But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into
Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is
equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in
--Ephesians 4:15-16 NRSV
What brings a new person to church?
It’s a tough question to answer, because in most churches like PHCC, the members have been a part of the church so long they barely remember what originally made them visit. In conversations I’ve had with PHCC folks, many people cite two factors: invitation from friends and family or looking for a Disciples church when they relocated nearby. As denominations decline (unfortunately the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ is not immune to this decline), fewer people than ever look at a church’s denomination. What hasn’t changed, however is the influence of family and friends.
I recall one church member telling me they came to PHCC, because they worked at TWA with a church member who regularly shared what PHCC meant to them. When that coworker decided to look for a church, they remembered the good things the church member had said. The lesson: church members who share with others about what their church means to them attract new members. If church folks aren’t saying good things about their churches, then something is amiss.
Throughout my career I have heard from older members who are retired and who’s social circles have shrunk, “All my friends have their own churches.” That may be true, but the other people in your lives may not have a faith community. Your beautician, barber, repair man, the staff at your retirement community, house cleaner and so on, presuming one actually speaks with them, may need a church. As you share about yourself and your life with others, what do you tell them about what your church means to you? If you don’t share that, why not?
It remains true that your next pastor will have a lot to do with whether or not PHCC attracts new members, but speaking as a minister, I’m convinced pastors have far less influence on new members than people think. I believe church members whose lives are enriched by being a part of a church will naturally share that experience with others. That sharing will be the most important factor in whether or not new people come to PHCC. The most charismatic and dynamic pastor in the world cannot attract and keep new people at a church if the congregation is not genuinely alive in a spiritual sense.
Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life (the best polling out there on religion) did a study in 2018 which showed the top things people are looking for in a new church:
82% good quality sermons
79% feeling welcomed by leaders
74% style of worship
56% education for children
48% having friends or family in the congregation
42% availability of opportunities to volunteer
25% other factors
This polling doesn’t quite match my experience in church’s like PHCC. Yes, people want a good sermon. There are few occasions anymore where people actually sit and listen to someone talking for 15 minutes or more, so the preaching had better be good. That being said, I’m convinced that’s not why people come back to church for a second visit, at least not the kind of people who actually get involved in community. I’ve had people attend worship in the churches I’ve served largely because they like my sermons, but few, if any, of them got involved in the church much less became members. I think what matters most of all as to whether people will show up at church and keep showing up is whether they feel welcome and included.
Think about it, most long-term members at PHCC have been through a number of ministers with mixed experiences. But what has kept people involved in the life of the church are the relationships. Connections with other members are the biggest reason people stay in a church. From my experience in ministry, a good preacher may get someone in the door, but even the best preachers can’t keep people from going out the back door and never coming back. Relationships are what build a church.
I realize I have not experienced PHCC in its “normal” form. The pandemic has severely limited what we can do together. I’m not sure what the future looks like for PHCC or any other church after the pandemic, but I am sure that two things will still matter most of all for the future health of the congregation: a membership that naturally shares about what their church means to them with others and a membership that builds relationships through small groups, volunteering and social gatherings. In the future, how these connections happen may change—for example more may happen online, but those connections must happen if a church is to grow. Of course, a qualified and talented pastor matters for the vitality of this church, but even the best minister cannot attract new members when the members who are already there do not experience spiritual transformation.
In my career, as the minister I’ve been expected to be a sort of savior for declining churches, as if I had a box of magic tricks that would automatically bring new people to the church. I’ve tried a lot of things with churches—marketing and advertising, online outreach, ministry in the community and more. While all of those things are important, the success of each of them depended on what the church was already doing and who the church already was. I can look back and see how we spent a lot of energy on my part and that of key leaders, along with a lot of money, and I now know that every effort’s success depended on the spiritual health of the congregation.
Churches without members dedicated to growing spiritually in their own lives are not going to grow as a faith community. Churches without strong relationships among its members are not going to attract new people. A new pastor matters, but not as much as church members themselves.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851