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Begin with the Worship Experience
Some congregations carefully and regularly record the attendance at Sunday morning worship; others place a greater emphasis on the number of people attending Sunday school while many congregations keep a record of both.
When asked why they return Sunday after Sunday, the respondents to scores of surveys have given the same basic answer, "I had such a good experience last Sunday I wanted to come back." Those questioned about worship attendance usually lift up one or both of two factors. First, this was a meaningful worship experience which spoke to that person in terms of that individual's religious needs.
For many, a close second is that Sunday morning is not only a time for the corporate worship of God, but also an opportunity to share concerns, joys, and fellowship with other Christians who together constitute a loving, supportive, hopeful, caring, forgiving, and sustaining covenant community. This second attraction often is more obvious and more widely shared in smaller congregations than in large ones where only a handful of people can call every other member by name. For many people this is the unique characteristic of the small church and its distinctive reason for being.
The natural tendency, however, is for this fellowship to be inwardly focused on this circle of long-time friends. One result is the first-time visitor may feel like an outsider and leave firmly convinced this is a member-oriented congregation not interested in strangers.
The larger the number of people present on Sunday morning, the more likely this will happen. The members claim, "This is a friendly church!" but the outsider may interpret that to mean the insiders are friendly with one another. The larger the number of people present on Sunday morning, the more likely that a significant number of members also will feel like outsiders and depart knowing that if they fail to return next Sunday, no one will miss them. That helps explain why the worship-attendance-to-membership ratio often declines as membership increases.
For those interested in church growth the obvious conclusion is the larger the size of the congregation, the more likely the quality and depth of meaning of the worship experience will be the primary reason why first-time visitors return. The smaller the congregation, the more likely the inclusionary or exclusionary character of the fellowship will be the number-one factor in determining whether first-time visitors return.
For those interested in increasing the number of people present for corporate worship these two factors offer a useful context for looking at a dozen ways to increase attendance. Let us begin by looking at the worship experience itself as a way to increase attendance.
For the past fifteen years or more the conventional wisdom has declared it is the churches that offer a fundamentalist version of the Christian faith that are growing. Likewise the widely accepted stereotype is that all those huge congregations are theologically conservative.
First-hand visits to dozens of these churches and interviews with adults who recently joined them suggest this is a misleading oversimplification. Those who are not comfortable with theologically conservative interpretations of the Scriptures should be careful not to accept that single factor analysis of contemporary reality. Life is far too complicated for such simple analysis. This can be illustrated by these suggestions on how to increase attendance in your church.
1. Offer a Note of Hope
Perhaps the most common characteristic of the churches that are attracting increasing numbers of people today is not where the minister is on the theological spectrum or the denominational affiliation, but on what people hear and feel during the worship experience. This is a note of hope.
When asked what he preached, one Presbyterian minister who has seen his attendance quadruple in fourteen years replied, "I try to help my people get from Sunday morning to at least Friday. I offer them a note of help. I keep telling them God created this world and He is still at work in His world. If He hasn't given up on us, we should be able to have faith in Him."
In very simple terms the most important single factor in increasing worship attendance is to present the Good News as good news. The idea that the Christian faith offers hope and attracts people who have hope was a dominant characteristic of the New Testament churches.
The one theme that is common to churches that are attracting more people is the theme of hope. This may be expressed as "our team is winning," which was a highly visible part of frontier Methodism, or it may be expressed simply as "God loves you and we love you," but that note of hope and optimism about the future is a powerful factor in determining the size of the crowd. A Presbyterian congregation on the north side of Omaha, for example, has created its own colorful bulletin covers designed to convey a sense of joy, hope, and God's love for His children as a part of a larger effort to offer a note of hope.
The negative side of that same point has been illustrated repeatedly in the self-fulfilling prophecies expressed in those Anglo inner-city congregations founded in the nineteenth century or in that small rural church when nearly every Sunday brought a reaffirmation of the message, "Within a few years this church will close."
