The Episcopal Church, like most mainline denominations, is shedding members fast and furious, with experts predicting a dire future for the denomination. And while members wail and wring their hands — or clutch their pearls — they’re doing damned little about it. As a result, the Episcopal Church has reached a point where it needs to grow, or it will die.
That’s sad, because growing a church isn’t hard. In fact, there are plenty of churches out there with knucklehead leaders who have managed to grow just fine. And the strategies used to grow churches aren’t much different than those used to grow other for- and non-profit organizations.
So, without further introduction, fifteen tips for growing your church:
1. Look Out, Not In
If all your time and resources are spent on the parish and its needs and wants, you’ll never grow. Growth doesn’t happen from within, and your church likely has issues of organizational narcissism.
Speaking of, lasting growth doesn’t happen in churches with unresolved conflict or unhealthy internal dynamics. In that way, growing a church is like dating. Stop looking for the right person, and instead be the right person. Make a commitment to loving each other and the world around you, even if it isn’t always easy.
2. Embrace Change
As God’s so-called “frozen chosen,” the Episcopal Church doesn’t like change. But change is happening, whether we like it or not. And if you are trying to ignore change, chances are the change you’re facing is one that reflects decline.
3. Welcome Change Agents
Growth involves positive change, and change usually happens because of change agents—people who want to make things better. So if you’ve got parishioners, staff, or clergy who want to try something new, embrace them. The worst that can happen is that they fail.
4. Commit to Grow
Everyone likes the idea of growth. But as a church, have you made a top-down commitment to growth? Everyone needs to be on-board. In a society where church attendance is no longer normative, it’s a matter of grow or die.
5. Plan for the Future
If you have no plan for the future, that’s exactly the future you’ll have. Develop a plan and put it in writing. And while you’re at it, save for the future. That way you’ll have the resources for future projects and needs.
6. Make it Measurable
How many times have you seen church growth plans that contain vague, transactional goals? Usually these are worthy goals, like “visit local nursing home residents.” But without hard numbers, specific goals, and regular evaluation of progress towards goals, you run the risk of spinning your wheels. And don’t confuse being busy with seeing results.
7. Make it Regular
It’s great that your church has a booth at the county fair, or runs an ad at Easter. But the secret to marketing and messaging is repetition, so if your plan is a one-and-done, you’re unlikely to see results. Every event, every church service, should have some growth aspect to it.
8. Start Simple
Your church growth plan doesn’t have to be elaborate. Start with the neighbors. Do they put up with parking issues at the holidays, or during weddings and funerals? If so, send them a thank you note and invite them to join your next parish picnic or celebration. Even if they decline, they’ll appreciate the courtesy of being invited. But don’t say you don’t know where to begin.
9. Do it Now
Many churches have annual picnics or other events that would be the perfect place to invite guests. Don’t fall prey to the, “Well, maybe the next event,” mentality. Make it happen.
10. Staff for the Church You Want to Be
This one’s not easy and takes some faith and a strong backbone. But growing churches almost invariably staff for the church they want to be, which in turn demands a commitment to grow. So consider the possibility that this is the time to hire, not cut staff.
11. Make it Easy
How many people in your area don’t drive? Or have only one car and the car isn’t free on Sunday mornings? What would happen if you bought a van, put your church’s name on the side, and picked up anyone who wanted to come?
What about signage? Would visitors readily know which door to use? Where to park?
Make it easy for folks to be part of your faith community.
12. Find Out More
If you’ve seen people drifting away from the church (or leaving in a snit), including during the pandemic, ask them about it. Find out why they left and what it would take to get them back. Some of the answers may make you uncomfortable, but isn’t healing and reconciliation what church is all about? If nothing else, following up shows you care.
13. Keep the Lights On
Church real estate overall is some of the least used space in any community, so chances are your building goes unused much of the time. Welcome groups that share your values — chess clubs, scouting, community groups. If they can pay, great. If not, that’s okay too. But the more people see cars in your parking lot and lights on every evening, the more they’ll realize you’re part of the community and want to learn more.
14. Keep at It
Most successful people have experienced multiple failures. Take a lesson from these folks. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.
15. Have Fun
One of the most common reasons people shy away from growth is they think it will be onerous. But you can have contests for members who invite the greatest number of guests. Or have the most unique strategy for bringing people to church. And as you start to see success, you’ll have plenty to celebrate.
What strategies have you used to grow your church?
Thank you again, Anglican Watch. Considering the subject matter, this is the most amazingly succinct expression of what some of us might find frustrating in the “If only….” sense. There are anecdotes some of us could share from this past week alone-on all 15 Tips-that were treated in almost the opposite way. Sadly, these astute tips “only apply” to parishes who have (even) the will to grow, or to make a concerted effort to grow.
I would agree with all of the points. I especially like #14 “try try again!” But, from experience, both as a priest who oversaw the growth of a parish, the backlash, the shrinkage, then growth again, and shrinkage, and as one who studied the subject of “church growth” academically, I think the first question always needs to be, does the parish really want to grow?
This is a tricky one because the automatic answer is, “yes.” But then once “church growth” happens, the result is always new and strange and threatening to some if not many.
I had the wonderful experience at the end of these growth and decline cycles to challenge the parish to come up with their vision of a parish they really wanted. I was going on sabbatical, so why not bring in a new clergyperson each Sunday, find out what thrills you and then when I come back, share that with me. They had experienced my thrills in filling our parish buildings with community groups, attracting younger parishioners and all that. So, now, “What would thrill you in a priest and in liturgical style and maybe even outlook for ministry?”
Lo and behold, the priest they settled on in the month before I returned and whom I joined for worship for my first Sunday back was a priest twenty years my senior! They really wanted Father Comfort. And he really was old school.
I would suggest that before setting out on a “church growth” program, first figure out what parishioners cherish at their church (sort of what I did after 7 years!). And then figure out ways of living into what they cherish. It may have nothing to do with “church growth” after all!
So true. When a church says “sure, we want to grow”, they are often thinking about how new members will fulfill the church’s needs, not how the church will become a hospitable place for new members. Consequently, the need for church planting efforts, which seem like a waste considering all of the empty churches already in existence. But then, they’re one type of church that truly wants to grow.