It’s no secret that most churches in America are declining. Thom & Joani Schultz, authors of “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore” provide alarming statistics.
• Every year more than 4000 churches close. Every year approximately 1000 churches start. Of 350,000 churches across America, only some small and large are showing signs of growth.
• The percentage of congregations characterized by high spiritual vitality dropped from 43 percent in 2005 to 28 percent in 2010. In 2000 about a third of congregations exhibited excellent financial health but by 2010 that number plummeted to 14 percent.
• In a recent study the combined membership of protestant churches declined 9.5% while the US population increased by 11%.
• Church attendance is shrinking. While 40% of Americans say they attend church every week, the actual number is closer to 20%.
Yet some churches are thriving despite the gloomy numbers. What are they doing that I could learn from? Recently, I visited four churches defying the statistics and were thriving in the midst of decline. I have several successful churches among those I supervise but instead chose four that are not connected with me in order to see them as any other visitor coming for the first time.
Two of the churches are located where I live in Lynchburg, Virginia. I know and respect each of the senior pastors. Two churches are near Atlanta, Georgia. All four churches influenced me over the years with their creative ministry and leadership ideas.
Blue Ridge Community Church in Lynchburg, Pastor Woody Torrence, has over 2,000 people each week attending four services. Most of those attending are middle aged or young who either stopped attending church years ago or never attended. Their vision is to help people move closer to God. They were a small church that made a big decision in 1991. They changed their name to reflect a new location and radically modified their format to be more attractive to unchurched people. Now they are one of the larger churches in the area.
Tree of Life Ministries in Lynchburg, Pastor Mike Dodson also has over 2,000 people attending three weekly services. When you enter their building, the first thing you notice is hundreds of flags reflecting virtually every country around the world. The flags represent their desire to reach everyone with the Gospel. They hope to accomplish that mission by being creative, innovative and demonstrative in their method of delivering the Gospel message and helping everyone mature in their relationship with Jesus Christ.
Roswell United Methodist in Roswell, Georgia, Pastor Mike Long has just under two thousand people attending two weekly services. During the 1990’s, I learned about Roswell UMC because of their innovative ministry with Divorce Care Groups and Single Adults. In their welcome statement: “Every person is on some kind of journey in this life. Whether new to the community or new to God, join us as we journey together. Their vision is making disciples for Jesus Christ who invite, grow and serve together. “As disciples our goal is to walk in His Steps offering our prayers, presence, gifts and service.”
North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, Pastor Andy Stanley has over 30,000 people attending multiple services in many different locations. On the main campus I attended there were several thousand people crowded into two large amphitheaters. Their mission is about creating a church that unchurched people love to attend and to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. “We have created environments and experiences to help you grow as an individual and as families. We believe sustained life change happens best in the context of community.”
At all four churches I experienced…
• Generous hospitality from parking lot greeters to welcome stations to coffee bars.
• A casual, relaxed atmosphere that encouraged informality in dress and attitude.
• Stimulating worship services with engaging music and challenging messages.
• Numerous opportunities to be involved in helping others within the community or worldwide.
But there was “something” more…
Each of the churches possessed “something” that had nothing to do with size but everything to do with attitude. Thinking back, I regularly witness this “something” in many churches I already work with. I suspect that if I visited four other healthy churches, I would find this “something” there as well. This “something” has no denominational ties and is seldom taught as a class in seminary.
I saw “something” in the parking lot attendant who stepped away from his area to make sure my car lights would turn off, then walked with me to provide directions. There was the couple who sat beside us in worship. They had a daughter living in our area. Then unprompted, they shared how much the church meant. There was the woman at the ‘Welcome’ area who took extra time to provide information but then shared how her life changed. The “something” wasn’t noticeable at first but became more evident with each church visited.
This “something” is what I learned and hope to share with other churches. Next week, I will try to share this special “something” with you.