The news seems ominous. Studies show Christianity on the ropes in Europe and on the decline in the United States. Church buildings going on the real estate markets, while Americans drift away from a spiritual life. And while ideas abound as to the causes of religious disaffiliation, how to remedy them is not at all clear.
So what are the key ingredients to maintaining and building a congregation? Congregations don’t get much bigger than Joel Osteen’s, which numbers around 50,000 people who gather for six weekly services in a 16,800-seat former basketball arena in Houston, Texas. And thousands watch Osteen’s sermons online. He’s a wonderful communicator who mixes humor and storytelling with Scripture. He clearly understands people and their challenges and his sermons reach into people’s lives with Biblical truth and good sense. He has his detractors, of course, critics who say he preaches a “prosperity gospel,” and who say, perversely, that his church is too large, but nobody maintains a larger congregation than Osteen.
A survey of online versions of the 10 largest megachurches reveals most ministers wearing jeans and casual shirts, giving very smart sermons that relate Scripture to contemporary life. Some have multiple churches while the largest, Osteen’s Lakewood Church, has one huge location.
Communication is obviously an essential ingredient of a growing congregation, and the leader of a faith must be more than a good communicator, and have an ability to understand the difficulties of parishioners and give them hope and solace, a spiritual uplift in a sometimes depressing world.
Times change, but some things are eternal. A 15th Century Latin Mass may be incomprehensible to most parishioners, but the aesthetics of the singing, the solemnity, the focus are absolutely beautiful. One can imagine the awe experienced by someone – fresh from a thatched house, cows and mud paths – entering a cathedral with stained glass, glorious singing, experiencing a ritual passed from ancient times, growing closer to a mysterious God linked to the infinite.
Today, however, it’s a challenge to bring that same sense of awe to someone who comes from a fast-paced technological world into a house of worship where a pastor, priest, minister, rabbi or imam recites from a centuries old book, written by inspired beings but who lived in another time and place.
And sometimes change is corrosive. There’s a church, for example, in Cottage Grove, Minn., with about 30 loyal members of the congregation – mostly over 60 years old – who are being asked to worship elsewhere. The idea, evidently born of desperation, is to reboot the church with younger members and an updated culture, but the faithful are understandably confused and angry.
So what are some of the key elements of congregation growth? Carey Nieuwhof the founding pastor of Connexus Church in Ontario, Canada, says that even committed people attend church less often, and he has seven way to respond to that trend, including: creating an online presence with Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, an app and a website; Elevating personal relationships; offering offline surprises and prioritizing kids and teens. He also leveraged his digital presence to increase giving by 22 percent.
Christianity Today says that young adults moving away to college is the prime reason they drop out of church, followed by disagreements with the social and political stance of the church, “judgmental or hypocritical” church members and the demands of work.
The Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life did a survey in 2018 which revealed why people attend church and why they stop attending. More than 81 percent said “feeling closer to God” was why they attended. Other reasons in order of significance were: “so children will have a moral foundation,” “to make me a better person,” and “for comfort in times of trouble/sorrow.” People who attend church infrequently said they “Practice my faith in other ways.”
The hardest part of meeting the demands of falling membership is change, and if your congregation is dwindling, change is necessary. Pastor Nieuwhof says it’s a dumb reality to say “I want our church to grow. I just don’t want it to change.” It’s like wanting to lose weight but wanting a bacon cheeseburger – you have to choose, and those choices are not always easy.
There are many resources online, including the links above. Watch the online sermons of successful pastors, look at Pew and other surveys to spot the key factors in growth or decline, talk to other faith leaders to find what they have done that either worked or didn’t work. And most important, talk to your congregation and get their help to plan out a strategy to arrest decline, draw in young people and bring more life and interest to your services. Otherwise, like Father McKenzie in the song Eleanor Rigby, you too may be writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.