Archive for March, 2017


Stop Worrying About Worship Attendance-Thrive Instead!

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

For a long time, clergy have taken credit when attendance rose and felt guilty when it fell. Most people assume that the best measure of a congregation’s spiritual vitality is the headcount at weekly worship. But some congregations have begun to think beyond that metric and focus more broadly about how their ministry transforms lives. As a result, they’re finding new ways to think about worship, vitality and effectiveness.

What if worship attendance is no longer the best measure of the spiritual vitality of a congregation? What if it never was? Can a community that is declining in worship attendance still be a growing and thriving congregation?

Clearly, if worship attendance is declining along with every other benchmark indicator of health, a congregation is not doing well. However, some congregations are making the following observations: “Our budget is growing, our average pledge is increasing, membership is growing, and our programs are thriving. We haven’t lost members. People are simply worshiping with less frequency than they used to. How much of a problem is this? What kind of a problem is this?”

Stating the Problem

Let’s begin with the assumption that declining worship attendance is a problem. An adage by inventor and business leader Charles Kettering reminds us, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” The way we frame a problem either limits or empowers our diagnosis and idea generation. An effective problem statement follows several rules of thumb:

  • Avoid problem statements that are either too narrow or too broad. “People aren’t coming to worship as frequently as they used to” is a simple and direct statement, but it doesn’t indicate what’s wrong with low attendance. On the other hand, observing that “There is a 20% decrease in attendance among millennials who grew up in the church and claim to be believers,” may be too narrow to help frame a larger conversation about the health of our worshiping community.
  • Don’t create a problem statement that includes implied assumptions or solutions. “The problem is that we need to offer more worship options and venues.” Or, “The problem is that people today like more contemporary musical styles than we offer.” Each of these problem statements sends us chasing down rabbit holes before we fully understand the issues at hand.
  • Don’t confuse symptoms of a problem with the problem itself. Simply stating, “Worship attendance numbers are down 10% from the same time last year” describes a symptom, not a problem. What condition does declining attendance point towards?

There isn’t a universal problem statement that applies to all congregations struggling with declining worship attendance. The statement you frame must address the specific issues relevant in your context. One congregation framed its problem statement this way:

“We are a congregation with a reputation for excellence in traditional worship. Average worship attendance is down ten percent from last year. Some of the people who are no longer worshiping with us now attend neighboring congregations that offer contemporary expressions of worship.”

Discovering the Root Causes

Once we have crafted a problem statement we turn to examining the causes of the problem. We can’t craft solutions until we better understand what is driving behavior. It is too easy to blame trends in the larger culture and to identify possible causes outside our control. We need to dig deeper.

Declining attendance may be an indicator that something is wrong, or it may point to an emerging unmet need. It could be that worship feels less relevant to people, so they attend less. It could mean we are more mobile as a culture or that people have more options to be elsewhere Sunday mornings. It may be a sign of how pressured people’s lives feel. Does it mean our people are less committed to their faith or their congregation? Does it mean our spiritual vitality has decreased? We don’t know until we research and ask.

One congregation discovered that many of their young families were skipping worship because the Sunday morning experience at church separated family members. The adults stayed in worship while the children attended Young Church and Sunday school. Young families were staying at home to create much needed family time.

Once leaders understood this, they resourced young families with worship materials that could be used at home. Those gathered in communal worship prayed for those worshiping at home, and vice versa. The church also initiated a “children in church” service once each month. Families stayed together in church on those special Sundays.

Invention or Innovation?

Once the problem has been articulated and the root causes have been clarified, we are ready to move into the generation of possible solutions. A mistake that many leaders make at this stage is failing to differentiate between invention and innovation.

Innovation theorists Peter Denning and Robert Dunham define an invention as the creation of a new idea, artifact, process or method. We invent a new worship service with a different musical style. We add a worship service on an alternative day of the week. We channel new resources into technology.

Innovation, on the other hand, focuses on the adoption of new practices. Invention is important, but creating new ideas is fundamentally different from getting people to adopt them. If you want a new thing to succeed, you must focus time and attention on getting people to commit to the new practices.

In the church that provided resources to young families for worshiping at home, the educator on staff made home visits to help families access and use the resources. She asked participating families to evaluate the resources and collected stories of home worship to share with the congregation. All this helped with adoption of the invention.

Finding Better Metrics

Increasingly, congregations are finding new ways to tend the spiritual vitality of the congregation. These new practices may or may not impact weekly worship attendance. If we continue to place all our emphasis on counting bodies in the seats on Sunday morning, we’ll miss opportunities for innovation. If we evaluate our clergy leaders only or primarily on what happens inside the sanctuary, we’ll miss other measures of vitality.

The relationship between worship and vitality is complicated. There is certainly some correlation between the two, but we need to be careful not to presume causation. We need to foster innovation and encourage progress that may not reflect itself in who shows up to be counted.

This article was originally featured at congregationalconsulting.org on 3/20/2017.

