The business of church statistics and research seems to be expanding in recent years. Apparently, churches and denominations are willing to spend an increasing share of their budget money to find a way to increase their attendance and subsequently their budget from contributions in the collection plate. Many of the posts show up on social media, linked by friends of mine who are pastors or denominational staffers trying to make a point. There are a few who are able to crunch theoretical numbers and write articles to convince us that what is a genuine drop off in the attendance and membership of Protestant and now Evangelical Christian churches isn’t really a drop off, just a shift in the way we look at statistics. Others are pretty honest in identifying the problem, but not very Biblical in providing a solution. And that’s at least part of what I believe is one of the root causes of the problem in the first place.
A church may be able to grow numerically by employing some principles of modern American corporate business. But that’s not going to generate evangelistic, “Kingdom growth.” For that, you need to turn to the Bible.
In 2010, my wife and I relocated because of a job offer I received. We were both raised in Southern Baptist churches but this job involved working for an institution that belonged to a different denomination and while they didn’t require us to join one of their churches, the area where we moved did not offer the kinds of church choices that we experienced in the South. In fact, there was only one SBC church in the county where we moved and it wasn’t geographically situated in a place that made it possible for us to consider regular membership. What we prayed for was that God would lead us to a church where our spiritual gifts would be needed and used.
The first church we visited identified itself as a “community church” by name. It was what I would call a fairly typical non-denominational, Evangelical church. I noticed, to my wife’s amusement, that they borrowed heavily from Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area. Well, I’d been to a couple of their small-group conferences and recognized some of the “branding” concepts. The pastor was a “series preacher,” each series was 12 sermons in length, each organized around a specific theme. On Sunday morning, the ushers, church staff and the pastor were all wearing yellow T-shirts with the sermon series logo and title on the front, and there was a stage setting on the platform that had a backdrop with props that matched the logo and color theme. There was video equipment to record each sermon (not the worship beforehand, though) and in the foyer, there was a counter where you could sign up for a series of church events, and purchase the video from the previous week. You could also buy the study guide.
The building was mostly sanctuary and offices, the auditorium doubled as a fellowship hall and the few classrooms were for preschoolers and the nursery. The Bible teaching ministry took place during the week in small groups in homes. The one we went to had about 20 adults present. There was a 20 minute video of the pastor, in his theme “T”, elaborating on a couple of the points of his sermon. There was about a 20 minute question and answer time. The group leader played the video of the pastor asking a question then paused, There was some discussion and a couple of people answered, then the video came back on and the pastor told us the correct answer to the question. Refreshments were served afterward. Oh, the group leader also wore the yellow theme t-shirt.
Think that’s branding overdone? Think again. That’s a pretty common experience for most Evangelical Christians who attend a mega-church, or even a mid-sized non-denominational church like this one. Satellite churches are also becoming more common and not just multiple locations of a local church. We visited one during this same period of time when, following the worship time, a large screen dropped down during the “prayer time” and we watched a satellite feed of the pastor preaching at a different location. We were in Pennsylvania. He was in Georgia. And I understand that people in half a dozen different states were tuned in at the same time. That’s where the collection was sent.
That kind of “branding” does attract people. Mostly, it attracts people who are looking for a church that will serve them, help them meet their needs with some inspiration and motivation on Sunday, provide something for their children to do and maybe get them marginally involved in a weeknight group around coffee and sandwiches and a twenty minute mid-week motivational boost video. From what can be observed by the statisticians and researchers, it is attracting a lot of marginal members out of existing churches into the larger ones, because a larger gathering produces a large enough offering to pay for the smorgasbord of services provided to keep the people who have been attracted to the church. It’s designed to appeal to people who are already familiar with church and who are attracted to all of the offerings of a big church. All they experience in their smaller congregation are persistent requests to serve and an amateur praise band made up of volunteers, or perhaps just a piano and an organ and a “song director.”
Church growth by evangelism takes a little more than theme t-shirts, a flashy stage setting with appropriate lighting and a paid praise team. It takes looking into the scripture to become familiar with the message of salvation, become familiar with things like the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin and how to be supportive and be used by God to “draw the net” when someone falls under it. It requires making and building relationships with people who aren’t in your Tuesday night Bible study-Pastor video watching group and maintaining those relationships whether you get a response or not. It requires understanding and patience instead of judgement and condemnation. It requires a regular prayer life, a connection to the Holy Spirit, and growing in knowledge and wisdom from continuous study of the scripture. It requires you to let God be God and take the lead and sensitivity to know when to follow.
I grew up in a small Southern Baptist church in a small town in Arizona. The church was formed in 1954 when a nearby military base was re-activated and a group of people transplanted by job or military service from somewhere in the South and another group from Texas who moved when a natural gas compressor plant opened up, started a Baptist church there. It’s never been a congregation of more than 120 people, though through outreach and evangelism it has become less made up of transplanted southerners and more reflective of the local population which, typical of a growing community in Arizona, is from everywhere. Their “branding” is typical Baptist church of the 70’s. The worship music is led by a 70 year old lady with an absolutely beautiful voice accompanied by a piano and organ. They have upgraded the sanctuary since I was in the youth group, replacing metal folding chairs with second-hand pews purchased from another church somewhere, carpeted the tile floor and the platform and replaced the baptistery curtains, though the painting of a creek flowing down from the mountains by a local artist is still there. They sing hymns and a couple of choruses. They pass a plate and take an offering. There is a choir special before the sermon. The last time I was there for a service, there were 12 people in the choir and about 100 in the congregation. They had Sunday School classes “for all ages” at 9:45 a.m. They baptized five people in this service, all adults. According to their annual profile, their membership is 221 and they baptized 20 people last year.
Collectively, if you did the research, you’d find that most of the evangelism taking place across the spectrum of Evangelical Christianity in this country is happening in churches that are branded just like this one.