Friday, February 27, 2009

Church Membership Continues Decline

The 77th annual edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches shows a continuing decline in membership among the largest denominations in North America. What was unusual about this report was the decline reported for the first time in the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist denominations.

According to the 2009 Yearbook, among the 25 largest churches in the U.S., four are growing: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (up 1.63 percent to 5,873,408; the Assemblies of God (up 0.96 percent to 2,863,265); Jehovah's Witnesses (up 2.12 percent to 1,092,169); and the Church of God of Cleveland, Tenn. (up 2.04 percent to 1,053,642).

Churches listed in the Yearbook as experiencing the highest rate of membership loss are the United Church of Christ (down 6.01 percent), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (down 3.01 percent), the Presbyterian Church (USA) (down 2.79 percent), the Episcopal Church (down 1.76 percent), the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (down 1.44 percent) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (down 1.35 percent),

It is also interesting that several church groups indicate "no change" in membership. My experience as a judicatory leader is that when people have good news they always send in reports; when they have bad news, they report nothing. So, the picture is probably more bleak than reported.

For a more complete report CLICK HERE

Statistics are interesting, but they do not always "speak for themselves." They do not always tell us why things are happening or what should be done about them. Questions arise:

  • Do we need different metrics for what a faithful, missional congregation looks like?
  • Are those metrics things that happen inside the church or outside the church?
  • Is outreach always rewarded with intake? How should the fruit of outreach be measured?
  • How is "membership" measured?
  • Is the old breed of members being replaced by a new, smaller, but more focused breed of members, or is the old breed just dying out?

You can probably think of many more.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Economic Crisis Provides Missional Challenges and Opportunities

While many Chinese linguists now challenge the old saying that the Chinese character for “crisis” (weijei) can mean both danger and opportunity, the truth remains that crisis times can bring both challenges and opportunities for those who know how to “redeem the time.” Two items came across my screen today that point out how the economic crisis can be both a challenge and a missional opportunity for congregations.

First was an article on CNN.COM entitled “Heading to Church for Money Advice” (CLICK HERE) that highlights a number of churches reaching out to their communities through budgeting and debt management programs. People are beginning to see that they are imprisoned by debt, and that financial management pays dividends in relationships, not just money. Churches are using the crisis not only to teach stewardship principles, but to reach out to their communities in a caring way.

The second was a summary of a survey done by the Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) of large churches in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Here are several observations from the feedback received:

1. The economic downturn . . . as one pastor noted . . . presents itself as both an opportunity and a threat! The opportunities for many churches to initiate new ministries and/or expand ministries already in place are coming from the need to respond to the people within their own communities. Some of the programs that are being utilized are, Financial Peace University, support groups for unemployed, food banks, etc. The economic downturn has also become a threat as ministry budgets attempt to adequately fund staff, benefits and diverse ministry programs.

2. 4th quarter giving in 2008 showed that (this was after the economic downturn) . . .
a. 43% of churches experienced slight decline
b. 29% remained unchanged
c. 18% indicated giving increased as a response

3. Pastors consistently identified that members attend worship less frequently now versus a few years ago. The definition of “regular attendance” is shifting in the minds of worshipers.

4. In spite of the enormous ministry challenges and the rapid rate of cultural changes, when asked about how they were personally feeling, pastors most frequently selected very positive feelings. For example, they were excited about the future, focused, thirsty to learn, etc. However . . .
a. One third of the pastors with churches worshiping 1000+ identified themselves as being overwhelmed.
b. All of the respondents that noted that they had been “wounded by conflict” were in churches with less than 800 in worship.

5. The survey also showed that most large churches are growing slightly, have plateaued or are declining slightly in worship attendance. Only a few churches identified rapid growth in the last few years.

6. A “few” pastors identified working to develop a missional or incarnational focus to ministry instead of an earlier program or attractional ministry model.

One only hopes that these times of crisis will provide opportunity for more than a “few” to move towards an incarnational approach to mission and reach out to both members and community with ministries that will help address both immediate physical needs and long-term issues of personal stewardship and financial management.

Finding resources in financial training that are both fiscally and theologically sound can be a challenge in itself.

One of the Resources mentioned consistently as both an outreach tool and a stewardship tool is Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. (Click Here for video and info). Church leaders would want to carefully examine his theological and political views before giving wholesale endorsement to his program.

Another group doing similar work is Crown Financial Ministries. See video below. Once again, the whole “theology of glory” approach (If you obey God, He will bless you.) is evident to Lutherans and other theologians of the cross. The key would be in sifting through the wheat and the chaff, but the idea of touching the community with a ministry of financial and relational healing is one that can begin to lead a congregation outside its walls with an incarnational approach to genuine needs.

Who We Are: HD from Crown Financial Ministries on Vimeo.
Lutherans may want to investigate some programs prepared by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, including a downloadable one called “Your Values, Your Choices, Your Money,” (CLICK HERE) that could be used in your congregation. Others could be planned in conjunction with your judicatory stewardship office, your District Lutheran Church Extension Fund Vice President, or your local Thrivent representative.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Perils of the Mid-Sized Church

It seems to me that many more books and article are written about the challenges of the small church and of the large church than of the mid-sized church (100 – 300 average worship attendance.) It’s about time we recognized the unique struggles of the mid-sized church in the following areas:






