to contribute financially there than any other restaurant.  They may even help out if there is a need and a request.  Such it is with community.

Numbers are nice.  But as mentioned before, numbers should be the byproduct.  Focus on well-done liturgy, music that is appropriate to the demographic of the community, and opportunities to involve congregants in the tasks of the church.  Provide quality Bible study and training in how to explain their faith to their neighbors and friends.  Hold regular social gatherings.  Honor workers at all stations (from leaders to greeters) and acknowledge their service publicly.

Challenge members to be missional minded in inviting friends and coworkers. And always be open to include the outsider and the newcomer.

Do this and when growth happens, it will be healthy growth that remains vibrant.

Austin Rammel may be onto something.  Pastor of Venture church in Dallas, North Carolina, his church voted to sell the building and relocate to a school.  It gave them $80k in working capital and the flexibility to grow and contract as needed, in that the school auditorium and side rooms can accommodate between 500 and 900, without looking too empty or too full either way.  (With 2 services, the school gives him space for 1800.)

Moving to the school also helps with the community that distrusts churches, because the church truly is the people and not the place.  And the place is in the middle of lots of families.

What struck me most was his comment in the announcement message about when people liked to come.  Most churches want that core 11am Sunday time, but Austin says the 9:30 time slot actually has the greatest long term growth potential.  He’s working on 2 services,  since “having two Rocked Out Gatherings gives people a chance to serve in one and worship in the other … all while their children are taken care of!”

The church I attend has 2 morning services, at 9:15 and 11 (plus a smaller crowd at 6pm).  I sing in the choir and notice the 9:15 are the faithful regulars, and it stays 70-80% full, even on weekends when the 11am drops to barely half full (I guess irregular visitors take vacation those weeks).\

It makes sense to me.  I attend the first service and, after singing in the second, go off to the Bible study hour.  I find I enjoy the study time more after having worshiped.

(for those townspeople that need to work on Sunday, having a 9 or 9:30 service lets them attend before slipping on the apron to serve lunch to folks from other churches.)


On one of the message groups I follow is a comment that is disconcerting:

Kirk Hadaway, statistics guy for TEC, says that only 21 out 7900 Episcopal churches have had growth in the last 5 years in both ASA and total membership.  0.0027% of churches have had real growth in the last 5 years.

21 of 7900 in 5 years.  That is essentially zero growth, and compared to a 1% a year net growth in US population, the denomination is losing ground.  Add the aging population, and that spells trouble (more…)

Recently I saw the an amazing device that creates scale models of objects and engineering drawings. Taking a topographic map of a golf course, they were able to create a 2″ long model of one of that course’s holes. Using software that estimated the stress points on a joint in various colors, the machine printed out a 3-d copy of the joint with those colors displayed, so the designer and his manager could hold the item and see the results.

In the same demo room was a handheld scanner. With it, the operator was able to create a 3-d rendering of an object. That engineering object could then be worked with until the changes were ready and the model was printed out for review, and then the final product was built.

I know Bible teaching because master teachers let me teach their classes with them in the room. I know witnessing because a pastor grabbed me to join his weekly home visitation schedule. One of the churches I helped had a pastor who had not grown up in the church, and neither had his deacon – they did not know what “normal” behavior looked like until I was able to teach and model it for them.

My model for discipleship comes from business: The way you train a new salesman is “You watch me, I watch you, you go do.” It’s a “lather, rinse, repeat” approach described in 2 Tim 2:2 – “The things you’ve heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, you teach to reliable me, who will themselves then be able to teach others.”

It is the job of every mature believer to find a protege and teach them the faith. That is discipleship. That is what will rescue the struggling church.

One of the problems facing struggling churches is the feeling of not knowing what else to do.  You wish someone would come help, but there’s no money for a consultant and no time or money for attending conferences.  And even if you go, it’s just you.  How do you remember enough to carry the same vision & excitement back to you church leaders?

One of the joys of the current internet is the amount of teaching that’s available online,  much of it for free.  One site I recently discovered is from the Southern Baptists in Maryland.  The BCMD equip site is full of really good short courses – videoed workshops – that are geared to the small churches in that region.

For example, tonite I learned that putting on a play or special program can be done without a lot of money.  Five dollar costumes that don’t look like bath robes.  Wooden boxes to add visual interest as portable staging.  Where to find scripts and music that won’t break the bank.

Youtube is another place to find teaching.  Browse the bookstore for church growth / church health authors and then search for them on youtube.  Chances are, someone has posted one of their conference lectures there.

I’ve also started listening to chapel lectures from seminaries and Christian colleges.  It’s inspiring to hear how pastors and teachers are working out their faith in small churches, and I pick up ideas and have my preconceived notions challenged.  Or affirmed.  David Bycroft spoke at Ozark Christian College about being a formerly small church that held auto shows and tractor pulls and family festivals to attract people to come hear the Gospel.

The resources are there.  If you can’t find one, drop me a note and I’ll help you find some.