What can the former assitant director of the national Council of Churches tell you about growing your churches?

In 1973, Dean Kelley took a sabatical from the NCC to study the decline in member church attendance.  The resulting book, titled Why Conservative Churches are Growing, took the stance of an outsider looking in.  His question was “why were some churches growing and others contracting?”  He wondered if there were denominational differences, differences in practices, differences in form.  Or was there something more fundamentally different, something that was universal within Christendom that would apply to any church. 

What he found was that churches had become lax in teaching their core values.  In the push to be more ecumenical in action, churches had become less distinctive in doctrine.  They were forgetting who they were.

It is the principle that you only retain 70% of what you hear, and remember barely 10% after a week.  Without systematic study, parishoner were retaining less than half the Gospel stories.  As they taught their children, the half was halved, continuing through succeeding generations until barely a sliver remained of the original.  As Dorothy Bass describes it, they had lost the shared language and legacy, and had become more like the world than the church ideal, leading many to drop out.

What can you do?  Consider your congregation.  As your average member to find some minor prophet’s book or to explain it’s theme.  If they can’t recognize the story of Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal, or the handwriting on the wall, it’s time to begin again.

In my seminar on “Back to the Basics, ” I describe the various models for organizing, training, equipping your church for dramatic impact in your community.  I feel this topic is essential for creating vibrant churches.  It is useful for congregations or study groups of any size.  it will transform and amplify existing outreach efforts.

I have long felt a need to share more, be more, do more for the Kingdom.  I know God did not intend for us to flounder, wither and die.  This seminar begins the restoration process.

I’ve found that most in the church share my longing.  Seminars and programs souncded good, but the people are often unable to sustain the results.  It wasn’t for a lack of trying.  But like trying to run a race car on low-octane fuel, the efforts fall short of the goals. But when these fundamentals are added, people catch the why as well as the how and begin to take the actions that restore the church.

The Christian Science Monitor has published an editorial about the decline and perhaps demise of modern Evangelicalism.  Titled “The coming evangelical collapse” Michael Spencer gives current examples and reasoned predictions that validate what Barna has been warning for some time.  I disagree with some of his predicted outcomes (or maybe I don’t want to listen), but he does make a point that “fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.”

The crux of his argument is that Evangelicals have gotten distracted with social issues, and

“Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture wars, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures. “

This is not a new finding.  In his 1972 work Why Conservative Churches are Growing, Dean Kelly quoted Franklin Littell’s The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (1964).  Kelly and Littell say that parents – even at that time – hadn’t fully passed on their faith, so the children did not even have a full faith to teach their own children.

“In churches in the US, they have not only ‘halved the covenant’ for their children again and again until there was scarcely a sliver left, but also progressively relaxed the standards of membership … members often had only the vaguest notion of what the church they were joining believed or required. …As a result, Littell observes, the churches became filled with baptized pagans, who soon far outnumbered those who had gained and kept some understanding of the obligations of discipleship.”

Even in 1972, Kelly, who wrote the book while on sabbatical from the National Council of Churches, noted “Renewal does not take hold unless it is embodied, exemplified, lived out by a particular group, who show the way to a stronger faith by taking it themselves.”

And that is exactly the problem Michael Spencer is addressing. He claims that “denominations are going to become largely irrelevant” and “many marginal believers will depart.”

Spencer is spot on when he says that if churches survive they must move from maintenance mode to a “new evangelicalism” that returns to the authority of what the Bible says instead of what we want it to say, while continually reinterpreting the form for our culture.


Barna, George “Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions” Barna Seminar, 9/30/03
Kelly, Dean M, Why Conservative Churches are Growing (NY: Harper & Row, 1972), p104, 114
Littell, Franklin H. The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (NY:Macmillan Co., 1964) and From State Church to Pluralism (NY: Doubleday, 1962)
Spencer, Michael “The coming evangelical collapse” in The Christian Science Monitor, 10 Mar 09, http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0310/p09s01-coop.html

Mark over at kainos reported on a NY Times article where Reform Judaism is trying to recruit non-attenders by publishing a more “inclusive version” of Scriptures.  Mark pegged the falicy in the approach:  “People who want to know the truth about God won’t be drawn to a congregation that doesn’t seem quite sure what is true. And it is a desperate religious group indeed that is willing to adapt its worship for disbelievers who reject the truth about God.”

