Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How to grow declining churches?

Perhaps unexpectedly we get an answer to the question in the title from the Episcopal New Service (h/t Episcopal Cafe). In Mary Schjonberg's report is an honesty about decline in TEC stats which will be pleasing to those critics (within TEC, by the way) who feel that TEC's declining stats may, at times, be hidden from sight (my italics):

"The Episcopal Church's Executive Council heard here Feb. 21 that church membership and Sunday attendance continued to decline in 2008, but also heard a call for the church to promote knowledge of the characteristics of growing congregations.
During his statistic-laden hour-long report, Kirk Hadaway, the church's program officer for congregational research, told the council that congregations grow when they are in growing communities; have a clear mission and purpose; follow up with visitors; have strong leadership; and are involved in outreach and evangelism.

Congregations decline, he said, when their membership is older and predominantly female; are in conflict, particularly over leadership and where worship is "rote, predictable and uninspiring."

.... Hadaway suggested that "if we're going to turn this around -- or at least turn around the decline -- more attention needs to be paid to the things that result in growth, rather than to the broader cultural factors that are affecting our current patterns." Those cultural factors include such things as an aging population with declining birthrates and an increase in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation."

To which, a little voice from the Antipodes says, 'Yes'! I think, even in our different cultural milieu, that Kirk Hadaway's analysis and diagnosis is spot on. I would expand on one point. When Kirk says, "have a clear mission and purpose" I suggest the preaching needs to reflect that in a compelling manner. As I (settling into a new diocese) tour round parishes I am finding that where I am most encouraged and inspired by what I experience on a Sunday (and, thanks be to God, there is much encouragement) the preacher presents a compelling message. I want to come back to hear more next week compellingness!

Churches are growing in the West. Churches are declining in the West. Sometimes I am amazed at how little the latter desire to learn from the former. Kirk Hadaway rightly points us away from anxiety about cultural factors towards learning from 'the things that result in growth'.

POSTSCRIPT: Bosco Peters at Liturgy reflects on this report with perceptive insight.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: "But it’s as plain as day that en masse the American bishops are catastrophically failing at that core task — as indeed are their colleagues in the other mainline denominations. In the parlous state of today’s Episcopal church, every dime a diocese spends and every minute of a bishop’s working day needs to be focused on local congregations. The church is melting before their eyes and many bishops seem to be passively watching it happen; at most they hope to manage decline as smoothly as possible."

Just another critic from within TEC ... Walter Russell Mead!

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