Throughout human history people have flocked to hear those who have brought a note of hope and been repelled by those who sought to build a following on a note of despair. How that word of hope is expressed will vary from preacher to preacher and from congregation to congregation, but that is the first question to examine for those who are interested in increasing the level of church attendance.
2. Enhance the Quality of Preaching
A second part of a larger strategy to increase church attendance may be to improve the quality of preaching. The last two decades of the twentieth century have brought a renewed recognition of the value of biblical preaching.
This can take several forms. One is the traditional expository preaching. A second is the resurgence of interest in storytelling as the preacher retells the biblical narrative in contemporary language and imagery. A third is the teaching sermon.
Many pastors concerned with the issue of the relevance of preaching have created ad hoc sermon preparation committees. One form is to bring together a half dozen laypersons who represent three or four generations and ask them to meet for one evening a week for four to six weeks. The first evening is spent studying the text the minister has chosen for a future sermon and the biblical context for that passage. The second and third evenings are devoted to discussion of how that passage of Scripture speaks to each member of that group. The fourth and fifth evenings are spent preparing an outline for a sermon based on that text. (The reason for two evenings on each phase of the process is that it allows people to return a week later and incorporate their second thoughts into the discussion. Most normal people do their best thinking on the way home from the meeting.) The sixth and perhaps a seventh evening enable the laypersons to critique the outline and a preliminary draft of the proposed sermon.
Scores of ministers report that following this procedure four times a year with four different groups of members not only has a positive impact on the relevance of the sermon and on worship attendance, but also produces several important fringe benefits. One is the participants become closer to one another after six or seven weeks together in a shared experience. A second is new opportunities for more meaningful pastoral care. A third is an increase in the number of volunteers. A fourth is the spontaneous emergence of new support groups for the pastor. A fifth is some of the members of these groups report that experience has had a profound impact on their own religious pilgrimage. It must be recognized, however, that this experience will not be compatible with the personality and priorities of every minister.
Another approach to improving the quality of the preaching and particularly the delivery is now more widely available than formerly. This is the home video camera. While it requires considerable courage and a strong desire for self-improvement, watching oneself delivering a sermon on video tape can be both a humbling and an enlightening experience.
A somewhat less threatening road to self-improvement is followed by those ministers who, on three or four occasions a year, ask for five or six volunteers to constitute a sermon evaluation committee. A typical format brings these lay volunteers together first for two evenings during which they formulate and discuss the appropriate criteria for the evaluation of a sermon. Pastors have varying degrees of involvement in that process. After two such sessions these folks come to the Sunday morning worship experience and, obviously, listen carefully to the sermon. A couple of evenings later they meet with the preacher to share their reflections and insights. In at least a few cases the group worships with another congregation first before the formal evaluation of their own minister's sermon.
This "practice run" enhances their self confidence, broadens their comparison base and may suggest additional criteria. (It should be noted that every pastor's preaching is evaluated by laypersons every week. This particular process provides more intentionality about the criteria and improves the accuracy of the feedback.)
A less threatening and far more widely used approach is the "talk back" session following worship. Sometimes this takes the form of an ongoing adult class that the preacher meets with following worship; more often it is more of an ad hoc gathering. Frequently the focus of the discussion is on the content, but, if the minister is willing, the focus can be shifted to delivery and to eliciting suggestions on improving content and/or delivery.
Many of the best preachers also are willing to subject themselves to the discipline of preparing a series of sermons on a specific subject. A very common example is the Ten Commandments. Another is a series on temptations. A third is on the saints of the faith. A fourth is on basic doctrines.
A thoughtfully planned and carefully prepared series of sermons often can produce both better preaching and an increase in worship attendance.
3. Schedule More Preachers
For those congregations that have two or more good preachers available, one of the most effective means of increasing the attendance at Sunday morning worship is to schedule two different preachers for thirty-five or more Sundays a year.
The basic assumption on which this alternative is based is the fact that it is increasingly rare when one person can deliver a sermon that is equally meaningful to everyone in the room. Those present come with different agendas, some at a different stage in their faith journey than others. Many have not been to seminary and thus have not been taught the characteristics of an excellent sermon and at least a few simply do not find that minister to be on their religious wave length.