Making Space for Middle Ground

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

We are a nation divided and those divisions are creeping into congregational life. It grows increasingly difficult to hold an ideological middle ground in politics, theology, or leadership. Pastors climb into pulpits fearful that a simple sermon topic will be interpreted as a political statement. Decision-making is heavy-laden with ideological spin, making it difficult to set a direction.

Polarization is the division that occurs when a complex community falsely divides itself into sharply contrasting groups. Opposing sets of opinions or beliefs are used to foster a we/they mentality that forces people to declare their “side.” We don’t have to accept polarity as the new status quo. There are specific things we can all do to encourage the re-emergence of a healthy middle ground.

Signs of Polarity

A healthy congregational hosts a broad spectrum of thought. Outliers with extreme viewpoints are regarded as quirky and perhaps even endearing. The presence of a strong middle ground means that no one is too far removed from another with a similar ideology. There is someone near me in perspective who connects me to others beyond my reach, thus bridging ideological gaps. The ideology of the next closest person is a comfort to me, and they stand between me and those I find too extreme.

When polarization happens, we lose the middle. Some of the people who represented a safe buffer between extremes move into the extremes. Others who stood at our ideological center grow alarmed by the polarization and step out or silence themselves. They become bystanders to the dialogue instead of participants in it and we lose our mediation zone. We/they thinking begins to emerge. We lose our ability to separate people and problems and “otherness” becomes the problem. We focus on personalities rather than issues. Reality gets distorted and exaggerated. We begin defending ideologies instead of seeing one another and working together to resolve our differences.

Ten Things You Can Do

Restoring an ideological middle ground is key to addressing polarization. Here are some simple (and not so simple) steps that leaders can take to foster the return of a healthy middle ground.

1. Stay spiritually grounded. It is critical to remain non-anxious and connected to your spiritual source. Fear, driven by the reactivity of the congregation, cannot be your guiding force. You must have a bedrock Source that guides your behavioral choices and your personal decision making.

2. Maintain a sense of humor.  Healthy leaders and organization can laugh at themselves. Humor disappears as an organization polarizes. Use humor appropriately and invite others not to take themselves too seriously.

3. Regulate your own responses. Be clear about your own feelings. Don’t let your personal emotions cloud your perceptions and opinions. Use “I” statements to clarify your feelings and to let others know how their behaviors impact you.

  “When you approach me at the end of the worship service with a critique of my sermon, I feel ambushed and disrespected. In that moment, I am trying to make connections with every member of the congregation. I can’t properly respond to your ideas in that setting, and your ideas aren’t yet fully formed. I would prefer to hear your ideas later in the week, after you have had a chance to think through your concerns and I have space to receive them.”

4. Focus your energy on health, not dysfunction. We are often tempted to focus our time and energy on people behaving badly, trying to cajole or force them into better behavior. People who are unwilling or unable to make good behavioral choices rarely respond well to pleas or coercive efforts.

Your time is better spent with the disengaged healthy bystanders, the people who say and do nothing because they don’t know what to do in the face of heated debate or bad behavior. Help the healthy people figure out an effective way to engage. Invite the healthy players to stay engaged with you on middle ground and ignore the dysfunction as much as possible.

5. Help people clarify needs, not positions. As polarization intensifies, people make statements that are positional and extreme. “If you preach one more sermon on that topic, I am out of here.”

When people take a positional stance, help deescalate their position by focusing on the underlying needs. “What is important to you in a sermon? What draws you to worship each week? What is important to you about your relationship with me as your pastor? How is the sermon topic that I choose related to those needs?”

6. Challenge behaviors and ideas, not motives or worth. It is easy to make assumptions about the motives behind positions, and to project clusters of other beliefs based on what we have heard. “If you believe this, then you must also stand for that.”  

In healthy organizations, people attribute good intent to one another. They don’t categorize and label one another. They ask for clarification of ideas and intent, and they give one another the benefit of the doubt until clarification is provided.

7. Paraphrase the idea of others before responding. When you hear an idea or accusation that alarms you, pause before responding. Commit to paraphrasing first what you heard from the other before weighing in with your own opinion or response. Ask the other if you have properly heard their idea before suggesting an alternative idea. Ask others to engage in this same practice.

8. Stay in your own skin. Do not speak on behalf of others. In a polarized community, people like to speak on behalf of the group they perceive as theirs.  “Others are saying…”  When people speak on behalf of another, simply remind them to speak their own truth.

9. Start with what is possible.  A return to healthy dialogue sometimes seems impossible. We can’t imagine a pathway forward that takes us from where we are to restored community. You don’t have to visualize the entire path towards restored health. Get people to commit to one small step together. Success with that one small step will begin to restore trust and will shine light on the next helpful step.

10. Pray for one another. It is impossible for a community that is praying for one another to stand in long term opposition to one another. A genuine stance of prayer invites empathy, compassion and reconciliation.

Our national discourse is not likely to calm down anytime soon. People will look to the church to provide respite from this turmoil.  People need the church to model a better way of living with diversity. Your leadership presence has never been more relevant. Ask others to commit to these ten behaviors with you so that church remains a haven, a place where differences are explored and celebrated.