This past month I've received a number of calls from pastors and lay leaders of smaller churches asking what they need to do to reach new people. Some have asked me to come and talk with them about what they need to do to have a more effective ministry in their communities. Tonight I will be meeting with one of those churches. I have no way of knowing the motivation behind these requests, but my guess is that for at least some the primary motivation is fear. For years now they have witnessed the declining numbers of people who attend their services and the increasing graying of those who do, and they have ignored it hoping that it would somehow magically improve. Since there's been no improvement they have now reached the stage in their life cycle when they are feeling desparate. They now realize that unless something changes soon their church is in danger of closing, and the thought of that terrifies them. It has been said that people won't change until the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of the change, and some of these churches are now reaching that place. Having worked with smaller churches for over three decades my concern is that even though some of them are now reaching out for help in doing something different, when they find out what it might cost them they will go back to hoping for the magic solution.
Let me say quickly that there is no magic solution. There is no magic formula that I or anyone else can provide a congregation to guarantee their church will not close. In fact, as much as it pains me to say it, some churches should close. Quite frankly, it is poor stewardship of God's resources to keep some churches open. Survival should never the primary goal of a church. Ministering to people in ways that will advance the Kingdom of God should be that goal. As I've told countless pastors in workshops around the country, God is not concerned with whether or not your church remains open. He is quite interested in whether or not your church is on mission with Him.
Most people who read this blog and anyone who has read my books knows my passion for smaller churches and those who lead them. My ministry focus has always been towards the smaller church because I know how vital they are to the Kingdom. I hope my long commitment to the smaller church allows me to speak boldly to these churches. What I'm about to write may seem harsh, but it is being written out of love for those churches that need a wake-up call.
The most common question I get from smaller churches is how can they reach youth and young people. What makes you think you can reach youth and young people when you couldn't keep the ones you had? Your congregation consists of people who raised their families in your church. Where are those young people? Sure, some moved away, but what about the ones who remain in the area? Where are they going to church? Are they going to church? Why? When you honestly answer those questions you will probably find out what you have to do to reach new young people, and many churches will not like the answers.
The second most common question I'm asked is how can the church get people more dedicated? Please define dedication. By dedication do you mean how can we get people to serve on six committees, sing in the choir, attend monthly business meetings, and teach a Sunday school class? If so, the answer is you will not get people dedicated to do those things. This is the 21st century and people are too busy to be involved in doing a lot of things that make little or no difference in the grand scheme of things. Does a church of 30 people really need three of them to serve on the Flower and Card committee? What really significant events occur in your church to require a monthly business meeting? If the meeting consists of listening to a few reports being read and a vote on what color toilet paper the church should buy I don't blame anyone for not wanting to go either. If you want people to be more dedicated eliminate the various maintenance tasks that exist in your church, assign them to those elected to leadership, and challenge people to become involved in ministry that touches people's lives in real ways.
The third most common question I get from smaller churches involves the worship service. Some are trying to go contemporary, but I'm not sure why. I've sat in some of these churches that have really amazed me with the more contemporary feel of their churches, but I've also been in some that have no clue what they are doing, do not have the talent to do this well, and no one is there who appreciates the change in the worship format anyway. To borrow a common phrase, "If we do a different service, they will come" seems to be the mindset in these churches. Churches should provide a worship experience that enables people to touch God in a signficant way. Smaller churches cannot be all things to all people so stop trying. Create a meaningful worship experience based upon the people you have and the ones you would like to reach and stay with it. However, there are some things you can do to improve the worship service regardless of the format. The most basic is speed it up. Put a little life in some of the old hymns. Sing "Joy to the World" with a little enthusiasm and joy in your voices. If you are going to sing "We're marching to Zion" then sing it like you want to get there this decade and not drag it out until it sounds more like a dirge. People who are going to pray or lead some aspect of the service should be near the front when it's their time and not spend five minutes walking to the platform for their one minute announcement.
If a building is allowed to deteriorate over many years it is much more difficult and costly to improve it than it would be if regular improvement and upgrades were made over the years. Because so many churches resisted change for so many years (decades) it will be very difficult for some of them to be able to make the needed changes now. The cost will simply be too great, and eventually these churches will close their doors. Others will pay the heavy cost and endure the pain and make the necessary changes. Those churches will begin to move forward with a fresh vision from God and will enjoy a long and meaningful ministry in their communities. You will have to determine which choice your church will make.