While meeting with clergy this fall for their annual one on ones, I have noticed some trends in our local churches. Either I’ve been listening more carefully, the patterns have simply escaped me before, or something new is emerging.
Trend #1: Tinkering with worship times
Clergy and lay leaders are constantly adapting worship to shifting conditions and needs in their congregations. The result is worship and Sunday school times that are more fluid than in the past. One of our district churches moved its first service from 8:30 a.m. to 9:15 a.m., hoping to grow worship attendance since the 11:00 worship service was maxing out. The trade-off was giving up the dedicated Sunday school time.
A second church revamped its worship schedule in the opposite way. Sunday school and worship used to be concurrent, but the first service was moved back in order to hold Sunday school between the 2 services. The hope was to eliminate one-stop shopping where adults worship while their children are in Sunday school.
Still another pastor who recently changed to a dedicated Sunday school time put it this way. “It really bothers me that parents will do anything to accommodate their kids’ sport schedules, including weekend tournaments, but they are offended when we ask them to set aside 2 hours on Sunday morning for worship and Sunday school. Our children can be a part of the church for years without learning anything about the Bible and the Christian faith if their parents don’t bring them to Sunday school. What happened to the promise parents made at their children’s baptisms to raise them in the faith? Our church is going on record that spiritual growth is important for all ages.”
- Before tinkering with worship times, form a task force, keep your church’s vision and mission in front of you at all times, ask what you hope to achieve, solicit input from everyone, prepare the congregation, then carefully evaluate once the change is made.
Trend #2: Development of lay leadership
A church is only as healthy and vital as its leaders. When I hear pastors lament the lack of lay leadership, my first question is, “How are you doing spiritual formation in your church?” The most effective lay leaders in the church have a deep and abiding faith that is formed through Bible study and other spiritual growth experiences. The best recipe for producing leaders in the church is knowing your congregation well, facilitating spiritual maturity, identifying a person’s sense of call to and gifts for a particular ministry/committee, ensuring that each committee has a mission and purpose, providing effective training, and offering continual support and encouragement.
- Do you understand the Nominations and Leadership Development Committee to be the heart and soul of the church? Are you moving beyond simply filling slots to discerning spiritual gifts? Are you breaking up unhealthy and dysfunctional power blocks by developing new leaders and engaging in succession planning?
Trend #3: A struggle to engage in honest conversation
United Methodists are too nice! There, I’ve said it. By not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings or stir the pot, we specialize in avoiding difficult conversations. I’ve seen one too many SPRC Committee refuse to talk with the pastor about his/her effectiveness, the secretary about his/her inability to get the job done, or the custodian about the spottiness of his/her cleaning. I’ve heard one too many a church member malign another person without having the courage to sit down at table with that person and dialogue directly. And I’ve experienced one too many congregation whose mission and ministry is hindered because members are never taught how to engage in holy conversations.
- Ever think about saying 3 simple words: “Can we talk?”
Trend #4: The sunny and shadow side of permission-giving
It’s gratifying to observe that more and more churches are encouraging lay persons to start new programs and ministries without having to jump through 10 hoops that take 10 months to 10 years. Permission-giving churches welcome ministries that bubble up from the bottom and empower champions to gather others to help them. Prison and immigration ministries, free stores, food pantries, and school mentoring programs have transformed congregations because of one person’s initial passion.
On the other hand, we have to be careful not to dilute our congregational energy with suggestions of well-intentioned programs that are not essential to and may, in fact, divert our mission. Bridge clubs, softball teams, bowling leagues, pancake breakfasts, and Easter egg hunts are all appropriate activities as long as they play a role in achieving our vision and goals.
- How intentional is your church about focusing its ministries on what is most important?
Trend #5: Moving to the next level
I’ve had conversation this fall with a number of pastors of churches that flirt with 125 – 175 in attendance but can’t seem to move from the pastor size to the program size church. The skills, attitudes, and behaviors that lead to success in one size church can become obstacles to growth in another size church.
I think of the pastor who said recently, “I just want to be a pastor.” In other words, he simply wanted to preach, teach, and provide pastoral care for his flock, with no desire to grow his church to the point where he could no longer be the sole person doing ministry in the congregation. By refusing to reinvent himself as a leader and focus his energies on hiring and managing staff and recruiting, training, and empowering lay leaders, he was getting what he wished for.
- Is your church a family, pastor, program, or corporate size church? Are your pastor and key lay leaders gaining the skills needed to help your church grow to the next level?
Trend #6: A new normal for worship attendance
The signs have been there for several years, but this fall a number of pastors have commented, “Our attendance hasn’t bounced back yet from the summer slump. The weather has been nice, and the regulars aren’t here.” Unlike my parents’ generation, which was in the pew every Sunday, younger adults view regular attendance as once or twice a month, not every week. In today’s world kids’ sports, travel, work, and visiting family often take people away on Sunday morning.
- How are you adapting worship, sermon preparation, and programing to families that are not Sunday “regulars?” Do you offer weeknight worship, Bible studies, and youth activities?
Trend #7: Concern about financial sustainability
Too few of our clergy and lay leaders realize that as the older saints of the church die we will lose an entire generation of the most faithful and significant givers in the church. In fact, some of our churches are only 1 or 2 deaths away from financial crisis. The truth is that we are not effectively teaching our children, youth, and adults about personal finances, stewardship, and tithing. Furthermore, many clergy are reluctant to preach about money, and some do not even tithe themselves.
- Do you know who your 10 most generous givers are and how old they are? Don’t rely in an unhealthy way on several large givers. Rather, make stewardship education a priority in your ministry at church and practice generous giving yourself.
Trend #8: More partnering and sharing of resources
Connection is the greatest gift of The United Methodist Church. No local church is independent, yet many act as if they are. When churches attempt to go solo, they miss the true blessing of being a United Methodist: that we are much stronger together than we are alone.
I see much more connecting going on now than 6 years ago. Congregations are sharing musicians, education directors, parish nurses, youth leaders, and secretaries, and it’s working! They are sharing space, sponsoring outreach ministries together, engaging in mission trips together, and worshipping together on special occasions – and it’s working!
- How can you partner with another church in a new way this year?
Trend #9: The Growing Edge of Technology
By my estimate, 70% of our churches use screens for announcements, hymns, special presentations, and/or preaching. All except a handful of churches have email and a web site, many offer an email newsletter as well as printed copies, and even one of our smallest churches, with an average of 25 on Sunday morning, has an active Facebook site. Sharing the gospel today demands effective and multifaceted communication.
- How are you getting the Word out?
As I am out and about in our local churches, I am encouraged. I sense a clearer grasp of present realities, more intentional alignment of ministries with mission and vision, a better understanding of effective staff and lay leadership, a desire to learn how to converse in healthy ways, the commitment of pastors to rethink and reinvent their ministries, and a renewed commitment to the connection.
Although a few of these trends reduce me to sighs too deep for words, the signs of hope are too great to ignore. At a time when the church seems less and less relevant in people’s lives, Christianity has more power to transform our world than ever before. As we have “fallen back” to a new time for the fall and winter, I pray that we do not fall back into old habits and assumptions. May God give us all the will and courage to adjust to a new time in our church and world.