Big changes are happening on the American religious scene. This is my constant theme. Many in the declining traditional Protestant churches often seem perplexed. Why are those community churches growing while we are going down? There is no simple answer, but some explanations are emerging.
In the 1980s and 90s, there was a ministry discipline called Church Growth. It grew out of the observations of Donald McGavran, who studied mission movements. His work was popularized by C. Peter Wagner. Both worked out of Fuller Theological Seminary, where I was in the 80s. One of McGavran’s key insights was that people don’t become believers individually; they do so in groups. Out of this came the controversial homogeneous principle. People like to go to church with others like themselves.
In the early 20th century most churches in America were made up of immigrants who shared the same language and home culture. Most remained vibrant through their second generation. By mid-century, they were into their third and four generations. Most of these younger members had lost their ethnic loyalty by then. Many did carry on their church loyalty into the suburbs through the 1950s-70s. Their grandchildren are the millennials who are no longer in our churches. In retrospect, the churches were coasting on family loyalties. Those days are now gone. To survive, those former ethnic churches need to develop new approaches to ministry.
Church Growth advocate C Peter Wagner wrote like a journalist about the big successful congregations of the day. Implied was that if yours does as they do, you will grow, too. The market for church growth advice and materials is huge.
The fundamental issue is whether specific methods and leadership are the real explanation for growth. The best answer would come by researching many, perhaps 100, congregations that claim they are using the featured methods and see what they look like ten years later. Some will have grown very large, most will have stayed about the same, and many will have declined or even collapsed. Indeed, many of the church growth “winners” did collapse in the following years for a variety of reasons.
Many are the business CEOs who claim personal credit for enviable corporate results. In reality, that company may well have hit a unique set of circumstances in the relevant market. Had they come to market a few years earlier or later, or had some unique opportunities not appeared, the results would be quite different. Much of the basic explanation their success is a few lucky breaks they had and took advantage of.
I know first-hand the story of the growth and plateau of Royal Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Royalton, Ohio. The then-senior pastor did consciously decide, for authentic mission purposes, that this congregation should reach out more effectively. Because he was highly trusted as a pastor, he could make some basic organization changes. He started a contemporary service in 1990 and lost an organist and assistant pastor in reaction. By the late 90s, we were growing at five to ten percent a year.
Usually untold is that a new religious editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer chose Royal Redeemer for his article on contemporary worship. His story was on the Sunday issue front page with a large photograph of our worship service. Attendance was up by 200 six months later. Also, we received a totally unexpected gift of $1 million dollars that enabled us to build a gym/worshiper center much larger than otherwise.
At about 1,000 in attendance, we stopped growing. One explanation is that the other three large Protestants congregations in our area each opened a new sanctuary in that decade. New sanctuaries almost always result in higher attendance. Old sanctuaries become a competitive disadvantage.
My conclusion? Significant church growth is a special providential blessing of God. When it happens, leaders need to run like mad to accommodate future growth, which of course is not guaranteed.
Consider the analogy of taking a sailboat out on a lake. Putting a sail up does not assure a wind. But if the wind does blow and you don’t have your sail up, you will miss out on what could be a great adventure. In this analogy, the sail is ministry practices. If you are still using old practices you are likely to miss the Spirit’s wind that is moving forward other boats (non-denominational community churches). Review your ministry practices.
Andrew Bartelt says
This is helpful. It’s about time we had some sober and honest reflection and critique of the church growth movement, both pro and con, with both sociological and theological insights. Too often and too easily we either adopt uncritically or reject and dismiss too critically. There is a “ministerial” (vs “magisterial”) use of sociology, and our own LC–MS history, so rich theologically, is also affected by our own sociology and cultural heritage, including that of an immigrant church.
David Luecke says
Good to hear from you, Andy. Glad you are reading these blogs. We debated substance and style so often. That church cultural styles need to change is more apparent now in this age of decline.
Here is how I would like to frame future discussions. Congregations can degenerate so that for all practical purposes they are like the many other social organizations out there (which are also declining rapidly.). Key is for congregations to show evidence of Spiritual energy–a level of activity and witness beyond what you can find in ordinary social groups. To get there, we need to understand better how the Spirit works among us today. Luther gave us a great summary statement of the Spirit’s work of calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying church fellowships. What does that look like today? I am working from Gordon Fee’s thorough exegesis of all 143 references to the Spirit in Paul’s letters. Fee’s summary is that the Spirit is God’s Empowering Presence. The challenge is to Name such encounters with the Spirit, Share Them with others and then Seek More.
