How do you grow a liberal church? Quick, tell me. I pastor one!
Lawrence Park Community Church (LPCC) was founded in the dying months of the second world war. It started as a pure community church, but decided it wanted a denominational home. The Anglicans said that that if LPCC joined, they would have to amalgamate with a local Anglican congregation. The United Church, on the other hand, was much more lenient, and let the young congregation stick together on their own. So LPCC joined the United Church. And it grew. With strong leadership, and in an era when to be Canadian was to join a mainline protestant church, a large part of the affluent neighborhood LPCC was built in was soon sitting in the sanctuary every Sunday. Hundreds of people.
LPCC’s programs were numerous. The music program was wonderful. The pastor was beloved. Money was never a problem. After some time, however, the number of programs declined. The music program remained wonderful, but its traditional tunes appealed to a smaller and smaller demographic. The founding pastor retired and every pastor who followed was seen as a transitional pastor (and, members now joke, will remain so until everyone who remembers the founding pastor finally dies). The church endured some big conflicts around building programs, leadership, theology. The culture became more and more secular. Kids starting playing hockey, baseball and soccer on Sunday mornings. Membership declined. Thankfully, money never became a huge issue. Those who stayed on were and remain generous.
But there are many fewer of them now than in 1960. Maybe 125 or 140 on an average Sunday. Fewer in the summer and holidays. Many more during Advent, Christmas and Lent. Pretty typical. But LPCC would like to grow. So what now?
Growth and decline in mainline churches has actually been in the news lately. Some scholars, reports Maclean’s, suggest that it takes conservative theology to grow a mainline church. Others, in response, suggest that what’s missing in declining mainline churches is evangelism . To be honest, I’m really simplifying their arguments, which are from top to bottom, much more nuanced.
The thing is, I have no interest in following conservative theology, even if it correlates highly with church growth. Having grown up in a conservative denomination, and after I became a well-known leader in that denomination, I changed my mind. It was a life-changing decision after a very difficult and heart-rending process. But I feel good about it, now. So going back to conservative for the sake of church growth would be like selling my soul. I don’t think that even conservative pastors would recommend that I do that!
So my church wants to grow, and I don’t want to adopt a “strict,” approach to church that seems to correlate with growth (though I note that correlation isn’t the same as causation). What will it take?
I’m guessing any growing church needs at least a majority of the following qualities—perhaps more:
ONE: Heartfelt vision or values or mission or whatever you call it. To grow, everyone in church will have to understand what their church is all about and embrace it both at home and in the sanctuary. At LPCC we’re working on that, right now, with a council led, congregation-soon-to-be-involved strategic initiatives process. I know how I’d like it turn out. I think, in their hearts, members know how it will turn out. But we’ll see. The main thing is, we have to own it.
TWO: A focus. Not quite the same. While setting up her psychotherapy practice, my wife turned up research that suggested a focus on one specialty would be more successful than a generalist focus. This is so because such focus helps drive the therapist’s expertise, and because it is easier to explain (sell, market) a specialty to others. My wife liked this, because she wanted to do Couples Therapy. That singular focus has been good for her practice, Couples In Step. Churches need a similar focus on the right programming that fits their vision.
THREE: Marketing. Congregational Members have to share the good news about what is happening at LPCC with everyone who matters to them if the congregation is going to grow. The second article, referenced above, is a good place to start thinking about this sort of “evangelism.” Successful church marketing campaigns need things like fliers, newspaper ads, webpages, emails—but the key is real buzz that starts in the pews and is as unstoppable as a tide or sunrise. What I mean, I guess, is that marketing isn’t going to work if the people already in the pews are not sold on what is already happening.
FOUR: The right preacher. We’ve all had experience of standing at a grocery store checkout line where the clerk didn’t seem to know how to do his or her job with speed, or politeness, or accuracy. And we’ve all had the experience of bringing a car in for repair, and then having to bring it in a second or third time. Not everyone hired to do a job is suited for it. Sometimes they can move to another department. Sometimes not. It can be difficult.
However, we have all had similar experiences when it comes to church. Few guests will make an effort to go to a new church a second time if they were not moved by the minister’s message, leadership and demeanor the first time. This is a very sticky and difficult issue. As ministers we are pretty defensive, even if we know in our hearts that we’re not all as equally qualified or able. As congregational members, we hardly know where to begin if we’re not being moved by the preaching but love the community.
Still, the truth is, a growing church very likely has a highly competent, emotionally smart, excellent communicator in the pulpit. Being outgoing and charismatic helps too. Look at growing conservative churches—along with their strictness, you’ll usually find just this sort of pastor. I’m threatened by this reality, but dare not shy away from the challenge.
FIVE: The right lay leadership. Every church needs leaders and volunteers who love the church, who are not set in their ways and willing to be convinced by new ideas. They take risks and roll up their sleeves when something new needs to be tried. Churches need leaders who are trusted by the membership, who don’t shy away from conflicts and who know how to lead councils and church staffs through tough discussions.
SIX: Quality music. In a big city like Toronto there is an audience for every genre of music: classical, rock, folk, ska . . . it doesn’t matter. Churches should specialize here (see 2, above), and do whatever they do with panache. If you have multiple services, you should do a different genre at each service to extend your range. But always offer high quality because our culture is immersed in music like never before, and individuals generally don’t respond well to jarring notes.
SEVEN: A willingness to continue trying things, even after initial disappointments. When you try a new recipe, sometimes it disappoints you. So you don’t use it again. But you don’t then starve; you try something else. Taking programming, staffing, music risks—always measured—is necessary for any church to grow. But when a risk fails, don’t starve yourself by never taking another! Instead, smile and try something else.
EIGHT: No Guilt. At our church, the marketing materials say things like, “Not Married? Living Together? Welcome!” When people who don’t come very often do, and apologize for being away, I tell them, “When you’re here, we’re glad; when you’re not, we bless you.” I try, as much as possible, not to use the pulpit to wag my finger at the congregation for not giving enough or not being engaged enough on my favorite social issues.
Ultimately, yes, there are things people should feel guilty about. But it isn’t the minister’s job to name these things and then flail people with them. Conservatives guilt people into insecurity that the church manipulates (scholars call it the strictness hypothesis). I want to challenge people to be who they dream of being.
NINE: Joy. The flip side of “no guilt,” has to be joy. The minister has to model it, the leadership has to embrace it, the staff has to revel in it. If people are not happy in church, they are not going to come. Period. Party! Eat! Dance! Do Tai Chi! Succeed at outreach social justice projects. Drink wine. Whatever it takes, enjoy your time together. While long-term love, care and support for all members can keep a church strong for generations, it is joy that will spark growth, because visitors will see this first. The rest of it comes through experience.
TEN: There’s more. Great worship space. Good nursery. Lots of parking. Dedicated youth and children programs. Multi-generational worship. Web presence. Great technology. You can’t do church today without most of these things, unless not doing them is (somehow) part of your unique brand or approach. But what I’m really interested in is what other features you expect to see in a growing liberal church. Besides liberal theology, that is!