In my experience, those who reject the church (or the synagogue) are either agnostic about their own non-attendance (it doesn’t bother them) or they do care and haven’t found a congregation that is authentic in what it says.  Simply including Sarah in mentions of Abraham isn’t enough for either group.

As Mark accurately reports:  “If you want to bring people back to God, tell them the truth. Do it lovingly, but tell them the truth.”  This is what Dean Kelly told us 30 years ago in Why Conservative Churches are Growing. It is the clear description of what we believe that attracts those who will be attracted.

For myself, our Messianic congregation is Conservative in leanings, but the mid-20s Israeli lady not only keeps coming back, but she brought a friend, and has become regular in an overtly Christian Bible Study.  She sees in us that we really do believe this stuff, and that we are good people, and that’s what attracts her to return.

Always remember that church health is more important than church growth, for if you have large numbers of people who don’t agree with your core message, you cannot take them with you to the next step of service.  But if you have a core group who have right belief, and you take them forward to a mature understanding of faith-inspired service, they will begin to attract the numbers that keeps the congregation viable.

I keep coming back to Dean Kelly’s Why Conservative Churches are Growing.  He said that for a church or denomination to flourish, it has to enforce the brand identity, and to keep telling the members about those core beliefs.

Which is why I was struck when I was linked to an article (from 2000) that pointed out this important point. It related to the Southern Baptist plans to focus evangelism efforts on Chicago that summer. The mainline churches (the ones Kelly was trying to help in his book) complained about the Baptist’s plans.

Members of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago said they asked Southern Baptists to refrain from visiting Chicago because they feared proselytizing might “disrupt the pattern of peaceful interfaith relations in our community.”

Baptists believe that salvation is only possible through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The Chicago Council was not so adamant in the exclusivity of the salvation method. They were more concerned about disrupting the structures of mainline churches than creating the kind of fundamental change in people’s spiritual outlook espoused by the Chicago Baptist churches, the local Assemblies of God, the Church of the Nazarene congregations (all of whom were on board with the program).

Kelly said the problem in many small churches is that the leaders like being in charge of an unchallenging congregation. They don’t want to do the work needed to stay vibrant, to reach the lost with the Gospel. They are small, dying churches – he says – because they want to be.

Unless you want your congregation to be a small, dying congregation, you need to be out spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In my research, one of the most valuable books on restoring a church’s vitality I read was Dean Kelly’s classic “Why Conservative Churches are Growing.”  At the time, Dean Kelly was on sabbatical in the early 70s from his leadership position with the National Council of Churches, and he was trying to understand the decline of mainline congregations.  Almost 4 decades later, the conclusions are still valid.

In this book, Kelly says the purpose of a church is to create a sense of shared understanding for its members.  … this stream of shared experience brings to members a system of explanations, a sacred cosmos, which makes life understandable to them …strong organizations tend to increase in membership and weak ones to diminish.”

Kelly says that organizations “run down.”  If they don’t take time to refresh themselves from time to time, they get lazy about telling “the old, old story” and recounting the shared experiences.  They stop “testimony time” and the new people and the children don’t develop the same commitment to the ideals of the organization.  With each generation, a little vitality leaks away.

Kelly quotes Franklin Littell’s “The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism” to say that not only do some churches continue to “halve the half” until only a sliver of meaning is left, but to pay the bills they accept marginal members (“baptized pagans”) who further dilute the shared understanding.

What I take from Kelly’s excellent book is for a congregation to remain vibrant in its community, it must comtinually involve its members in shared work of the congregation, to immerse the leaders in service.  The pastor’s job is to give witness to the activities of the congregation and to continue to remind them why they exist.  To fail at this task is to invite meaninglessness and organizational dissolution.