Any thoughts on how we can frame that discussion among Lutherans? My best effort is is my book Your Encounters with the Spirit. I will send you a copy.
ronald meyr says
Interesting. Probably true, but still sad. . . . .
“The third generation” phenomenon as described in Judges 2: 6-11
David Luecke says
Yes, the third generation explains a lot in the decline of mainline churches. We coasted on family loyalty in the suburban migration after WWII. In effect, the new suburban church members were like the first generation. Their children mostly kept their loyalty. We are now facing the third and fourth generations, who are either gone from the faith or go where their spiritual needs are met, which now is in community churches. First generation mainline church culture assumed too much of the spiritual maturity of members, who were not able to talk of their faith very well. My constant theme is we have to change our church culture so that we can better show and explain our faith and its impact on our lives.
Thomas Sharpe says
I like it Dave. There is no set patterns or methods that guarantee growth. There are more likely practices that lead to decline. Staying flexible and willing to change on the foundation of Christ might bring growth. I remember Loren Mead’s book More than Numbers. He said call it hersey but it doesn’t matter what some churches do they are just not going to grow. Jim Martin said years ago you have to want to. I have come to believe it has do do with the right location right pastor right lay leadership. I am not even sure about this. You mentioned structures is why some Pentecostal Church emphasizing Holy Spirit don’t grow. A key I believe is out there is empowering lay leadership according to gifts. Jim really stressed this years ago. He told me that I because I got this I would see the church grow where I pastor. This never really happened. I never saw worship average over 200 no matter what I did. Now I see decline like most churches. In the last 26 years I have thought about the day when the wind would fill the sail. I never saw this happen. I still believe the Gospel can change lives and fill what is most needed for us as humans on the earth.
David Luecke says
Good to hear from you, Tom. “Staying flexible and willing to change on the foundation of Christ might bring growth.” Your statement is a good summary. Growth in numbers as a measure success in church ministry is a formula for frustration. Too many variables are out of your control. The best measure is the leader’s personal spiritual life and growth in the Spirit. When I left academia to plant a church, I was hoping for spiritual growth out of this adventure. I think it happened. The key was encountering failure. Will these blogs be “successful”? We’re off to a good start. But where it goes is out of my hands. I am doing the best with what I have. I continually remind myself humility is the best measure of spiritual maturity.
Philip Meinzen says
Thanks David. I enjoy reading your posts. You have keen insight for us. There are those who do not separate the Purpose and Identity values of a congregation. There are others who believe that Purpose always trumps Identify when it comes to the functionality of an organization. How these two higher values are understood will dictate how we approach the opportunities that surround congregations.
Speaking of ministry practices, I’m not qualified to address the worship issues, but I do have some insight about motivations, organizational functionality and group dynamics. One thing I’ve noticed is that few of the churches, (especially in the LCMS) have any level of intentional strategy at work to link/connect people to the mission. For this strategy, we can look to the science of fund development or mission advancement which provides some very effective ways to apply focused efforts to link people to the mission. It’s always been interesting to me that these efforts, for which there is a ‘science’ and an ‘art,’ also will work for discipleship and evangelism initiatives but, for some reason, they rarely carried over to the foundational work of Christian life together. In other words, we don’t build ministry processes that seek to provide appropriate thresholds of entry level opportunities for people and we don’t build and monitor effective bridges. So, the few committed spirits who seek out such opportunity do so spontaneously while the crowds sit on the sidelines, rarely invited or challenged by organizational practices, except, perhaps from the pulpit or a capital effort.
In my view, until the laity take this up and commit to partnering with the ‘servants of the Word,’ in a repeatable strategy to link (or connect) people to the mission, these ministry practices will lack much of the luster that is demanded from a church in today’s society that will be compelling, differentiated and truly living in the abundance of Grace, as prospective people experience it. We could apply these techniques in the stewardship practices of many congregations, but that also is unfortunately avoided or overlooked among many with the exception noted above.
