Looking for my first call to be a pastor, I decided to check out the numbers in my area of responsibility at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Minneapolis. I know, I know, numbers don’t tell the complete story, but they do say something.
In five years, Children’s Ministries grew in leaps and bounds. The Sunday School tripled its roster and Vacation Bible School doubled in participation. Several people have asked me what’s the reasons behind the success, so here are my thoughts in a particular order:
God’s story. Everything we know, do, and love in ministry should start with God’s story. It’s God’s story that is with the people, between the distances, and connects the generations. What we do is about keeping the main thing, the main thing.
One Message. If God’s story is the main thing, then we narrowed the focus. So instead of 4 readings on a Sunday morning, we use one story to create one message that permeates the building on a Sunday morning. Whatever text is preached in worship that is the story used in education, Bible study, and Sunday School. People linger over coffee to talk about the story! Kids and parents create a more nuanced story in the car ride home. It’s the best family ministry tool I know!
Silo Smasher. Church growth is not based on the work of one person. It’s a collaborative effort! But most often church workers feel comfortable and protected in their silo of ministry. Working collaboratively means smashing the silos, taking risks, and trusting your colleagues and key leaders. It’s hard intentional work to create something new – together. Here are a couple of examples: Maundy Thursday, All Ages Sunday School, or Cross+Gen Stewardship.
Communication. Six times. People need to hear and read information six times before they remember it. If that is true, the communications person might be the most important staffer! Of course, email, the website, and mailers are crucial ways in sharing “what’s up” at church. But here are a few other things that “speak” the message:
- There is power in a postcard! There are two zip codes that border Good Shepherd. Invitation via postcard to major events, Rally Day, or Christmas services is any easy way for people to remember what’s coming up. I call them “Fridge notes!”
- Church signs – Electric! Electric signs can share revolving information such as service times and ministry opportunities.
- Buildings speak! Churches are known for holding onto things that later lead to clutter. Before Christmas and Easter, clean up. Get rid of stacks of paper, have windows sparkling, and vacuum up the dust bunnies!
- Visitor follow up. Whatever information we receive from visitors, we follow up. Sometimes it is just an email or note. But if visitors leave an address, Good Shepherd has a cookie ministry that visits them. Yum, because everyone loves cookies!
Seven Minutes. I cannot remember where I read this, but it takes 7 minutes for a visitor to make a decision to return to a church or not. From the time their feet hit the parking lot, every minute counts. The other day, I met someone who told me the most exciting thing happening at their church this summer was repaving the parking lot. My response was that parking lot ministry is really important as that is the first place a visitor experiences the church. How we meet, greet and care for the visitor in the first seven minutes – matters.
Up to this point, most of these anecdotes are staff or key volunteer led. But I think the real reason for church growth is because of people being able to answer the question, “Why church?”
Why go to church? It’s important for church leadership to understand why people choose to go to church. Ask any millennial involved in a congregation and s/he will probably say church is all about community. Older generations go out of duty, obligation, or routine – you’ve heard the words before, “It’s what we have always done!” Parents often tell me they come because they want their kids to grow up in faith. That makes then anecdote one – keeping the main thing, the main thing – the most important thing churches can do.
We know things like the average church-goer attends worship 1-2 Sundays a month. Most interaction people have with the Bible is with the 10 minute sermon. There are lots of questions about the Old Testament and how it connects to Jesus. It became obvious that people long to know how this ancient text is relevant and meaningful for daily life. So we decided that people needed to spend time in worship and education learning God’s story. Here are the steps we took:
- We moved to the Narrative Lectionary – it works like the scope and sequence of Sunday School! This created a narrative order in understanding how the Bible stories are connected.
- We created space for people to share their stories in storytime and during sermons. Sunday becomes then the place to practice faith and to be ready to share it come Monday.
- We practiced articulating why God’s story mattered to life at retreats, in Sunday School, and in confirmation.
- We helped children learn to lead different parts of worship.
- We found ways to help people easily invite their families, friends, and neighbors to church.
…and guess what? It is working.
IMO, this is how church growth happens. It all starts with God’s story working in us. Knowing it. Practicing it. Daring to tell it.
Good Shepherd people are what I call…Storytellers of the faith.