Hope for the Struggling Congregation

Hope for the Struggling Congregation: Find a Promotional Niche and Scratch It!
By R. L. Perry


These days, when a family moves to a community or for whatever reason decides that they are interested in finding a place of worship and spiritual nurture, they will visit several congregations in their area. The idea of driving 15 minutes, or even 25 minutes, to find a congregation that offers what they are looking for is no discouragement whatsoever in their ultimate choice. If they have children, they want excellent programs and leadership for children. If they are empty nesters, they want full programs and possibilities for persons in their circumstance. If they are middle-class, they want the congregation to reflect the same comforts, conveniences, and decor they are accustomed to enjoying at home. In most cases, the smaller congregations they visit simply cannot exhibit the range and depth of offerings that the larger congregation can.

In my work as a church consultant, I have been in dozens of congregations in the past 15 years in which the average age of the typical Sunday morning congregation is at least 60. Many of the active and financially supportive members of these congregations are past 75 years of age. It does not require great wisdom or foresight to recognize that these congregations are in serious trouble.

Many fine communities of faith, with great heritages and resources, are struggling with changing communities and aging memberships at the dawn of the 21st century. The past 10 years have been especially difficult for communities of faith that have fewer than 300 members or Sunday morning attendance numbers of fewer than 150. These would be congregations generally classified as smaller and midsize. The same challenges are encountered whether the settings of these congregations are rural or urban. All are finding life increasingly difficult.

As much as we dislike the word competition used in the context of the reign of God, the fact is that we live in an environment where competition is a reality, even for souls enlisted in congregational involvement. There are many factors that make the challenges greater for midsize and smaller congregations in this postmodern age. I will only attempt to mention a few.

1. Cultural changes. The time in which we live is called postmodern, and some refer to it as post-Christian. This terminology is a way of observing that the prevailing culture no longer holds a mainline religious worldview. The United States, if it ever was properly called a Christian nation, can no longer be understood as a place where the cultural environment is strongly encouraging of those who regularly attend their church, synagogue, or mosque, and who try to live faithfully to their understanding of the will of God. A cursory review of the popular culture will confirm that what we watch on television, see at the movies, read in the magazines, and discuss at the office is much less “church friendly” than it was 20 years ago.

2. An aging congregational membership. As mentioned above, the typical smaller congregation is watching its core membership become elderly. The adults who were reached in the 1960s and `70s, the glory years for many mainstream Christian denominations, are now in their autumn years. They were the strength of small congregations for the last quarter of the 20th century, but now they are passing from the scene.

3. The emergence of the mega church as a national and international phenomenon. In most communities of any size these days, there is at least one congregation that has a regular attendance of over 500 persons. In many places, there are even larger mega churches within five miles of struggling smaller congregations, mega churches that may regularly have several thousand worshipers. These congregations usually have large ministry staffs, a broad range of programs and offerings, excellent age-level ministries, outstanding music, and the finest of facilities. The small and midsize congregations in the area simply cannot compete with the mega church in the scope and overall quality of the programs and ministries it is able to offer.

4. A “survival” mentality that sets in with the smaller congregation when it is in decline. When a congregation shifts from the pursuit of its God-given mission to an obsession with its own survival, it becomes something less than a church. It is altogether understandable that a congregation might feel hurt and at risk when it is rejected over and over by people who visit when they are looking for a new church. Let the driving passion for the church always be to serve and to give itself to the cause of reaching people with the message of God’s love. The drive to reach people simply so that they may become contributors to the survival of the institution is not an adequate or an effective motivation for congregation growth.

