Out in the parking lot (October 2016)

You’ve heard the old saying that numbers aren’t everything. That’s true – numbers don’t always reflect love and commitment, prayer and spiritual strength. But numbers can help us to focus and re-direct our effort sometimes.

It’s a commonplace observation that churches in America are declining. Actually, that’s not 100% true. Most people still believe in God. Many people still identify themselves as Christians. There are plenty of people who are seeking for a vital and satisfying religious group to belong to.

Church membership matters less to people than it did 2 or 3 generations ago. For many people, it was a matter of pride to be able to say that they were active members of a recognized church or denomination. That kind of loyalty has been declining for quite a while. Many people see little or no difference between the churches, and many people shop around or “church hop” looking for something better.

The cost of belonging to a denomination has driven many churches to “go independent” or become community churches. Denominations across the country (not just Friends) have been under enormous financial stress in the last 40 years.

Older folks at Springfield look back to the days when the worship room was packed on Sunday mornings – if you didn’t get here early the ushers would have to shoehorn you into any available seat! What’s happened since the days of the Baby Boom?

For one thing, families are smaller than they used to be. Families with 1 or 2 kids are “normal” now, where families with 3 used to be “average” and having 4 or 5 kids wasn’t unusual.

Another thing that’s happened is that people move away. Springfield used to be a “neighborhood church”, with strong ties to the local elementary school. As the community has changed, many people have moved to new neighborhoods or built homes out in the county.

Even more important, young people move away. In the past, more young people stayed in the community where they grew up. Now, most young adults move to other parts of the country to find work. Few stay in the church where they grew up.

One of the biggest secrets is that church attendance has become a lot less regular. There is so much pressure on the rest of the week, and there are so many demands in 2-career households, that Sunday is no longer devoted to church and family.

Here at Springfield Friends, by my careful estimate, only about two dozen people show up every week. Another 40 or so come to meeting 2-3 times a month. These “core” and “highly dependable” groups are the ones who provide all of our Sunday School teachers, most of our committee members and meeting leaders, and probably the majority of our funding.

Another 30-40 people show up about once a month. These folks consider themselves to be active and involved, but they may have extra responsibilities with home, work or kids which keep them from coming more to worship more often.

A fourth group of about 30 people only show up 3-4 times a year. These folks love Springfield, and boost our attendance at Christmas and Easter, but we are missing the best of their strength and attention.

Atheism isn’t on the rise in America today – a huge part of what’s happened at Springfield, and which is happening all over the country, is that people just aren’t coming to worship as often. When people who came every week cut back to coming just 2-3 times a month, overall attendance automatically drops by 25%. When people come only 1-2 times a month, it goes down by 50%.

I don’t think that scolding people about not coming to church works very well. Please just remember that we need you – we need your ideas, we need your voices, we need your energy and your physical presence, we need your financial contribution. This is the #1 way you can help our meeting to grow!

We do whatever we can to encourage people to come on Sunday and provide an extra reason to be here – music by the choir, special music by popular singers in the meeting, series of worship messages from a book of the Bible or on a particular topic.

Springfield is a strong congregation! Most church leaders would lie down in traffic for what we have – 100+ households who consider this place their spiritual home, a lot of proud traditions, buildings in good shape, dozens of times every year for food and fellowship, ministries in the community, a small but active youth program, people who love and respect each other – there are just so many great things about Springfield Friends!

We do need more people! There are just so many more things which come alive in a congregation like Springfield when we have another 15-20 more people coming regularly.

I always tell the meetings I serve that it’s a balance. We always lose a few people every year who move away or graduate and move on. And sadly, we always lose a few who have passed away. We usually gain a couple of children by birth, and hopefully we gain two or three new households. If we can only have a net gain of 4-5 people every year for 5 years, that’s a 20% growth spurt!

The other thing I tell every meeting I serve is that in study after study, 90% of people who join a church, come because somebody they knew asked them. I have seen endless campaigns, gimmicks, billboards and mailings, but the overwhelming majority of people come because they were personally invited. Plus, people who come have been invited an average of seven times.

Most people – in any church, not just our meeting – don’t feel really attached to the entire congregation. Instead, they form bonds with a smaller group of some kind. It can be a class, a volunteer group putting on a meal or doing a project, a committee, an informal circle of close friends, a prayer group, or a Bible study.

Springfield has some very strong small groups with years of friendship and support behind them – the choir, several of the Sunday School classes, the Mission Circle, and folks who went to youth programs together. These groups are the backbone of our meeting.

Unfortunately, it can be hard in any church for newcomers to break into some of these groups, and groups which have served their own members for many years may not be flexible enough to deal with changing needs and conditions.

Most church leaders agree that a healthy church needs to start new groups rather than trying to change old ones. It’s not that the old groups or classes are bad or have done anything wrong. It’s just a whole lot easier for people to join a new group than an old one. Old groups help provide strength and stability; new groups help us to grow.

So, do you have an idea for a new group of some kind? Are you hungry to hang out with people who share your interests? Want to organize a new service project? You don’t need permission to get started. We’ll be glad to give you all the help we can!

– Josh Brown

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