Friday, October 7, 2011

The "Attractiveness" Factor in Church Growth

In working with a number of churches, and observing my current church assignment, one persistent question has been that of "Why doesn't my church grow?" And, I am talking about visible, sustainable, numerical growth. Let's assume that many of the assumed church growth methods of multiplication have been attempted and used. While many would say this is a gratuitous assumption, I have experienced churches who could indeed say, "Yes, we have tried this and that, but to no avail." Many of these places have good-hearted, Christ-centered, well-intentioned and motivated people who have read and re-read books, articles and internet advice from sites such as those provided by Willow Creek and Rick Warren, to name only two. Many have held sustained prayer meetings and vigils, conducted prayer walks and overall satisfied the "spiritualist" counselor who would advise, "Just pray more." Many have worked at making their facilities and staffing top-notch, engaged at community initiatives and did what their mega-church counterparts have done, but only to result in little to no numerical growth.

So, what's the problem? I would boil it down to in-house attractiveness. Attractiveness is not a function of p;rogramming, of vigorous outreach events and initiatives, of well-qualified evangelistic staff. Attractiveness is a function of the church community. Not every church community attracts people seeking God or seeking a church home. And, I am not referring to dead-end places or churches so polarizingly narrow that people avoid like a plague. A church community can exude attractiveness or exclusiveness. Not that they are trying to be exclusive or to themselves. They simply exude an air, an atmosphere of "you are welcome to attend but beyond that, we don't know." Or, "yes, we want you here, so long as you can find a place to fit in." Or, "we will help you become like one of us."

Attractiveness is the quality of aggressive awareness of the new person with an attitude and atmosphere of, "we really want you here and to stay with us." It is an unspoken, unuttered quality of acceptance, of comfortableness with someone we don't know, of ease of integration into the church body. It is not that attractiveness is easier for larger congregations, or that they have a corner on it. They have learned as a church body how to exude attractiveness. They do it almost not thinking about themselves or their programming or opportunities. Smaller churches who are plateaued or even shrinking, not due to strife or factionalism or lack of dedication and zeal, have to really work on being attractive. It is like a large family adopting new family members. It is the single-cell becoming comfortable with a multi-cell life and experience. It is learning that diversity is good and healthy and desirable. Newcomers become "comfortable" in this kind of environment and want to stay.

Attractiveness is hard to teach and model. Many church health and growth people would say that leaders and key people of un-attractive churches need to visit "attractive" churches and learn from them. That is easier to say than to do. You cannot duplicate that church community or atmosphere and make it your own. You cannot import that atmosphere to your atmosphere. You cannot give five simple rules or a relationship equation that will work. So, what do churches that find themselves un-attractive do?

First, get rid of easy answers and formulas. They don't work. Don't expect an outsider to solve your insider problems. Don't expect another church model to work for you. Too many leaders and pastors I know have been "burned" by the latest-greatest church examples or models. Second, ask God what level of attractiveness He wants for your church. This statement is anathema to many church health experts, but I have found it biblical and true. Not every church is meant to be a Jerusalem or Antioch. There are small house churches and large megachurches. Both can be attractive. The smaller house-sized church has defined itself differently than the large megachurch. Third, look at the kind of people your church has attracted throughout its history. Work with that. While some churches can expand beyond their homogeneous character, many cannot. High brow Presbyterians cannot suddenly become low-brow churches filled with people from the projects. That is not a slam against my high-brow friends. Their identification-atmosphere is different than a lower, middle-class atmosphere.

People will disagree with this latter observation and try to make the case that all churches must be equally diverse, multi-faceted and heterogeneous. I have yet to see that work on a broad scale. Some have achieved this, but only some. A fourth factor will be to understand your attractiveness level. Many churches simply cannot, without major disruption and a major in-house cultural change, become all things to all people. Attractiveness level limits the size and scope of adherents. What is your level?

This is a blog. I would expect people who read it to disagree. Cool. Write on.