5. A resistance to change. One of the reasons smaller congregations are failing is not that they are small in number, but that they are small in their openness to following the movement of the Spirit of God. Our God is dynamic and creative. God is constantly doing new things and inspiring new life; therefore, the people of God have every reason to be about that appreciation of newness. New ideas, new methods, and new ministries can give vitality and excitement in the smaller congregation the same as they can in the larger one. In his study of the church, George Barna, a popular religious researcher and writer, discovered that “Christians and churches make two types of blunders when it comes to handling change: They refuse to change when change is called for, or they `change for the sake of change’ resulting in indefensible and inappropriate decisions.”‘

6. A lack of sensitivity to the people around them. Throughout the United States, there are congregations declining and losing vitality, yet there are people who are experiencing enormous pain and emptiness living within a few miles of the congregations. Smaller congregations are often the most compassionate when there is a death in the community or a house fire or a tragedy. But these same congregation members are strangely silent and inactive when a crying need exists for childcare for working single moms, or healthcare for the poor, or transportation for senior citizens, or tutoring for underprivileged children. Much of society has come to see the church as irrelevant, because they do not perceive that it is hearing the cries or seeing the need or caring about the pain of the world. Unchurched people often seem to be saying to us, “You don’t care about me; I don’t care about you.”

A very dire prediction of what lies ahead for traditional, mainline congregations is offered by author Mike Regele. Regele is the cofounder and president of Percept Group, Inc., an organization that provides demographic and marketing studies for interested congregations. In his book, ominously entitled Death of the Church, he says, “A decision is imminent, but it is only a decision about how the church will die. Death is inescapable. We cannot and will not avoid it. The institutional church will either choose to die or it will choose to die in order to live.” 2 Regele offers two possible futures for congregations. One is the slow, painful death of gradual decline due to resistance to change and creeping irrelevance. The other is the sacrificial, Christ-like death of giving up one’s life in order to know a new and more spiritually vital quality of existence.

It is this second kind of death that holds the hope for the future of congregations. It is not saying that everything must change or that all tradition and custom must be thrown out. It is, however, calling for a commitment to cultural relevance and relationship building that will allow churches to consider new paradigms of structure, method, and approach. The congregation must be open to reinventing itself. In circumstances where traditional methods are effective, they may be reaffirmed. But in situations where the methods of the past do not work, there must be a commitment to experimentation and innovation. As one wag has put it, “when the horse is dead, it is time to dismount.”

The Small Congregation: A Boutique Rather Than a “Mom and Pop”

Bob Dale, in his book Leadership for a Changing Church, makes the following statement about the different circumstances encountered by congregations in our time:

Years ago most local churches mirrored their community and ministered to a crossroads gathering point, a village or a neighborhood. From a marketing perspective, these congregations functioned like a family business in a mixed market. But times have changed. . . . The trend in marketing is moving from mass marketing to niche marketing.’

The challenges facing small and midsize congregations do have analogies in the secular world of business enterprise. Across the country, the proliferation of Wal-Mart, Kmart, and other similar discount stores offering nearly everything a shopper needs to buy with one-stop shopping, has led to the demise of the small, locally owned store dealing in hardware, sporting goods, toys, clothing, automotive supplies, or lawn and garden needs. Hundreds of communities have witnessed the closing of these smaller stores that could not compete with the high volume, discounted pricing, and high visibility of the larger store chains. It would lead one to conclude that bigger is always better, and is, in fact, the only way to survive.

But go down the street from Wal-Mart or Kmart to the new mall that was built within the last five years. What do you find lining the walkways of the mall? Small stores—and hundreds of them. They are highly specialized, very narrow in scope, and clearly identified with a particular product. There are stores like “Things Remembered” or “Now ‘n’ Then” that sell things that can be engraved. There are even smaller stores that are dotted throughout the mall in gazebos. These portable stores may be selling only watches, only cell phones, only knives and swords, or only neckties. So while mom-and-pop stores are going the way of the dinosaur, other small, specialized retail operations are making money and growing.

What makes the difference? What is unique and significant about these boutique operations? Obviously, they are very focused on doing one thing. They do not expect to sell to everyone entering the mall. They have in mind the specific customer who has an interest in buying a watch or a tie or a bonsai tree on this trip to the store. The customer may enter the mall with the purchase in mind, or be vulnerable to impulse buying. The specialty stores have a very clear sense of what they offer, who their customer is, and how to best meet the customer for a quick transaction. They tend to be efficient, and they count on the networking benefit of being in proximity to other stores that are viewed as complementary to their offerings rather than directly competitive. The mall boutiques tend to be more upscale, so their market niche may include persons who are more interested in convenience and quality than in the lowest price in town.

