General Question

Yellowdog's avatar

How do you re-grow a church after it has declined in life, membership, demographics?

Asked by Yellowdog (8902points) 1 week ago

I was with a particular church as an associate pastor some 22 years ago, and helped them find a new place to build and the means to do it. Yes, I once was a productive citizen.

And this was a very vital church with a lot of life, families, children, youth, seniors, etc etc,

It seems they had a pastor leave / retire some 3 or 4 years ago. They have been unable to find a new pastor, and asked for my resume. I am not sure I will even be who they want.

The strange thing is, they are a mostly older congregation (60s through 80s)—and seemed to fairly recently have a good balance of ages—they once had plenty of regular adults and families who no longer attend.

The thing that scares me about an older congregation is, they become shut-in, unable to attend, and start dying off. Or coming to evening services and activities.

This church is in a vital area and ought to have a lot of growth potential. They still do a lot of vital ministries and services to people in the town and in nearby disaster areas. But its hard to get older people involved.

This isn’t a typical Fluther question, but this church was recently thriving and vital with about 150 active members. Now, it seems to have fewer than 50.

But how does a church recoup after a recent decline?

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

53 Answers

Tropical_Willie's avatar

It is not just that church but all community groups Civitan, BPOE, Presbyterian, Moslem centers, Masons, Synagogues have seen a loss of membership. I have a friend that just completed his doctorate on that subject; factors include less time for community because of work and family commitments. TV and internet also take up their time.

Inspired_2write's avatar

Offer food after the service, that brings everybody.
Bingo?

LostInParadise's avatar

@Tropical_Willie brings up a good point that participation in civic organisations is declining. Religious organizations are a special case. The so called nones, people who choose none as their religious affiliation, at 23% of the population, are as numerous as Evangelicals and Catholics. I read somewhere that millennials have a rate of about 30%.

The plain fact is that religion is declining in industrialized nations. Some Scandinavian countries are majority atheist. You can offer pop music and maybe some beer, but I think that in the end it is a losing cause.

KNOWITALL's avatar

First I would talk to someone still there about the decline and past experience, so you’ll have the knowledge of ‘what went wrong’. Perhaps it’s the pastor leaving, perhaps not. You need to know.

Second, you can re-brand or re-grow the church, once you get the job, so I wouldn’t worry overmuch about that now unless you are to submit a plan for re-branding.

One thing I will mention is that I hope you choose to be inclusive. People like me and my friends will no longer support or attend any church that we can’t bring our LGBTQ friends to. It may be a delicate situation in a church with an older group of people, but any church that does not embrace LGBTQ’s is probably NOT going to thrive as they did in the past. Just a suggestion.

Inspired_2write's avatar

In Europe and abroad Religion is declining as they had lost touch with modern views and thus the congregation are selling the Church as a home.
Saw this not long ago where a church was renovated into a very roomy nice large home.
I would love to have a home such as this.
It was on an international home real estate channel.In this case it was in the United Kingdom area.
Can you imagine a home with turrets and beautiful wood counters with window panes made of stained glass?

JLeslie's avatar

I agree to talk to people who attend and see what they have heard.

Does the church have a large room for parties? Can you have zumba and yoga classes there? In your area a lot of churches have exercise classes and the people just give a few dollars for the class which pays the teacher. It could get more people coming into the church and learning about it.

If you can get a list of the people who didn’t renew their membership, maybe they would be willing to talk to you and explain way. Did they go to a new church? Or, just stop going to church altogether?

Dutchess_III's avatar

Guess I should send my sister their way.

People are rejecting belief in invisible, magic supreme beings. How can you “fix” that?

stanleybmanly's avatar

From my point of view, the crucial die off in church participation lies in the apparent disinterest of younger people in religious matters. I was reared a Roman Catholic, and as a “fallen” catholic have been fascinated by the decline of the church in both its influence and numbers of the faithful so rampant in my lifetime. But to answer the question of how it might be possible to beat the odds and go against the trend in building a congregation, there is absolutely no substitute for dynamic, willful leadership. An enormous ego along with the requirement of suspension of ethical dictates around the business of ends justifying means—and a willingness to actually work like a slave—nothing else must matter. If you are not genuinely engendered with these “attributes” you have no business even considering such an enterprise.

elbanditoroso's avatar

I don’t have an answer for you, @Yellowdog – I have seen synagogues consolidate (and for that matter, disappear) just as you are describing Christian institutions.

