All Saints Episcopal Church, Hilton Head Island, SC
October 1, 2007
How Not to Grow
This month I call your attention to an article taken from the August edition of "Congregational Builder," a publication of the Episcopal Church Building Fund.
Revisiting How Not to Grow
In 1998, we ran a tongue-in-cheek article entitled "Guaranteed Ways to SWEEP Growth Under the Rug," which factiously offered numerous ways for a congregation to ensure that they avoid growth. (To read the original article in its entirety, visit www.ecbf.org.)
Since that article appeared nine years ago, decline in the Episcopal Church has continued steadily. But the environment in which the church ministers has decidedly changed.
The old model of church growth suggested that if we do church a little differently, they will come. The assumption was that spiritual transformation would happen automatically because someone walked through the church door. Thus, getting new people to church was the goal.
In 2007 this assumption is no longer valid. Fewer are coming (less than 21%), and those coming expect more. Nor can we assume any longer that we live in a Christian world and that attending church and its ancillary activities will automatically lead to personal, spiritual transformation. Growing a congregation is no longer necessarily the goal; it is simply a means.
By observing the success of vibrant, energetic leaders whose churches are growing in today's environment, we can revise the 1998 list of do's and don'ts for congregational development. Here again is a list of the don'ts!
Don't ask people what type of worship experience they think might help them to know God. And if you make the mistake of asking, under no circumstances should you provide them with that. Be very cautious of worship that actually engages people deeply and gives them an experience of God's presence.
Ignore the fact that most people don't listen to organ music in their cars. Continue to avoid all other varieties of music that make people's souls sing. Turn your back on the fact that if it's on their iPod, it speaks to their souls.
Keep worship didactic, not experiential. Do not create different environments for different experiences. Do not use multimedia, drama, or the participation of youth in important liturgical roles.
Don't address the issues that keep your parishioners up at night or demonstrate how Scripture might be relevant. Avoid using sermons as an opportunity for transformation and enlightenment.
Post welcoming signage but shy away from actually inviting a friend to church.
Insist on a one-flavor, mono-cultural congregation. Diverse congregations can upset traditional identity. Even though we live in a multicultural world, insist on a mono-cultural church. Avoid demographic reports.
Don't start a new style of service. The entrepreneurial ethic is too hard: Who wants to work on Saturday and Sunday night in addition to Sunday morning? Instead, sit down and read a book on clergy wellness.
Never share your own faith story. There's no reason to think that someone who doesn't belong to a church has experienced God's presence or longs for it. Don't risk talking about your or their faith story.
Pay no attention to numbers. It's more important for small closed groups to fancy themselves rich in vitality than to worry about evangelism and the 79% of the population that do not attend a faith community of any kind. Don't waste a moment worrying whether your children, their friends, and your neighbors have a meaningful engagement with a faith community.
Assume that spiritual transformation is only for seminarians. Water down the Gospel for kids, and keep them busy with insipid activities and crafts. Pretend kids have no complexities in their lives with which they struggle.
Don't advertise expert speakers on topics such as raising teens or caring for older parents. This would have relevance to the wider community and they might overwhelm you on Sunday.
Don't organize teams of parishioners to provide pastoral care. Provide hit-and-miss care based on last century's assumptions about membership and commitment to the parish.
Insist that stewardship is about funding the budget not about challenging people to be stewards. Resist information that indicates that younger generations are less likely to fund institutions and more likely to fund specific ministries.
Insist on "real" pledge cards and checks. Don't offer the option of giving online.
Don't treat people like real members unless they pledge and attend every Sunday.
The truth behind each of these cheeky statements reflects an environment and mission for the Episcopal Church that has changed. Has your behavior? If not, acknowledge the changes and be nimble in your response. God has placed you in this time and place and asked you to be part of God's mission.
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