Growing Churches

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This blog entry is the first in a 4 part series on Growing Churches in the CRC and RCA written by Amy Schenkel.

If there was room for a longer title of this forum, it would be entitled Starting and Strengthening Churches, for surely our denomination needs to focus on both planting new churches and encouraging established churches. Recently the Church Multiplication Initiative (www.cmi21.com), a collaborative effort of the CRC and RCA to expand our Reformed Witness, studied the strongest of our churches — those who have grown by at least 20% (in attendance and/or membership) from 2007-2012.

As we all know, this five-year span has not been easy in North America, with the downturn of the economy directly affecting our churches and their members. And yet, in the midst of this crisis, there were 42 CRC churches and over 30 RCA churches (exact number not available) who showed significant growth. 

The CMI Implementation Team wanted to discover the factors that contributed to this growth, and what other churches in our two denominations could learn from their growth. Interviews with most of the growing church pastors revealed 10 growth factors. Some of them are simply good reminders, while others may surprise you as they surprised us. 

The church is well-connected to the community, and they are accepting of people from all walks of life, which is reflected in their worship services.

The churches were driven for a vision to reach people outside of the church. Almost every pastor spoke of their community involvement, such as in the local public schools, food pantries, or weekly service projects. Being involved in the community put them in touch with people who were different than the people who typically attended the local CRC church. These churches had to adapt and learn to authentically welcome people from different walks of life. Being truly welcoming encouraged many of these churches to change or adapt their worship style. Although the churches interviewed worshipped in a variety of ways, they described their worship services as accessible, personable, and welcoming.

The church brought in strong pastoral leadership.

Many of the pastors interviewed said their churches were stagnant or in decline before they arrived, but that their arrival brought with it a season of growth. The hiring of a new pastor doesn’t seem to tell the whole story, however. The qualities and skills of the pastoral leader were also important. A number of these pastors had previous experience and/or education in the business and marketing world. They brought these insights into the church system to help the church grow. Almost all of the pastors interviewed talked about having a strong vision for the growth of the church. 

The church building has recently been built, updated, or remodeled. 

A surprising number of growing churches point to a building renovation as a key factor in the recent growth of their church. Other churches found or built permanent space after worshipping in temporary facilities or expanded their educational/social space to accommodate a growing congregation. In most situations, the building renovation began as a result of asking how their facility welcomed visitors, or how their building could better meet community needs.

The church is located in an area of growth or is not located near another CRC/Reformed worshipping community.

Location played an important role in the growth of many of these churches. Some of them were located in cities that saw a lot of growth, and by adapting to the changing demographics around them they were able to see that growth within their church. Other growing churches are located in areas where they are the only CRC or Reformed or Protestant option. When people moved to the area and looked for a CRC church, the churches naturally grew.

The church focuses on developing strong relationships.

Many of the churches, especially those who five years ago were less than 100 people, said that strong relationships were key to their growth. A number of pastors said the church was “like a surrogate family” to those who attended. Many of these same pastors expressed concern that their growing church would not be able to maintain this level of deep relationships, and they wondered how that would impact their growth.

These are just 5 of the 10 growth factors revealed through this research. What do you think: which of these factors can be duplicated in other churches? How? Are there ways the denomination can come alongside churches to encourage growth? The next five growth factors will be revealed in next week’s blog.

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Let's Discuss…

We love your comments! Thanks for your help upholding the Community Guidelines to make this an encouraging and respectful community for everyone.

I look forward to reading the rest of the list. Here's hoping there is some mention of the Holy Spirit, prayer, and the good preaching of the Gospel.

Good stuff! Thanks.

I look forward to the next five, Amy. One comment on location: David Snapper, in his research done some years ago, using that venerable resource, the CRCNA Yearbook, concluded that growth is likely when you are not too far from other CRC churches. He found that churches that had thriving neighbor congregations were more likely to grow. So "not near" has to be qualified. Do you mean within five miles, two city blocks, or something else? For CRC churches whose neighboring classis members were far off, he suggested pastors create classis-like relations with nearby congregations.

As for new buildings, they work when more space is created. Congregations hit a natural ceiling when they fill 80% of the seats in their pews. New education space, etc., adds some vitality and programming, but new members come when they feel this church needs them, and if there are few seats, they are less likely to return.

Participant

Good question about the "not near" other CRC churches factor.  These were churches that found themselves in a geographical location where there were not other Reformed churches available.  So, if someone was looking for a church with Reformed theology, they were the only ones in town and therefore saw that growth.

However, in the church planting world (where I do much of my work), I know that one principle of church growth is to plant churches like Starbucks builds coffee shops. Namely, within a mile or so of the nearest CRC church.  With Starbucks it builds brand recognition and easy-access for its customers.  What does proximity do for new churches?  It allows for cooperation and collaboration of resources and community connections.  In the recent work CMI has done with Kingdom Enterprise Zones, we have seen the mission-focused energy that can result when churches build collaboration. 

I wonder if these two models allow for different types of growth?  Does one tend to attract more churched people, while the other one reaches unchurched people more effectively?  This study did not consider the types of people who were growing the church.  That would be another great study.

Community Builder

Thank you Amy for doing this. It would be helpful if you could quote the source of your data; yearbook, direct contact etc.  As we are a bi-national church it would also be helpful if you would give some info on geography of the churches that grew by the percentages you mentioned.

Participant

Harry,

The full report did include this information, but there wasn't room on the blog to include it all (or maybe I just didn't think people would read past it to the other information :).

Here is a quick summary of the strategy and scope of the research:

these churches grew by more than 20% between 2007 and 2012 in either attendance or membership; these churches were more than 10 years old (thereby excluding church plants); these were English-speaking churches.

There were 42 CRC churches that fit these characteristics.  Of these, 25 were available for phone interviews (a few declined to be interviewed; some pastors were on sabbatical or otherwise unavailable at this time; all others were attempted at least 4 times).  This sample did reach a saturation point, when no new or relevant information was being presented.

The churches interviewed were diverse.  From Port. St. Lucie, FL to British Columbia, they were located all over the United States and Canada in cities, suburbs, and rural communities. These churches were also diverse in their theological standing, from conservative (for example, avoiding the women in office issue) to liberal (churches wrestling with how to handle homosexual marriages, for example).  The churches also varied in size from 50 to almost 500 members.

 

I promised the pastors I interviewed that I would not quote them directly, so they remain anonymous throughout the report. 

I hope this helps!

Community Builder

Amy, the five points above do have relevance. You have to careful with the one on "strong leadership". When a new Pastor has to blame a previous Pastor for a decline or stagnating church, that makes it difficult to use the name of that church as an example for others.  Leadership of the local church does not rest with just the Pastor.

Pleas keep working with the info you have and keep in mind the tremendous diversity ( on every level ) in the CRCNA/RCA . To find generic ideas that will fit this diversity will be a challenge.

Participant

Harry,

I can see your point about the tenderness with which we have to address the role of the pastor in a growing or a declining church situation.  This research was done not in the spirit of finding someone to blame, but rather to look for the various factors that resulted in growth.  These were visionary leaders who were willing to make couragous decisions, even when that was hard to do.  It is not the only factor in the church's growth, but it was one of the common factors I found. And, if that is true, what can we do as a denomination to strengthen the leadership capacity of our pastors?  Just a generation ago our pastors were not also expected to be visionary leaders-they were expected to fill pastoral roles only.  So how should our denominational resourcing and education help prepare pastors to fill these new expectations?

Of course, every situation is different.  These are common themes that emerged from these interviews.  Not every church owned every factor, and so we must learn from it what we can but not over-adopt it for every situation.