I know that it synagogues there was a lot of tension between liberal Jews and the right-wing-support-Netanyahu-forever crowd, which tended to be older people. The older population seems increasingly out of touch with the more open-minded progressive younger Jews.

My personal take is that when I was a kid, religion promised (or at least foreshadowed) a world of justice and peace, and we have had just the opposite.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I don’t think it’s as simple as “disinterest,” @stanleybmanly. It’s a result of thinking critically. To me, “disinterest” implies that they acknowledge there is a God, but they aren’t interested in the worship part.
In my experience, the younger people are saying “There is no God.”
My kids are now atheists, with no help from me. They figured it out all by themselves. In fact, initially I hid my lack of belief from them, because church was such a big influence in our lives. It’s only come out gradually now, that we’re all on the same page.

Dutchess_III's avatar

(Since when you you have to have a membership to a church @JLeslie)?

gorillapaws's avatar

I think you should follow in Christ’s example and do good works among the community that need it. If you lead by example, people will notice of your selfless acts of altruism and some may be inspired to hear your message. Of course the cynic in me says that if these charitable acts are being done with the ulterior motive of evangelizing and not out of pure kindness for your fellow man, then they’re arguably not actually selfless acts.

Dutchess_III's avatar

But what if these people doing these selfless acts turn out to be Atheists? Does that mean people should be inspired to become Atheists?

KNOWITALL's avatar

@gorillapaws The prime directive for all Christians is to lead people to Christ, which in most Christian religions, is probably the biggest gift you could ever give -eternal salvation.

Doing good works and missions are important but never more important than the prime directive.

stanleybmanly's avatar

@Dutchess III. You are in effect saying the sane thing as myself. The disinterest merely reflects decline in the necessity for superstition to explain the yet unexplainable. The other functions of the churches, particularly the bonding in community has been supplanted by such developments as this very site. Some 20 years ago when my cousin moved out here from New York, he was floored on arrival to discover how tepid the influence of such organizations as the Masons and VFW are in comparison to the happenings in NYC. To me it only makes sense that in a more diversified world, the dilution of every group and organization defining my youth is on the uptick. Everything from the Boy Scouts and YMCA through the 4H clubs attests to this.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Of course the cynic in me says that if these charitable acts are being done with the ulterior motive of evangelizing and not out of pure kindness for your fellow man, then they’re arguably not actually selfless acts.”

gorillapaws's avatar

@KNOWITALL “The prime directive for all Christians is to lead people to Christ”

That’s not my prime directive. Jesus told us to pray in the closet. It was Paul who really pushed the evangelism angle—which makes sense if you’re the leader of the church and you need to grow your power/income base.

Give Matthew 6:1–18 a read. Pay particular attention to the first 4 verses in the context I mentioned above. The true Christian is not showy about their faith. They are humble and work in the shadows to help others.

LostInParadise's avatar

Just a sidenote. @stanleybmanly , You are not a fallen Catholic. You are officially a lapsed Catholic. Catholics are the only people I know of who have a term for someone who loses faith. They make it seem as if you neglected to put a coin in your Catholicism meter.

stanleybmanly's avatar

That’s an interesting (and apparently necessary) revision of an expression very current in my teenage years for non practicing Catholics.

seawulf575's avatar

Gotta start by being family friendly. Gotta have sections for kids, teens, and adults. Sitting through a church service for kids is boring. Gotta have a good music ministry. Get out the electric keyboards, the electric guitars, the drums…play some upbeat music. Tap into the electronic age…get rid of hymnals if you still have them. Utilize overhead projectors for song lyrics and/or important information from the sermon. Plan things for local people to do…join up with other churches in the area to plan larger group efforts. These sorts of things are starters. You will always have people leaving…that’s how our society works. What you have to do is become a place others want to come. You have to have a vision of what you believe your church should be in the community and then gear your efforts towards that.

elbanditoroso's avatar

@seawulf575 Does theology or belief play a role?

