Recently, the Pew Research Center released an update to an ongoing study of religious identification and engagement among Americans. The results should sound familiar at this point: an increase in the number of people identifying as unaffiliated with any particular religion, increasingly infrequent church attendance, and declining religiosity among younger generations.
Data like this should be cause for concern. But there is a larger story that we miss if we just focus on those facts.
In my travels across the country speaking and meeting with parish leaders, I have found time and again that many churches are geared towards insiders. Music that is stuck in the particular decade preferred by a majority of current attendees, preaching that is tone-deaf and only confirms the opinions of the congregation, and programming dominated by the social interests of insiders are just a few examples. All this is done with the positive intention of keeping afloat and, in some cases, in spite of a lack of resources and support.
The data underscores that this strategy just isn’t working. The churched are no more engaged now than they were a decade ago and, meanwhile, the population considering themselves unchurched has continued to rise astronomically.
Is there another way?
There are parishes that are growing because their communities are growing. They’re growing automatically, despite national trends, lucky them. But then there are others who, against all odds, are intentionally growing.
They’re growing not because they are watering down the Gospel, pandering to a majority, or merely entertaining the masses. Neither are they leading the charge to an idealized version of the past. Instead, these churches focus on one important project: reaching the unchurched and making them disciples.
Here’s the basic question that changes everything in parish culture: Are you a church that wants to reach the unchurched? In view of your current music, message, ministries, programs, and services, can you honestly answer “yes”?
- Are current parishioners encouraged to look beyond their own preferences to what might be attractive to the unchurched?
- Are they equipped to invite the unchurched?
- Are first-time guests prioritized? In what ways?
- Are they greeted? If they chose to identify themselves as newcomers, how can they do that?
- Is the language used at your church accessible to outsiders?
- Do you include printed or projected responses and lyrics to make it easy for them to follow along with your service?
- Are first-time guests pressured to participate in ways that are uncomfortable to them?
- Do you welcome new guests from the Altar?
Decline isn’t inevitable. The data shows that “unaffiliated” doesn’t necessarily mean hostile to religion. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the unaffiliated believe in a higher power of some kind, even if it is not the God described in the Bible. If we prioritize introducing them to the living Lord by being a church they actually want to attend, we can reverse trends and start growing.