An Introduction from “Penguins in the Pews”
In a study published in Nature, scientists showed that over the past 50 years the numbers of emperor penguins in Antarctica have dropped by more than 50 percent. The problem: The current climate cannot support penguin populations, and emperor penguins in particular are having trouble adapting to the change.
Eight thousand miles to the north, a similar problem is devastating populations of Protestants where, over the past 50 years, membership in most mainline churches has dropped by more than half. The problem: like their penguin cousins, the current climate in most churches does not offer a compelling reason to belong, and members are having trouble adapting to the change.
Members realize that something must be done. When nearly 200,000 members from over 1,300 churches were asked where they would like the church to invest additional energy, they prioritized “develop a comprehensive plan to reach new members” as the first or second priority 92% of the time. With an average age over 53 years, the members of the typical mainline church are significantly older than the general population. Conscious of the demographic hole for younger cohorts in their congregations, 72% of churches ranked “make necessary changes to reach families with children and youth” as first or second as well.
The concern for numeric growth is undoubtedly a response to nearly 50 years of membership decline in mainline denominational churches. A review of the last ten years of data from the churches in the Holy Cow! Consulting database reveals that this decline continues, and is universal across all denominations. (See Figure 1)
Figure 1 Decline in Attendance Universal for Mainline Churches
Congregational leaders are looking for resources that can help them address these priorities. When 20,000 leaders were asked where they wanted their middle judicatory to invest additional energy, “equipping leaders to reach new members” was the first or second priority 100% of the time. Given the opportunity, it is reasonable to assume that leaders would prioritize services from church consultants in a similar order.
Over the years, leaders have adopted a number of different perspectives on this decline as they guide churches.
In some quarters, it has been treated as a non-issue. From this perspective, churches are called to be faithful. Numeric growth or decline is in God’s hands. The advantage of this approach is that it frees leaders from the complexities involved in making new disciples and allows them to focus solely on issues bubbling up in the corporate consciousness.
A related approach has been to treat numeric decline as beneficial. The thought here is that many persons who joined the church in the 50’s and 60’s were members in name only. Their departure from the church has left a core of more committed members who can now be about a ministry unhampered by the inertia of half-heartedness.
A third approach has been to treat numeric growth as a bi-product of church vitality. If a church is healthy, it will automatically grow. If a church is not growing, it is a sign that something is internally amiss. This approach allows members to simply focus on the health of the church with the assumption that numeric growth will follow.
A fourth approach has been to engage the issue of church growth directly through programs that have a proven track record in other faith communities. What one church can do, another can do. The advantage of this approach is that it offers clarity through a set of programmatic blueprints.
An alternative approach is what I call an intelligent system growth strategy. In contrast to the perspectives above it is built on four core affirmations.
- Church growth is the result of a core commitment to making disciples, whether understood as individual salvation or incorporation into a soul-saving community.
- Church growth is ecological in nature. An unhealthy church environment tends to foster a decline in numbers rather than growth. The churches that are losing members at the fastest rates are those that are the least healthy.
- Church growth occurs when strategies are employed that are tailored to a particular context. Programs adopted from other churches without consideration of climate and culture will generally fail.
- Church growth strategies benefit from organizational intelligence, made possible by information technology, which provides valuable insights that can clarify factors that impede or enhance church growth.
I will say more about what I mean by an intelligent system in the next chapter.
This book is written for leaders at every level.
This book is for church leaders serving on planning teams of various kinds, most of whom serve churches with members who indicate that reaching new people is their highest priority.
This book is for the regional association leaders, conferences, dioceses, synods, presbyteries, and districts who are being asked by local leaders to make “equipping leaders to reach new members” their highest priority.
This book is for professional church consultants who shoulder the responsibility of guiding churches in directions that are both faithful and fruitful.
Much of this book is built on the approach detailed in the book Owl Sight: Evidence-Based Discernment and the Promise of Organizational Intelligence. Readers will find Owl Sight to be a helpful preface to this one.
 Crabtree, J. Russell, Owl Sight, Evidence-Based Discernment and the Promise of Organizational Intelligence for Ministry, Magi Press, 2012