An increasingly common response to the growing diversity of the religious needs of the people is to schedule one minister to preach at the first service and another at the second hour. In literally dozens of churches the associate minister preaches at the first hour on thirty-five Sundays a year while the senior pastor preaches at the other service, or sometimes at the other two services.
The most widespread objection to this concept is, "How can you justify the investment in time for an extra sermon preparation for only sixty to a hundred people?"
At least a half dozen factors should be discussed when that objective is raised. The most obvious is that every week at least 150,000 Protestant ministers prepare a sermon that will be heard by no more than one hundred persons and frequently fewer than sixty. Is that objection suggesting that every small church should be closed?
More important is the issue of values and goals. Which is the more important? The most efficient use of ministerial time and energy? Or to bring together a larger number of people to hear the Word? Or to increase the number of people who leave grateful they came that day?
Some will object, "Maybe that would work in a big congregation, but our church is too small to try anything like that." That comment misses the key point. The number-one issue in considering this alternative is not size, but rather the theological diversity of the membership. The more homogeneous the membership, the less likely this will be a wise course of action. The more heterogeneous the membership, the greater the possibility that it will result in an increase in attendance. As a general rule the most homogeneous congregations are those in which the vast majority of the present members have joined since the arrival of the present pastor. The most heterogeneous are those in which (a) at least one-half of today's members joined before the arrival of the past two ministers and/or (b) a substantial proportion of today's members married into this congregation and/or (c) at least one-fourth of today's members were born in the 1930-45 era and at least another fourth were born after 1956 and/or (d) the Sunday morning worship attendance-to-membership ratio is under 60 percent.
The fourth factor that should be discussed, and one that often is voiced as a potential objection, is the availability of a second preacher for that many Sundays. Alternatives include retired ministers, a pre-theological student at a nearby college, a lay preacher, a chaplain in a nearby institution, a seminary graduate now employed in a secular job, a seminary or college teacher, one-half of that clergy couple serving another congregation within thirty or forty miles, a seminary student, a retired military chaplain, or the associate minister or a retired missionary.
A fifth issue that is almost certain to be raised in those churches with only one minister on the payroll is cost. How can we afford it? First of all, can you afford not to do it if it will increase your worship attendance? Second, in most churches the total amount of member giving is directly related to the number of people at worship on Sunday morning. The congregation averaging 180 at worship typically receives more than twice as many dollars annually from member giving as the church averaging a hundred at worship. While a 20 percent increase in worship attendance may not immediately result in a 20 percent increase in contributions, the two often go together. In the vast majority of congregations Sunday morning worship is the only activity or program that pays its way.
Finally, some will object this will promote a rivalry between the two preachers and members will identify a "winner" and a "loser" in terms of the size of the crowd. Experience does not support that fear. The people who attend one service tend to be oblivious about what is happening at the other hour. They come to have their religious needs met, not to make comparisons. They do not have the experience on which to make those kinds of comparisons. This approach does require, however, two preachers who are both personally and professionally secure, who differ in preaching styles and theology and who complement rather than duplicate one another.
Why does this increase attendance? The most obvious reason is it increases the chances of meeting the religious needs of a larger number of people. It also can offer the choice of worship followed by Sunday school for those who prefer that schedule and Sunday school followed by worship for those who prefer that schedule. Typically each minister will preach at both services about six or eight times a year; thus everyone has the chance to listen to the other preacher. It also can result in doubling the number of laypersons who are actively involved as members of a choir, as ushers, as liturgists, or as greeters.
The two big surprises it often produces are (a) a few people will attend both services on many Sundays and (b) with some couples the wife will attend at one hour and the husband at the other hour. There is no law against either practice and both are more attractive than the more common alternative of the husband remaining at home while the wife goes to church.
Excerpted from 44 Ways to Increase Church Attendance by Lyle E. Schaller. Copyright © 1988 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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