Dutchess_III's avatar

It’s a “church.” I would assume belief is everything @elbanditoros. It’s the declining numbers of believers that are shutting the churches down. And no amount of bigger rooms or party planning can change that.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@gorillapaws Gotta love Christians who correct other Christians on a mostly atheist site. But you do you bruh.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Are you saying that Christians must all believe in the same one thing? The same one thing that you were taught to believe @KNOWITALL? They aren’t allowed to have their own opinions?

Dutchess_III's avatar

Are you saying he was wrong to disagree with you? I guess I’m asking what you actually mean by “Gotta love Christians who correct other Christians…”

KNOWITALL's avatar

@Dutchess_III Sigh..because the bible specifically says Jesus told us to witness, see below.

Matthew 5:16
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 28:18–20
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, once again the Bible is full of inconstancy. @gorillapaws quotes scripture that says: ”“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”, but you you say, “Nope. It’s just the opposite.” And, of course, you are the right one.

gorillapaws's avatar

@KNOWITALL “Jesus told us to witness, see below”

Not to get pedantic, but that’s NOT what the scripture says. There’s a difference between living a life of humble and generous goodness such that others are drawn to your “your light,” as I mentioned in my first post, which is what Matthew 5:16 is saying, and parading around with a cross on your neck “witnessing” to others, telling them they’re not “true” Christians like most evangelicals I I’ve ever encountered.

Let me add that I believe Christ/God would be disgusted by the latter group.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@Dutchess_III Key words “to be seen by them”. We aren’t supposed to list good deeds and talk about what great Christians we are FOR US, the glory goes to God always, not to ourselves.

I explained that in the good deeds thread because another Christian here posted his, so I said I guess I would, with the codicil that the glory went to God, not to me.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@gorillapaws I’m not arguing with you and I don’t intend on saying another word about it, since it’s completely off topic and this is General.

gorillapaws's avatar

@KNOWITALL This isn’t at all off topic. This is about how to grow a church. I mentioned doing good as a means to inspire others. The idea is for them to approach you because they’re drawn to the “light you shine.” I think that’s an effective means of growing a community.

Yellowdog's avatar

Thanks to all who have answered the question without attacking the beliefs of Christians or other users. Leading others to Christ IS the prime directive of any church, and churches also do acts of benevolence.

This is a particular church which I helped find the land where they moved when their old location went bad and blighted, and they thrived in this new at first—as recent as 2012 or maybe even 2015, had a lot of groups and classes and activities, but now only a remnant, mostly the ‘old guard’ who are typically inflexible.

When I was 20–30 years younger, I could have taken on a project like this and brought a lot of life and new blood into this group. It has been a while since I’ve been a pastor, and I’m really not as youth-oriented as I once was. But I hate to see a church in decline when I helped with its new genesis some 22 years ago, and had such vision for its future and growth.

I really don’t care about other people’s theological views if they differ from mainstream Christianity. We play by the rules, the constitution and bylaws of the type of church it is. I, for instance, don’t believe in the practice of baptizing infants, but this type of church does. I can justify it, however, by understanding the theology that we are initiating a child into the household of faith. My only point is, we agree to the rules that apply to that particular church,

We still have the senior church members, and a budget. But the main demographic in a church needs to be normal, healthy adults and families. The senior members need these younger adults, too. I’m just not sure how to get them or others back.

Dutchess_III's avatar

What about finding some way to attract the atheist / agnostic crowd? Or does that defeat the idea of being a church. But then again, is the biggest concern about the revenue that comes in?

Dutchess_III's avatar

The last time I went to church was probably 12 years ago. Rick and I found a church in town that was kind of an AME church that let white people in, LOL! I really enjoyed it. It was lively, and once a month they’d have a dinner. The dinner was a big draw for me.
The big turn off though, was I got a sense of disapproval from a few of the black members, at the idea of white people coming in and messing up their groove, although the pastor made it very clear that everyone was very welcome. Like, there was a black speaker from Wichita and at one point she said, disapprovingly, “I am not used to this kind of response.” I guess our hallelujahs weren’t loud enough, or something.

So, long story short, food! Even atheists like food!

KNOWITALL's avatar

@Yellowdog One local church does a bbq in the park every Wednesday. That is also youth service night, which means the teens are cooking, setting up, cleaning up, etc…. It’s honestly a pretty big draw for the neighborhood kids, which includes their parents, too.