These boutique stores appear not only in malls, but in renovated downtown areas and in the city-center developments that are showing up across the country. Their success gives some clues to how small and midsize congregations can flourish in this new world, but even more significantly, their success gives hope to smaller congregations. Indeed, one of the saddest realities about the mindset of smaller congregations is that they often have been beaten down by years of perceiving that they were failing, while other congregations around them were succeeding. Hope for a meaningful future becomes a viable possibility. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” That reassurance of God’s help and good intentions for God’s people reminds us that we need never abandon hope for accomplishing those things that are within God’s purposes for us. Certainly if small businesses, small stores, and small service organizations can prosper in our culture, then small and midsize congregations can as well. If these congregations have a strong sense of their purpose within God’s redemptive enterprise, if they are willing to learn their strengths and the needs of their community, and if they are sensitive to the leadership of the Spirit of God, they can find ways to fulfill their highest and noblest calling.

The Small and Midsize Congregation: Building on Strength

There has been an ongoing debate among church growth experts about whether plateaued and declining congregations should build on their strengths or concentrate on correcting their glaring weaknesses. If asked, “Should my congregations build on its strengths or find and correct its weaknesses?” the best answer is yes. It would be unwise to follow either approach to the neglect of the other. Congregations should certainly know, value, and continue to take advantage of their unique strengths, resources, and possibilities. But congregations must also give attention to the wide gaps that may exist in their congregational life. The besetting weakness may overwhelm all of the good that could be done by majoring on strengths. Conversely, the congregation can spend too much time bemoaning and trying to cover its weaknesses, and in so doing neglect the very qualities that make it desirable and effective.

Lyle Schaller is one of America’s best known and most influential church consultants, and he is the author of more than 40 books on congregational effectiveness. In an article in Net Results magazine entitled “Responding to the Competition,” Schaller offers three basic suggestions for congregations wishing to assess their growth potential:

1. Study the Competition! Schaller suggests that congregation leaders visit other congregations to discover what they are doing that is working.

2. Engage in ‘Self-Appraisal. Congregations should look at who they have been successful in reaching, what methods have worked well for them and how they can expand those efforts.

3. Increase the Entry Points. In order to increase the effectiveness of outreach, congregations should attempt to create more and better ways of building relationships and receiving new people.

As a congregation attempts to discover how it can best address opportunities for increased ministry in its area, one of the first questions to ask itself is, “What do we do well?” The appeal for new people to become involved can best be based on letting guests see the unique strengths and best qualities the congregation has to offer.

Applying Marketing: Principles to Congregational Growth

The term used in marketing circles for identifying and focusing efforts on specific segments of the population is market segmentation or niche marketing. This approach holds possibilities for congregations. For many years, Schaller has been speaking and writing about the need for congregations to utilize a planning method which he has called market-driven planning.

George Barna has said, “The church of the future must be a community of faith that facilitates highly personalized and focused ministry.” In his book, The Second Coming of the Church, B area states, “Most churches contend that they must have something for everyone. We have come to believe that every church must take care of every need of every person who might ever have any interaction with the organization.”5 Schaller and Barna and many others are telling us that congregations must sharpen their focus and become clearer about the unique ministries they can offer to address the unique needs that exist in their area.

This utilization of the best principles of secular marketing in the outreach and enlistment efforts of the congregation holds the promise of making a significant difference in the future of many congregations. For small and midsize congregations, this approach may provide the best hope for life and effectiveness in the 21st century. These ideas, however, are not just useful to small and midsize congregations. Large congregations as well can open new markets, reach new people, and become even more effective by giving attention to the lessons to be learned from secular marketing disciplines. Every congregation that is motivated to grow will be interested in identifying its niches and developing better ways of relating to those people who have been neglected and ignored by faith communities in their area. Your congregation can find a niche and scratch it.

This article “Hope for the Struggling Congregation” written by R. L. Perry is excerpted from the book Find a Promotional Niche and Scratch it.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”