"And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you'll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ's love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3: 17-19)
You don't need a ton of proof to know that more and more churches are struggling to survive. It seems churches that are in this predicament have one of two options: revive or die. There are a lot of books, seminars, and workshops given on how to go about reviving a church. However, there is not one cookie cutter, full-proof, and effective strategy in reviving a church. Having said that, it doesn't mean that it is impossible. There are many examples of struggling churches that have successfully revived the congregation, increased the health of the church, and expanded their ministry.
Now, before you go and buy another book, or attend another conference, or start selling off your pews for coffee tables and chairs, let me make a few suggestions. These suggestions are for the people in the church because you are the church. Pastors come and go, but it is the congregants, parishioners, and members that make up the identity, flavor, and, ultimately, affect the future direction of a congregation.
1. Who are you? Figure out who you are as a congregation. As Rick Warren once said, "You will attract who you are, not who you want." There is some truth to this and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Visitors can tell if a church is not being authentic to who they really are. When I first started at my church, my job description focused heavily on attracting the growing population of young Chinese-American families in the neighborhood. The problem was that the make-up of the church was the exact opposite. Furthermore, the suggestions being made to attract such folk were evidence that this wasn't being authentic to who we were. One thought was that by hiring me, an Asian-American woman, these families would feel more comfortable and accepted at church. It wasn't until someone pointed out that I was Korean and not Chinese that there was willingness to abandon this direction and start all over.
2. Pick the right leader: Knowing who you are as a church and what the current needs of the congregation are is vital to searching and choosing the right leader and pastor. If your church is in conflict, it is wise to choose someone who has skills in conflict management. If you are at a loss for future direction, it is important to choose someone who can guide you in that process. If you are a church that is grieving, it is wise to choose a pastor who can provide stability. I have witnessed many churches who choose a leader based on what they want and not on what they need -- maybe the new pastor reminded the parishioners of the previous, most-beloved pastor in physique and looks, but lacked the same temperament and leadership style, or a small church of 50 relishing in their heyday of 500 choosing a pastor who is rooted in all the high church rituals.
3. Follow the leader: A good leader needs a good follower. In fact, it doesn't matter how good the leader is if there are no followers. There may be times when parishioners are uncomfortable with some of the new changes in worship, ministry, or vision, but at some point there needs to be a step of faith, trust, and willingness to allow the pastor and the leadership of the church to actually lead the church in a future direction. If I think back on my eight years at my church and all the changes that have happened, we wouldn't be where we are today without some faithful, trusting, and committed followers who trusted my suggestions and decisions even when they didn't fully comprehend what was going on. However, without them, we wouldn't have 85 children in a church size of 120.
4. Everything is outreach: Five years ago, my church developed a strategy on how we would engage in outreach and evangelism in our neighborhood and community. What we concluded was that everything we do is about reaching out to our community in the hopes to make a connection with them. This meant being intentional about providing a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere for members and visitors to feel at home within the church and out in the community. This perspective changed the way we worshiped, how we gathered, and planned programs and activities. It even changed the way we made coffee. No one wants to drink bad, watered-down coffee. The simplest changes can have the greatest impact on how those in the community feel welcomed in your church. If you recite prayers or creeds in your service, consider printing the words in the bulletin and reading it rather than reciting them from memory so that those who don't know them won't feel excluded. If your coffee and fellowship hour is located in a room far off, consider relocating to a more accessible and inviting area. We used to hold our coffee and fellowship hour in a room located in the back of the sanctuary. We realized that for newcomers the location could be intimidating and therefore not many stayed after worship to mingle. We moved it near the entrance of the church so that as people walked out, they could easily grab something to eat and meet someone new.
5. Keeping a pulse on the congregation: Every member should be engaged in participation of some kind when it comes to carrying out the mission of the church. There should be a variety of entry points for people to participate in, ranging from easier ones like signing up to pass out the worship bulletin on a Sunday morning to more committed involvement like running the weekly food pantry program. This means that leaders of the church need to keep their pulse on the congregation. What are the interests, needs, desires, and challenges? Sometimes, it takes creative thinking on how to get people involved. In a casual conversation after worship, a member told me that she wished there was a Sunday School for preschoolers. The next month, we ran a pilot program with the assurance that the parents would volunteer to teach. It was a big hit.
