April 6, 2013

Mostly Dead Is Still Alive!

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 8:50 pm

The setting of this week’s Gospel reading sounds like many of the meetings I’ve attended lately: A small band of deeply committed, faithful disciples trying to figure out what to do when things seem to be falling apart. Too often their numbers are both dwindling and aging, energy is flagging, buildings need attention, and changes in their surrounding communities have left them wondering where mission and ministry fit in the grand scheme of things.

A few weeks ago at the Northeast Ecumenical Stewardship Council’s biennial conference, the keynote speaker made a point that speaks deeply to this scenario: You can’t die twice.[i] It doesn’t matter if the things you try don’t bring the results you planned—at least you tried something. And if each effort to engage congregational growth and development reaches a few new people, energy will accumulate and new life will become greater than the sum of its parts.

So how do we live into the miracle of a church that’s only mostly dead?[ii]

First, think like a church planter. If your community did not have an Episcopal presence, if you were starting from scratch to bring the message of the Gospel and the life of the Baptismal Covenant into a place, what would you need? You would need a place to gather, a core group of people, and a clergy presence, right? Chances are pretty good that those are exactly the things that a declining already has.

Second, get to know your community—not the community that’s always been, but the community as it is today. Find out “who” is in the area, learn about their lives and their needs. Getting to know people, statistically[iii] and personally is a big effort—and a worthwhile investment. I once worshiped in a place where the entire town, not just the streets surrounding the church, is dead quiet on Sunday morning. The only cars on the roads were the ones going to church. But I happened to be in that neighborhood on a weekday afternoon and it was a completely different place—kids on bikes, people in yards, all sorts of life. How might this congregation learn from that? How might an adjustment in worship time (or even day) be life-giving to both the congregation and its neighbors?

Third, introduce your “new” church to the world! Our usual ways of “getting out there” are still important; don’t abandon anything that works well for you. But also consider some new ways of being in fellowship with those around you—remember, most Seekers don’t know they are seeking.

Here are two practical ideas that any congregation can easily engage:

Facebook: Here is a great article from Miguel Angel Escobar offering some very practical insights into how simple changes can make a Facebook presence significantly more effective.

This article came to me just weeks after I had asked a vestry that was concerned about congregational growth whether they were using Facebook as a tool. They reacted with curiosity and skepticism: Why do churches have Facebook pages? What do they get out of the effort?

A quick survey revealed that only three or four of the members had Facebook accounts, and only one person used it regularly. They also assumed that they were probably representative of the congregation as a whole in their (lack of ) enthusiasm.

Then I asked another question: Facebook is not the culture of this group; it’s not the culture of the congregation; but is it the culture of those you are trying to reach?

…and that’s when “the light-bulb face” did the wave around the room.

Twitter: I don’t tweet. In fact, I only turn my phone on when I want to order pizza. But anyone with internet access can tweet.

So what does Twitter have to do with congregational growth? Check this out:

  1. Go to!/search-advanced.
  2. Type “please pray” into the first box labeled “All of these words.”
  3. Under the “Places” option, type the zip code of your church or the communities in which you minister
  4. Click the search button at the bottom.

The results that come up will include every tweet that includes the words “please pray” within the designated zip code from up to seven days prior. Now all you have to do is read through them and reply “St. Swithin’s is praying for you. 123 Rural Road; Services 8 & 10 Sunday. FMI or pastoral care, 555-5555.”

That doesn’t even come close to the 140-character max for a Twitter message, but think about the power it could have in the life of someone who is putting him or herself “out there” with a need for prayer.

I tested this from my laptop and the results were great! It would be a wonderful ministry for anyone who uses the internet regularly, yet struggles to get to meetings or make specific time commitments. My husband, for example, has taken on this ministry for our congregation because he travels frequently on business; this is a way that he can reach out in the name of the church from airports, hotels, wherever he happens to be. When Robert discussed this ministry with the gentleman who coordinates Prayers of the People, he replied, “I’ve never heard of Twitter but I’m happy to pray for anyone; just send me a list on Saturday mornings and we’ll include them.”

How generous. How simple. How baptismal.

Here’s the bottom line: We know from a variety of data and media sources that about 50% of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual.” In the area where I live, about 18% of adults say that their faith is important to them, while 15% agree that it is important to attend religious services. But only about 11% of adults living in the Northeast report that they attend church regularly. This tells me that there’s some pretty low-hanging fruit if 4% of our community populations are inclined to worship but don’t and another 3% could be shown that church is worth a try.

Is reaching them also worth a try…or will we stay in the house with the doors locked, waiting for a miracle?

[i] Mike Piazza, Co-Executive Director, Center for Progressive Renewal.

[ii] Yes, that is a reference to The Princess Bride, a hymn to determination and perseverance if there ever was one.


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