It seems to me that the solutions would not require much more than a vision to involve laity on the front lines, a resolve to flatten our organizations for optimal impact by the members, and a deployment of the ‘science’ and ‘art; that I’ve noted so the work of linkage/connection ministries (such as best practices in fundraising use toward relationship moves’ management) can be implemented. The primary difference for congregations, is that the linkage factor should be focused on connection to the mission of the Lord, and in particular to each local congregation’s living out that mission toward their vision of vocation and faithfulness to Christ’s Word. and the Spirit’s Calling. If you’d like an actionable patterns, thoughts about equipping and some tools, I’d be happy to provide them
David Luecke says
I will highlight this fine observation out of your comments below:
In other words, we don’t build ministry processes that seek to provide appropriate thresholds of entry level opportunities for people and we don’t build and monitor effective bridges. So, the few committed spirits who seek out such opportunity do so spontaneously while the crowds sit on the sidelines, rarely invited or challenged by organizational practices, except, perhaps from the pulpit or a capital effort.
Very well said. A culture is defined as the beliefs, values and behavior passed on to a new generation. Mainline churches like to talk about their beliefs and values. That doesn’t mean much to new generations until they are expressed in behavior. Providing and organizing opportunities for desired behaviors has be become a major part of a congregation’s ministry. Don’t talk about mission to others without organizing specific ways to do it.
This next statement is a great summary of what I am trying to highlight. I like your word “luster,” which mainline churches typically don’t have anymore. Have you written on this subject?
These ministry practices will lack much of the luster that is demanded from a church in today’s society that will be compelling, differentiated and truly living in the abundance of Grace, as prospective people experience it.
I very much enjoy your analysis Dr. Luecke. The idea that people become believers in groups was intriguing. Can we truly isolate a set of variables and point to them as lending to some guaranteed growth in attendance? Are some churches, like some businesses, just able to capitalize on market forces, in a kind of, luck-based scenario, where everything just, “aligns perfectly?”
I think your sail boat analogy is quite astute. It presumes that there are probably some repeatable factors that can be employed to develop a pro-growth environment. I believe one of these factors is strong communal support systems. For me, going to church is a time to be encouraged through relationships I have developed with people at the church. We can encourage and help one another, and of course, we are bound together by shared Christian values. Perhaps being more sensitive to those outside the fold, but with a desire to inquire of Christians for their reason of hope in the Lord, (1 Peter 3:15) could help in this effort, as opposed to dismissing them as, denying the knowledge of God placed in their hearts. (Rom. 1) I would envision this as creating environments which are safe for those who are already believers, while also welcoming inquirers from outside the fold.
I think focusing on people, and what a church is doing to facilitate these social bonds, can be valuable for these pro-growth theories.
I do agree however, that the Holy Spirit is obviously the one who is responsible for putting it on people’s heart to wish to go to church, and there are certain things your church can do in order to fulfill the very human needs they have, once they begin searching as a result of this prompting of the Lord.
David Luecke says
I appreciate your comments. You clearly have thought about the issues.
When you asked: “Are some churches, like some businesses, just able to capitalize on market forces, in a kind of, luck-based scenario, where everything just, “aligns perfectly?” Your statement seems blunt, but something like that is what I am trying to say. We would want to say providential rather than lucky. But that is the gist.
Our mainline challenge is to demonstrate that we have hope and then be ready to explain it. The liberal mainline churches basically aren’t communicating bible hope anymore. I think there is a great need and hunger “out there” for biblical authority as the basis for hope.
Bruce Alkire says
This is pretty true.
At my first congregation, one contact led into a neighborhood, and tripled the size of the congregation in a year. We had 26 baptisms the first summer.
At my second congregation, we made contact with a house church which eventually joined us, and increased the congregation by 50%.
The pattern has held. People come into the church through their social networks.
However, it is important that there be a receiving and loving congregation to which they may come and faithful ministration of the Gospel. We strive for the congregation to be an assembly filled with the righteousness of Christ, and not simply an expanding social network.
And most of all, it was the thunderstorm of the Holy Spirit that made the work effective. Without His powerful intervention, the work would have languished in every congregation. Luther said that all he did was write against indulgences and preach the gospel. Then while he slept or drank good Wittenberg beer with friends, the Holy Spirit worked mightily.
