You’re ready to get serious about growing your congregation. You think you’ve got the message right, including concepts like an extravagant welcome and radical inclusiveness. But what, exactly, do you DO to get the message out? How, in the second decade of the 21st century, do you reach people?
Two studies presented at the 2014 Religious Research Association Annual Meeting provide some clues, although no easy answers. The first, a study of new congregations in six mainline denominations, including the UCC, examined many factors to understand what helps new congregations attract young adults and unchurched people and grow in attendance.
One finding of the study was that new congregations come in many varieties – traditional, alternative and new immigrant, to name the major ones, and that what is helpful in reaching new people in one type may or may not help in another type.
Another finding is that many of the techniques and activities that worked in the past to grow new congregations no longer work, work only in traditional congregations, or are less effective than they used to be. For example, follow-up on visitors used to be a “must” in developing new congregations. It still is helpful in traditional new congregations – that is, those that essentially replicate existing churches in new locations. However, follow-up seems to be counter-productive in congregations using new models of ministry to reach young adults or the unchurched. Those people respond better to building relationships with the pastor or congregation in one-on-one or informal settings before they come to church. Traditional follow-up efforts such as letters, small gifts, or pastoral calls seem to scare them off.When new church pastors were asked about what kinds of evangelism or outreach activities they used, few traditional outreach activities appeared to be much help in growing a church. Mass mailings, door-to-door visits, activities for children and youth, Bible studies, small groups, advertising, giving out pens with the church’s name, involvement in community activities – while they may help churches grow in some situations – did not bring large numbers of new members. Only use of the internet, including Facebook and other social media, was strongly related to growth in these new congregations. So what should you do in addition to strengthening your internet presence?
A second study reported at the Religious Research Association meeting provides another clue. Richard Gorsuch, in an analysis of Disciples of Christ congregations from the larger Faith Communities Today (FACT) 2010 study, found that growing Disciples of Christ congregations differed from others in only one important way: Their pastors spent more time in evangelism or outreach efforts.
In the new church study, pastors of growing alternative and new immigrant congregations also reported spending more time in evangelism and outreach efforts.
At first glance, these findings seem contradictory – more effort brings growth, but specific activities do not make much difference. Why might this be so? Maybe the list of specific outreach activities missed the most important ones, although the lists of outreach activities were quite long and inclusive.
Maybe the specific activities are not as important as whether they are the right specifics for the particular field of ministry. That is, what may work for traditional or new immigrant churches, such as programs for children, may not work for alternative congregations that are trying to reach young adults without children. A different approach may be needed to reach people who have no church background or who have been alienated from churches than what is effective to reach already churched people who have moved to a new community. In the new church study, pastors who spent more time learning about the community were somewhat more likely to have growing congregations, suggesting that the match between community members’ needs and outreach efforts is what is important.
Gorsuch’s study also suggests that what you do may not be as important as how much you do. What if you set aside two hours per week (or two hours more per week) to try some outreach effort or activity? Think about who the unchurched are in your community, what their needs are, and how to reach them. Then do something, whether it is improving your web page, writing a column for the local weekly newspaper, hanging out at a local coffee shop or the gym at the “Y,” coaching a youth sports team, hanging a welcome banner, or starting a Bible study in a public area. Try it for a few months and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, think again about who you are trying to attract and try something else.
So how DO you get the message out? These studies suggest several things. First, know your target group. Who are you trying to reach and what are some effective ways to reach them? Second, do something. Build time in your schedule for outreach activities and use the time to try out some of them. If the first thing doesn’t work out, try something else. If it does, do more of it. Third, don’t do things just because they worked in the past. They may no longer be worth the expense, time and effort. Fourth, make sure to take advantage of the internet and social media, indispensable tools for the second decade of the 21st century.
Dr. Marge Royle of Clay Pots Research is a former director of research for the United Church of Christ. She has worked on a number of church-related research projects in the last year, including a study on stress and psychological type among clergy in the Reformed Church in America. She is an active UCC lay leader in both local church and wider church settings and is co-founder of Bridge of Faith, providing assistance to social service agencies in Awka, Nigeria.