Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Where in the World...?

I currently live in a very transient community within a very transient state.  One of my clergy colleagues estimates that, between the military bases and the petroleum industry, the annual turnover of population is nearly one in five.  As I begin my fifth year in pastoral ministry in Alaska, I can affirm his observation and would add that some years I consider it conservative.  About three and a half years ago, one of the churches I served lost 9 very active families to relocation to the lower 48.  For a church with just over 100 families, that was a blow.

I remember asking myself, my spouse (who was my co-pastor at the time), and God, where in the world would new families come from?  Our response was to go back to the basics:

  • hospitality - taking a hard look at what it felt like to walk into our church building for the first time; 
  • outreach - advertising in local media, social networking and personal invitations;
  • relevance - worship services and studies gravitated toward the practical application of faith ('practical divinity' we Wesleyans like to say).
Turns out, we were on to something.  My friend and colleague, Scott Hibben, who is a Leadership Development Minister for Evangelism and New Ministry in Iowa, has recently written an article answering the question: "Where will your next 10 members come from?"  He offers 6 answers to this question many of us in church leadership ask ourselves these days.  Here is a condensed version of his answers and observations (with a few of my own observations thrown in):

  1. Folks will come to your church because someone invited them.  82% of people who are invited by someone they know and trust will come to church if invited.
  2. Folks will come to your church because there is something worth inviting them to.  Cleaning up the building, improving worship and training ushers not to stand in huddles and talk to each other while visitors and members wait for a bulletin are all forms of evangelism.  The best advertising efforts, personal invitation campaigns and social network sites can all be undone in an instant by a smelly nursery, inept worship leader who's only doing it because it was "their turn" and not their calling, or uncaring usher.
  3. Folks are more likely to come to church in certain seasons.  Missiologist Ed Stetzer says that 47% of adults say they are more likely to consider matters of faith during the Christmas season than any other.  In many parts of our country, Christmas has surpassed Easter as the season in which most newcomers will visit churches.  Further, unlike the liturgical approach to holidays in which members are urged to prepare themselves for the holiday (Advent and Lent), newcomers are more likely to begin their attendance on the holiday and the weeks following.  Rather than the "low Sunday" mindset for the week following a holiday, the church needs to be ready to offer a journey using the holiday as the springboard.
  4. Folks will come to your church and stay because there is something beyond an initial welcome.  New folks may enter your church because of an invitation or some kind of advertisement, but they will stay because of relationships.  Are there groups or activities in which any newcomer can become active within a week or two of their first visit?  Or, do they have to wait several months before they can get involved?
  5. Folks will come to your church to hear your clear answers for the crucial questions of life, today.  In over 25 years of pastoral ministry, I've never had one person enter the church with a pressing need to know the difference between Proto-, Deutero-, and Trito-Isaiah.  Nearly all, however, enter our churches with questions about meaning, significance, suffering, and self-worth.  For these, the message of Deutero-Isaiah is far more important than why s/he's "deutero-."  Scott observes that long established members stay out of loyalty, but not new members; and, that, more and more, this is not true of long established folks either.
  6. Folks who come to your church will tell you what their most pressing spiritual needs are, if you listen.  Our churches must be safe places in which there is both authenticity and acceptance; where it is safe to ask questions and disagree without condemnation.
I'm sure none of these six surprise you.  But, once in awhile, it is very helpful for us to be reminded of the basics.  Thanks, Scott, for sharing these recently...and, I hope my few commentaries align with your observations.  If you'd like to read more of these Stirrings written by Scott Hibben and others in Iowa, you can find them here. 



  1. As always your articles are right on. I think my DMin project is going to be about the losses we suffer in Alaska of frequently moving laity and clergy.

    Can't wait to get home on Saturday. Love you.

  2. Good word, Jon. I was thinking (deep spiritual thoughts) while reading that if you had three dogs, Proto, Deutero and Trito would be good names for them.