(@Dutchess and it’s open to everyone, not just church members, it’s kind of an outreach open to everyone who wants a free meal and/or fellowship.)

Dutchess_III's avatar

That’s how I’ve always understood churches to operate…open to any one and everyone. That’s why I was surprised to hear the word “membership” in connection to a church.
OTOH, I probably wouldn’t attend the BBQ unless I had contributed in some way. It smacks of taking advantage of good food!

gorillapaws's avatar

@Yellowdog “Leading others to Christ IS the prime directive of any church”

Perhaps that’s why your church is failing…? I would argue that the prime directive of a Church to provide a place of worship and community for people to share their beliefs, to be a pillar of goodness and faith in the community. In the era of being constantly bombarded by marketing, I think the vast majority of people shut out people who evangelize, proselytize, or otherwise try to visibly market their faith to others—and let’s be real “witnessing” is nothing more than 1st century marking repackaged for the 21st century.

I’ve never had folks from the local synagogue knock on my door telling me I’ll burn in hell if I don’t join them in Temple, nor have I ever had a Muslim tell me that I’m damned unless I join him at the mosque and pray towards Mecca. I’ve never been harassed, judged or annoyed by a Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Satanist, Animist, Taoist, Shintoist, or Pastafarian. The only religious folks I’ve ever had grievances with were various flavors of extremist Christianity: Born Again Evangelicals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc. There was one particular asshole that would stand in the center of my college campus on a soap box with his young son present and proceed to tell everyone one-by-one that they’re going to hell for this reason or that (e.g. “you’re dressed like a whore,” “you’re a glutton,” etc.). I remember thinking that if Christ were standing there, he throw him down the steps.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Prime directive…I would not attend a church that announced it had a “prime directive” of any kind. I would be afraid of being turned into a Borg.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I took a comparative religion course in college once. The professor was also a Methodist Preacher (I think it was Methodist.) He was very knowledgeable about all religions. He once told the class that Christianity is the only religion in the world that actively recruits new members to its belief system.
I found that fascinating.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@Dutchess_III Yeah, tbh I kind of feel the same but they really do love everyone to attend that wants to.
I used Prime Directive here, that’s on me…lol, I’m a Star Trek fan.

@Yellowdog Many churches are including addiction groups now, too. Either AA or another outreach program. In our area, heroine and meth addiction has a group at a local Schweitzer UMC that is VERY successful.

elbanditoroso's avatar

There’s another question here as well.

Should all churches survive?

One could argue that they have a life cycle, just like plants and people. And that in order for freshness in religion and belief, that there needs to be a process of death and renewal, even for a church.

Dutchess_III's avatar

The fundamental reason why a church is created is a common belief in something. You start with the first church, the Catholic church, and all other religions broke off from them in protest of some tenant of belief. That belief is being eroded. Some of it is because of people like me (and my kids,) who find it illogical, and some who find it hypocritical. But the belief is eroding.
I’m thinking it’s going to have to change clothes altogether.

JLeslie's avatar

I was just thinking, I would focus on people with young children. I know so many people who don’t care about going to church until they have kids and for some reason they feel strongly the “kids should be raised with something.” Meaning, some sort of belief system and religion.

Does it cost anything to belong to the church? Maybe give a discount to that target market. Focus on something for the young children.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@JLeslie Its free but members voluntarily tithe, generally. Also biblical. Childcare is often provided free for church events in many churches.

seawulf575's avatar

@elbanditoroso Does theology or belief play a role? Since it was a church I assumed that was the basis and should be what drives the decisions of what role you want to play in the community.

seawulf575's avatar

When I met my wife, she was attending the local Catholic church. She wasn’t Catholic, but she liked it. Her mom was an active member of a different church that we started attending regularly when we got married. Neither of these churches had much in the way of things for kids, so the kids were generally bored. That is not a way to bring interest in the church back to the next generation. The church we started attending was basically middle aged people and older.
The church we currently attend is one we like very much. The services always tie back to the bible. The staff and congregation are very inclusive of anyone that wants to attend. The church gets involved with the community in many ways. We help needy families, we work at soup kitchens, we help with a food bank set up by a group of churches in the area…it is a church that believes strongly in giving back to the community. We have ties to several different churches in the area and even have “swapped” pastors periodically having different pastors come in for a Sunday while ours goes to their churches for that time. Our church doesn’t pass an offering basket. There are boxes by the doors you can leave your offering in or you can do it electronically if you like or you don’t have to do anything at all.