  1. Mid-sized congregations are torn between the competing priorities associated with small and large congregations. In smaller congregations, relationships are the highest priority. In large congregations, performance is the key to ministry success. Members of mid-sized congregations expect both relationships and performance as priorities!
  2. Members of mid-sized congregations often want the same kind of pastoral attention typical of pastors and members in smaller congregations. The increasing demands on a pastor’s time, however, makes this an impossible expectation to meet! In larger congregations, members expect to know their pastors through large gatherings like worship services, weddings, funerals, and newsletter articles. Discomfort comes for a mid-sized congregation, when members want the best of both worlds.
  3. Mid-size congregations demand more programming and ministries than smaller congregations. As a result, leadership needs to grow.
  4. Congregations struggle with the personnel changes necessary to move from a heavy reliance on lay volunteers, typical of smaller congregations, to great numbers of paid part- and full-time staff who assist members to accomplish ministry.
  5. At mid-size, tension often builds around participation issues. People begin to pick and choose the church events and activities they want to attend, rather than participating in every event hosted by the congregation. This often causes concern among long-time members when they don’t see the faces of everyone at each congregational gathering.
  6. Procedure questions arise at mid-size! Unless a congregation’s organizational skeleton changes appropriately, competing expectations of control and involvement arise. Members of smaller congregations expect their high involvement to give them strong ownership and control of decision-making procedures. Members of larger congregations expect to delegate a great deal of authority to the senior pastor, staff and elected church council members. At mid-size, members tend to want “both a participatory democracy and a representative democracy.”
  7. Property issues create new tension at mid-size. In small congregations, members expect people to treat the church building as they would care for their own home. In large congregations, the church building is seen as a public institution where many people gather and maintenance costs are high. Mid-size congregations operate with both expectations!
Adapted from: Christian Education and Evangelism for the 21st Century, Fall 2000 (No online link)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The View from the Balcony

Many years ago, when I first was elected District President, I used the image of a person on a balcony to describe the work of the “episkopos” (literally, “over-seer,” “super-visor”). While the action in the church took place on the dance floor of the local congregation, it was necessary that someone see the big picture of the entire “dance.”

This week, while at the Gettysburg Seminary library, I picked up a copy of Pathway to Renewal: Practical Steps for Congregations, by Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon (Alban Institute, 2008) [Click Here for reference] and see that they use the same image for what they call the “Balcony Team”. The Balcony Team plays an important role in the process of missional renewal. In a congregation a balcony team:
  • keeps a big picture view of the congregation and its journey through renewal
  • helps the congregations leaders continually reflect on how their congregational life can contribute to achieving its vision
  • encourages and supports leaders in making needed changes
  • monitors the congregational “temperature,” (satisfaction, conflict) keeping the board apprised of the impact of renewal efforts on the congregation.
  • keeps the vision before the congregation and monitors the actions against the adopted values
The concept is this: If you go to a dance and spend the entire evening on the dance floor, you’re aware of only what happens in your immediate vicinity. You focus your energy on dancing—and on not colliding with the people next to you. At the end of the evening you might come home thinking, “What a great dance! Tons of people, wonderful music.” If you’d gone up to the balcony, you would have seen something different. All the people were clustered at the far end of the hall away from the band, many sat on the sidelines, and most danced only when the music was fast. By viewing the proceedings from the balcony you’d come away with a very different perspective of how the evening went.

I remember working conferences with Shelby Andress from Search Institute, where she would appoint certain people to be “village philosophers”. They would simply wander around during the day and then report to the group from time to time on what they saw happening in the big picture.

Call it what you may, the point is that there needs to be a group that looks at the broad perspective of how the renewal effort is going in the congregation as a whole, how it might be improved, and what people are not being reached. They are the bearers of God’s vision and the trustees of God’s values. This could be the church council or the board of elders, but the idea of an independent “balcony team” may be even better.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Bob Dylan,, and the Nature of Change

Of all the commercials on the 2009 Super Bowl, the one that impressed me (and many media commentators) most was this one…

What struck me about the commercial was how well it portrayed the cyclical nature of generations. As I said in the previous post,: The more things change, the more they stay the same –and yet, are different.

If you have never read any of the work of Strauss and Howe on generational cycles, you should do so. Or at least get a summary from this Wikipedia article (CLICK HERE) and then explore their web sites (CLICK HERE.)

Strauss and Howe define a generation as “a group of people who share a common experience--a social moment of spiritual awakening or secular crisis--during the formative phase of their life, usually youth or young adulthood.” This usually is a period of about twenty years, although the defining point is common experience, not number of years.

They see cycles consisting of four phases and, hence, four generational cycles:
  • Civic Generation – populated by ”Heroes” whose formative years were in a time of Crisis.
  • Adaptive Generation – populated by “Artists” whose formative years were in a time of High.
  • Idealist Generation – Populated by “Prophets” whose formative years were in a time of Awakening.
  • Reactive Generation – Populated by “Nomads” whose formative years were in a time of unraveling.
The significance of this for those in ministry: First, in every congregation we have Heroes, Artists, Prophets, and Nomads, who represent each of these generations. In fact, in most congregations, we have people from six generations. (See chart below. It includes another division: Those “native born” in a digital world as opposed to those who are “immigrants” in that world.)

Second, while each generation is unique, they have characteristics in common with some of the older generations before them.

Third, In the course of a long life, a person will live through a cycle of crisis, high, awakening, and unraveling – perhaps through parts of even more than one cycle – and because of his or her generational experience, will have a role to play at each stage of the cycle.

Finally, it all seems to say something in favor of intergenerational ministry. There are blessings we can bring to one another if we take the time to understand one another. It is too easy to think that nothing of significance ever happened before we were born or that one generation is greater than another generation. The Body of Christ is enriched by us all, whether we sing the song of Sinatra, Dylan, or
For additional posts on generational issues, click on "generations" in the labels box at the the end of this post.