Reclaiming the Roles in the Church

Rev. John Rodgers

November 26, 2017

Understanding how churches grow, continue to grow, and sustain their membership

Research has been done with churches in the United States that began in the 1920s and 30s who had large growth in the 1950s along with other mainline protestant churches, but have continued to grow and maintain their membership levels into the 2000s have some things in common. The first is the Pastor’s (clergy) role. The Minister(s) of these churches Preach the Good News, the New Testament putting it into today’s life; teach what Jesus requires of his disciples; takes care of Spiritual Matters in the church and community; and is active in the community in which the church is located. The minister(s) do not involve themselves in the administration and operation of the church at all, unless it relates to the Preaching, Teaching, and/or Spiritual Matters.

Second, the Board of Elders, Administrative Board, or Leadership Council is the group that takes care of all the administration and operation of the church. All the staff of the church reports to this group, not the ministers or Senior Pastor, unless there is a Church Administrator on staff. The minister(s) are only ex-Officio of this group and only there to deal with spiritual matters. The Board of Elders handles the operations of the ministries and missions of the church – ministries are inward programs and missions are outward programs. Each church sets up how they handle these programs differently, but this is the group that is responsible for the carrying out of the programs. The final thing this group does is outreach, which will be explained later.

The third thing these churches have in common is a Board of Deacons or Membership Care Committee. The Deacon or committee members are trained and assigned 5 to 7 families of the church which they are responsible for. Each Deacon or committee member is asked to give at least a 3 year commitment to do this. The Deacon or committee member is the direct communication link between the church and the family assigned and vice versa. They take care of the physical and spiritual needs of the family, only when they can’t handle a spiritual need is the pastoral staff brought in. They see that the family is actively involved in the life of the church.

The final thing these churches have in common is that they have made the Great Commission their mission statement – to bring people to know Christ, teach them the ways of Christ, and make them Disciples of Christ living in the Kingdom of God here and now. These churches do not see themselves as businesses, but as servants in the Kingdom of God. They understand that there are over 100 million people living in the United States who are not connected to a church nor a Disciple of Christ, nor living in God’s Kingdom. They understand that many of these people are desperately seeking a meaningful faith connection.

Ultimately, many of the millions not connected to a church attend a worship service at some point in their life. So these churches go to great lengths to ensure that their gatherings are worshipful while being accessible to people who have little or no history in the church. The layout of the church campus, signage, comfort of the seating, and the ease of parking are considered in welcoming people.

Evangelism is not a program or activity, but a lifestyle.

The most obvious observation why churches are not growing is that people are not being pursued. We are called by God to pursue them. Each year more than $3 billion is spent constructing or renovating church facilities to make them welcoming. But the single most effective strategy of all – following Jesus’ lead of asking people to “come and see” – is generally neglected.

The reason why many people stay away from the church is that they have looked the church over and do not especially like what they see. They see rules and regulation are more important than relationships and friendships; check off lists of what to do are more important than transforming lives; and see many in the church talk about faith, love and hope but do not live it.

George Barna tells the story of one veteran of the Church who had dropped out and was considering a return describe it this way: I probably wouldn’t know a good religious teaching from bad, of a great sermon from one that breaks every rule in the preaching manual. But I sure know nice people from jerks, and real people from hypocrites. I would stay at a church with lousy teaching but genuinely friendly people – people who got to know me and cared about me and respected my needs and boundaries – before I would stay at a place with perfect teaching and lousy people.

For most people not in churches, the intellectual or substantive emphasis is less meaningful than the emotional or relational emphasis of churches. The environment of the church – how formal or casual, how inviting or uninviting, how physically comfortable, how uplifting or negative the atmosphere – is remembered by those who visit churches. They then form opinions about the church based on the church’s environment, whether they return, stay, or go.

The reason many churches remain small is because the members of those churches are comfortable in a small body. So each time someone new comes in it creates a huge discomfort for them. They may acts friendly and nice, but you can see the security of the known dissipate. As a result, they don’t invite people to church or encourage new people to get involved. In contrast, it is a common expectation of people who attend larger churches that they should invite their family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. These larger churches are actively involved in the community, in which the church is located – doing service projects, attending meetings, participating in events, etc. They reach out into the community to find out what the issues are and try to address them – as an example of one church that found many families were dealing with potty training, so they put together workshop, classes, etc. to help the parents and children with potty training. This is what True Outreach is that the Board of Elders needs to be doing. Continually assessing the needs of the community and developing programs to meet those needs.

This brings people to the church and introduces them to the church in a nonreligious way. Although all the programs are based with scripture, they are more based on how Jesus would deal with the issue and inviting them into the Kingdom of God.

Here is a fairly common approach to dealing with visitors to churches that continue to grow and maintain their membership levels:

  • At least one of the Elders is available to meet with visitors after the service, talk with them about the church and introduce them to other members.
  • Within 48 hours of the service, the Elder and Pastor will send a letter of thanks to the visitor. In the letter, the Elder and Pastor will encourage the visitor to return and answer any questions that may have arisen during their meeting after the service.
  • On the Thursday or Friday of the visitor having attended worship, the visitor will get a call from the Elder that met with them. The Elder will thank the visitor for coming to church, ask if they have any question, and invite them to attend again on Sunday.
  • If the visitor does not return, the church continues to send mailings, emails, etc., usually for at least a year.
  • If the individual comes to a second service or event, then they are assigned a Deacon, who will visit the person’s home. The Deacon will then take over as the communications link between the church and the family. The idea at this stage is to get the person integrated into the life of the church. The Deacon takes on the role of a mentor.
  • Usually within six months of the person attending and being involved in the life of the Church, the person is asked to attend a membership class and join the church.

We wish to thank George Barna of the Barna Research Group, a full-service marketing research company that specializes in research for Christian ministries; and the Pew Research Institute for their efforts in gathering the data and information for the above content.