JLeslie's avatar

@KNOWITALL I guess I’m talking about some fun stuff for the kids also. Is the biblical childcare fun? Or, is it like sitting in a classroom? The small churches in Memphis (where the OP lives) are up against mega churches that do activities and have large special events. Some people prefer the smaller more intimate churches, and a lot of people seem to like the huge social aspect of the big churches.

If the church advertises, I’m suggesting focusing on the young children part of their services, but make it attractive in more than just they’ll learn about God.

I heard a study 15 years ago that a percentage of churchgoers don’t believe in God, or don’t believe in organized religion, or both. They still attended church because of their spouse, or for the social aspect, or because of peer pressure in the community. The percentage was higher than I expected, but I don’t remember the number. Not the majority of churchgoers, but still it was a number that was significant.

In a lot of communities the peer pressure is weaning probably. The fewer who go to church, the fewer who go. It’s probably like a snowball effect.

Then, also to consider is how many theists, who do identify with a religion, and don’t go to church. I’ve read the number of people like this is growing. They often don’t feel they need to go to church to worship. Plus, it takes time to go to church, and money. How do you get them back into the churches? I don’t think it’s with fire and brimstone. Not that I think you are a fire and brimstone type of religious person, just the opposite, but I think a lot of people don’t like churches that exclude or imply hate and I think you were talking about the same thing above.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@JLeslie Some of the best times in my life were as a kid in church. We sang Father Abraham, interactive song and sort of dance. Noah built the arky arky. All the elders were adopted grands, it was great.

I dont attend church often anymore, and only as a visitor. I’m not sure what it would take to get me back, tbh.

JLeslie's avatar

@KNOWITALL That’s nice that you have those good memories regarding church in childhood.

My husband seems neutral about going to church as a kid and his Catholic school days in elementary. His sister and brother have loads of negative feelings regarding Catholic school and the church. Even with that, my SIL felt it was important her kids do CCD classes, and do their first communion. I don’t know if they were confirmed.

My husband would hate to give up a weekend day to dress up and go to church or synagogue. Relaxing the dress code (which is what has happened in the majority of churches now I think) helps, but he still wouldn’t want to give up his time. Since I never attended services/mass growing up, it’s not even much of a thought for me. I think if our closest friends and family members went to services, and the service was relatively short, not more than 45 minutes, and I can relate the sermon to my real life, and then going out to brunch after, then I could see how that would be attractive. But, not every week.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@JLeslie Oh wow, you better never try a Baptist church, they can run on two hours sometimes, and you’d never survive a Revival. :)

When I first started going to Catholic church, the things I loved were the short service, the options of service (sat, mornings, evenings, etc….not just Sunday), the lack of personal intrusiveness (more of a live and let live church), the flexible dress code (no suits and dresses), and when the doors opened at the close of service, people walked out firing up cigarettes and basically running to their cars, which shocked me very much.

Yes, as a kid it was great, a little stifling learning to behave, be silent, pay attention, not fidget, but for the most part, a lot of fun.

The people in the church are what turn me off, not God or religion.

One man I highly respect was asked to resign as deacon in church (Baptist) for getting a divorce three years ago. I understand that 50 years ago that may have been an issue, but now it’s so commonly accepted in society that churches have to change or fold. The judgement and control is no longer welcome, at least in my life. Only God has that authority. i think many churches and pastors overstep their bounds and move into territory that should only be God’s. Just my opinion.

elbanditoroso's avatar

@KNOWITALL wrote “Only God has that authority”.

I agree with that, 100%. And to a free-thinker (mostly) like you, that is a construct that works.

But – there are a lot of people who are not free-thinkers, and they depend on the church or the pastor to do their moral thinking for them – and those are the people who are susceptible to these closed-minded exercises of authority.

So it goes both ways. Some parishoners want (even require) a church that makes strict demands – and some pastors are willing to give it.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Vacation Bible School is a cool idea. Gives the parents something for the kids to do for the summer. I remember VBS and I liked it.

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