David Luecke says
Well said. One specific leader can make a big difference, like your neighborhood contact. We started an Alpha group many years ago that got off to a good start. Then the husband and wife who were the energy behind it moved out of state. We never did recover, and the program died. I like your Luther reference. A blog two months from now will feature how Luther considered the Mutual Conversation and Encouragement of Brethren to be a fifth means of grace. The Spirit works through other people.
Cory O. says
Good article; having grown up in and being a long-time staff member of one of those “community non-denominational” churches–as well as simultaneously working for a 100+ year old Lutheran church the last three years–I give a hearty “amen” to the providence of God directing His body, the church.
I have been guilty in the past of being enamored by church and business leaders and theory for “success” and “growth”, and I don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater–there is some wisdom in what they say. But I believe Malcom Gladwell echoed what you’re saying several years ago by pointing out that many of the most successful and innovative companies and business leaders were mainly the result of particular “random” conditions and resources being in a particular place at a particular time, not repeatable formulas.
The same is true for church communities. God is the One building His body, as He sees fit (1 Cor. 12). He graciously provides giftings and callings to move it forward according to His purpose, which is love.
It behooves us all to be humble and seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in all things, at all time. This includes our definitions of success. Remember, Jesus Himself saw decline in his “congregation” from thousands down to just the twelve (eleven) at one point, and then even they fled. But that was the will of God, and had to happen, or we would not be having this discussion today.
David Luecke says
I am glad you reached the conclusion of “randomness” being more important than repeatable formulas in church relationships and congregations. It is all very humbling. Outward success is attractive, but inward success of growth in the Spirit is the best reason to go into ministry. Another variable is the personality of the leader/pastor. We each have to find out where we fit with our gifting. I am glad that the former senior pastor here found a place for me with my analytical perspective.
In business settings, you can buy the necessary resources with dollars. But you can’t “buy” the work of the Spirit. All you can do is pray and be receptive.
Let me know how things are going at your 100-year old Lutheran congregation.
Shirley G says
Thank you very much for your article. Truly puts insight into that sobering question that I and many others I am sure to have had. Again, thank you
David Luecke says
Thanks for your encouragement. Thoughtful members of mainline congregations do have to question what is happening. Change can happen. My emphasis is on a church culture change that enables us to share with others our faith experiences. The old culture taught us necessary Bible statements. But it did not focus on experiences. Why should someone else take your church seriously? Tell your story.
David Briese says
I genuinely believe that the church has a serious communication problem. We can try various means to fill the pews on Sunday but it seems as if these are largely inefficient. We can knock on doors and invite people to church or pass out tracts or even preach in the street and the results are discouraging. Why is this? We seem to be communicating in a foreign language. The unchurched person is not interested in a different way of life. Words like sin, grace, forgiveness, eternity and all ecclesiastical language just makes no impression. We are not meeting people where they are.
What can we do? First of all we can recognize that in this culture of social media and electronic communication we have a new means of telling our story. We can, in this new media, express our ideas and communicate how the Spirit has impacted our lives. We communicate the message of the Gospel in a comfortable and non threatening environment without the face to face awkwardness that so often happens when we discuss “religion”.
We “seniors” have a wealth of experience and much to offer the younger generation. I can tell anyone how God has moved in my life and how I now have satisfaction instead of scrambling after this thing called happiness which fades away and leaves an empty heart. We need to build a bridge across the generational divide instead of gathering around people who are similar to us and familiar to us. Social/electronic media is the perfect vehicle for this.
Every person need to feel loved, needed, and accepted. The younger generation can share all their “new” knowledge and the older generation can offer support and guidance as young families struggle through the traumatic seasons that young folks experience. Cross generational communication has many blessings to offer. Just imagine what the Spirit can do when the listener has an open heart and mind.
David Luecke says
I agree, Dave. We need to focus more on what we communicate and how we communicate. The what is our personal experiences living in relationship to Christ and his Spirit and his gifts, like love and joy. The how is ordinary language from people similar to those we are reaching out to. And we should use the internet to reach and share. That I am working on with Virtual Church Fellowship that I hope to have available soon.