6. Prepare for the future: Every structure should creatively facilitate and reiterate outreach. Effective outreach and evangelism doesn't happen unless the structure of the church supports outreach efforts. We changed not only the way our elders and deacons functioned, but even how they met. Less time is spent on doing business and more time is spent on actual dreaming, planning, and implementing outreach efforts. Outreach efforts should prepare the way for the direction of the church. For example, if you want to attract more families, consider providing a nursery and paying for childcare providers. Don't wait to see if there is a need. Instead, anticipate what might make visiting families feel more welcomed.
7. Partner up: Everything you do should be interconnected and communicated. Effective ministry doesn't happen in isolation, but in collaboration. Our elders and deacons are divided into four different teams that focus on stewardship, mission, fellowship, and worship. All these teams collaborate with each other and share ideas with each other. For example, the missions team is planning an event to bring awareness to our weekly food pantry. One of the ideas is to encourage families to live on a food stamped budget for one week. The stewardship team is looking at ways to encourage folks to donate what they would have spent on groceries that week towards the program. The fellowship team is planning on hosting a potluck that features budget friendly recipes for families to use during that week. And the worship team is looking at incorporating interactive prayer stations around the theme of hunger.
Collaboration also needs to happen outside your church. Recently, a planning team I was on gathered 22 Presbyterian churches in San Francisco to brainstorm ways that we can partner with one another. Many of the churches are struggling and have different challenges. Questions we pondered were 1) What is our collective calling that Christ is calling us to? 2) How do we live into that call? 3) How do we support each other and work together so that we are living out Christ's call?
8. Be thou my vision: Everything done should be visibly clear and understood by the entire congregation. When asking a random church member, they should be able to say in a few short sentences what the mission of the church is, and it should be visibly obvious and evident. For a small congregation like mine, it is clear that we focus a lot of our efforts on the kids, the music, and our weekly food pantry program. When people tithe, they know what and why they are contributing.
A vision of the church should be something that the church can live into. It doesn't necessarily have to be all figured out, but it must be flexible enough so that how it is lived out can adapt and change with the changing needs of the community. When my church developed a strategy plan on how we were to live out the vision of the church, the strategy wasn't about what we were going to do, but how we were going to go about doing things. I can sum up the strategy in three words: welcome, nurture, and commit. Everything we do must first be from the perspective of hospitality, then how we nurture spiritual growth, and then our willingness to commit.
9. Move from revival to relevance: Having suggested 1 to 8, here is the kicker. As a church, it isn't about reviving or redeveloping a dying or struggling church. It's about being relevant in one's community -- visibly living out Christ's presence in your neighborhood. Moving from the mindset of revival to relevance is vital to determining the future of the church. Revival can put the congregation's focus inward to think about what to do to increase membership, increase tithes, and build the church back up to where it used to be. Relevance is about figuring out the current identity and gifts of the church now and matching that with the needs of the community. Relevance is not about survival, but about recognizing no matter the size of your congregation, Christ is calling you to use your gifts in a particular way for a particular reason. Sometimes, this does lead to a revival of the church in energy, in numbers, and in significance. Sometimes, it means recognizing that the ministry of the church exists beyond the actual existence of your congregation. Maybe it is time to bless other ministries or new church developments with your church building or financial assets. Maybe it is time for the legacy of your church to live on through the ministry of another. Being relevant causes us to not be selfish about what we want, but to also look at what Christ is calling us to do in ways we never could imagine possible.
10. Pray! Lastly, be in prayer. It may seem obvious, but in order to discern the direction where Christ is calling, a faith community needs to be in constant prayer for guidance, strength, and faith.
It isn't easy being a part of a church that is struggling for whatever reason, but there are unique gifts that a struggling church can offer. It just takes a willingness to step out into the unknown, a commitment to change, and an acceptance to give up the things that may be holding your congregation back from doing something only God knows.
Theresa Cho is a Reno, Nevada native who graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago with awards in preaching and theology. She blogs at Still Waters.