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.

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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.)

reference:  AustinRammel.com

This one caught my eye.  I was rummaging around the internet for church growth / church health ideas and came across Cindy Gregorson’s post on what we are really saying when we do what we do in the conduct of our church meetings.

Her example is the weekly coffee hour at church.  It’s important to hang out with one another, and it’s useful to give people something to do while they’re there.  We tend to use light food, especially for morning events.  Give them a cup of coffee and maybe something to go with it – a sweet roll, a donut, a bagel.  Gives the skittish newcomer something to do and an excuse for not shaking hands if both of them are full.

Cindy was at a conference where Nelson Searcy of the Journey Church in New York City said that ‘If we expect people to be generous in their giving to the church, then the church needs to model that generosity and sense of abundance.”

In other words, a ‘donation basket’  – or worse, charging – undercuts the message of a God who can take care of our needs.  If we add insult to injury, as with Searcy’s example of serving “day-old, halved doughnuts” then we say that either we don’t live in abundance, or that they are not worth spending money on.

Cindy also quoted Rev. Amy Jo Bur, pastor of Good Samaritan United Methodist Church, in St Peter, Minnesota.  Her church offers a catered breakfast of egg bake and giant cinnamon rolls from a local restaurant.  She refused to even consider asking for donations for the refreshments.

In the first place, the donations would not cover the cost. Second, that would send the wrong message. One of their core values is hospitality, and this is one of the ways they live that out. Everyone is welcome at the table.

It’s expensive to run a church, and costs money to set out refreshments.  If the money is an issue, consider whether the event is core to your mission, and if it is, consider the message you want to send in the presentation.  It’s hard to preach generous living if you don’t even live it before the service begins.

The year is well under way, and we’re getting plans in place for the summer and beyond.  The city today had the last of a week of planning meetings to hear citizens’ priorities as it crafts next year’s budget in a down economy.  It’s all about the plans and costs.

A few years ago I led a community outreach with a struggling congregation to provide a city-sponsored lunch to any child that walked in the door.  I was hoping to get a consistent 150 children aged 2-18 to come at lunch, 5 days a week, for 19 weeks.  The members wanted to know why we were doing it.  Here’s what I told them:

We were going to get 150 children in the building…

So that we might meet them and learn how to meet their families,

So that we could minister to those 60-90 families

With hopes that at least 10% of those families will join us for Sunday church

So that  when visitors come, they will see a vibrant children’s program, and stay

So that  we can begin to attract children’s leaders

… and gain tithing members

… and restore the church to long-term viability

Some understood.  Some didn’t.  One complained about having a story hour in the library, and kept us out.  Another didn’t want the kids to mess up the floors, and locked the door after lunch was over.  Another didn’t trust teenagers to help run simple recreation with grade-school aged kids.

We never got more than 75 kids to come.  We did get 40 to come back on Wednesday night, where we played games and gave them the Gospel.  We got 10 to come on Sunday, and 2 brought their parents.  One got saved.

You don’t have to use my model, but you should know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and prepare for both distractors and results.

Not to rejoice in another’s misery, but the Center for Congregational Health reminds us that “this economy of shrinking budgets is also one of expanding ministry opportunities.”  The upside of the downturn – if there is one – is that people are hurting, and hurting people are more open to receiving ministry from the faith community.

The danger in the opportunity is that some regions may be so affected they overwhelm the availability.  Think of the first days after a major hurricane or blizzard.  The damage in those natural events is so widespread that relief has to come from a distance, but the infrastructure to get the relief there (roads, etc.) are themselves hindrances.  What is able to be mobilized quickly is woefully inadequate to meet the initial demand.  And then, if the disaster continues beyond what is normal, the reserves begin to wear out and those providers become hopeful recipients.

For example, the first days after the 9-11 attacks saw widespread confusion and a lack of services until response to overcome the inertia.  Then, as the relief continued over time, I’m told that the emergency feeding began to run out of supplies, that there were literally were no more institutional-sized #10 cans of food available on the east coast to ship to NYC.  The demand had overrun the supply.

Churches, in their desire to minister to their community, must look first to their capability to respond.

Prov 22:3 – A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.

Luke 14:28-30 – Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it? If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money, you’re going to look pretty foolish. Everyone passing by will poke fun at you: ‘He started something he couldn’t finish.’

CCH Consultant Beth Kennett says not to wait until your church is in decline to reorder your finances. Be aware of what’s happening in your community and in your congregation. Like Joseph preparing for a famine, if your congregation is small and the income potential is fragile, begin making adjustments early.

Look to the needs of your congregation. In your evaluation of their capabilities, you will likely discover one or more families whose financial future is more uncertain, or perhaps is already tenuous. We are to care for one another first – our own household. It will not be a good witness if you give away what you have to prospects while members are suffering.

Then you can take your informed understanding of your congregation and your community, you can begin to partner with other churches and social service agencies to provide support to those in need.

Kinnett reminds us, however, that not all ministry has financial costs. “As people become stressed and fearful, faith communities can offer peace and hope as well as practical support, like food pantries and clothing exchanges. During tough times, it is helpful for congregations to know that they offer a relevant ministry.”

She told the story of a church in a small town where a local plant closing devastated the community. The congregation offered support groups, stress management and financial management classes, and hosted networking opportunities for job seekers. “When individuals’ economic situations change down the road, a church that has embraced such outreach opportunities may be bigger and healthier than it was before the economic slump.”

Source:  HealthyChurch.org article library.

In some churches, engaging youth in anything but pizza parties seems a daunting task.  Getting them into the core activities of the church is even harder.  But without the vitality of teenagers, churches get stale and die.

Russell Martin has written an approach to “engage youth in worship” that highlights this warning and suggests alternatives.  In a blog post on theworshipcommunity.com, he remembers when he was a teen, how his own youth pastor asked him to plan the worship services for weekly meetings and special events.  He calls it a turning point in his life.

To Russell, the secret to attracting youth to your church is to “give them ownership.”

They will likely come up with “different, but great ways” to introduce others to Jesus Christ.  “We should not underestimate the talents, abilities, and desires our youth have now and the things they can teach us about worship.”

More important, your youth” know other youth more than you do.”  Visitors “come with friends because someone knows someone.”

More than just training the next generation of church leaders, you are taking better advantage of the Gifts the Spirit has given your congregation.  And it gives opportunity to bring in new people to your congregation.

You just have to give them ownership and let them run with it, even if it’s not the way you’d do it.