It’s no secret that most churches in America are declining, yet some churches thrive. Why? What are they doing that others could learn from? I visited four churches defying the statistics and thriving in the midst of decline.

In all four churches, I experienced; generous hospitality from parking lot greeters to coffee bars; a casual, informal atmosphere; stimulating worship services with engaging music and challenging messages; numerous service opportunities either within the community or worldwide.

But there was “something” else… Each church possessed “something” that had nothing to do with size but everything to do with attitude. Thinking back, I regularly witness this “something” in many vital churches. This “something” was emphasized during announcements and even during the message. One pastor devoted the entire worship service to this “something:” How the church was spiritually deepened and his family strengthened.

I saw this “something” in action as I drove into a church parking lot, The attendants were standing in a circle praying. One saw my headlights on and came over to inquire. Then he walked with me to the entrance, sharing how much his church meant, especially the mens group he belonged to.

In Atlanta, a couple sitting beside us talked of a daughter moving to our area. They attended both churches we were visiting and loved the pastors but it was a Bible study group that really strengthened their faith.

A woman in the “Welcome” area was friendly and knowledgeable about church activities. She shared how her life changed through a divorce care group. That group became her family when she needed them. She described her church as “a home for the hurt and hurting.”

A video at one worship service interviewed a police officer and his family becoming part of a neighborhood group. Later that year on a routine traffic stop, he was shot seven times. Members of their group were at the hospital and their house within minutes. For over a year, they provided meals, child-care, chores and loads of prayer and encouragement.

What is the “something” that vital churches seem to have in abundance?

The “something” is a passionate realization and belief that everyone from deeply committed members to brand new attenders need to pursue a “next step” in their faith journey with God. And… these churches have a carefully designed and repeatedly emphasized process that only begins with worship and leads to various “next steps” such as a Bible study, a, small group experience or a mission outreach.

This “next step” in our spiritual development is needed whether we’re new to the faith or been connected to the church all our lives. Thriving churches recognize the need for “next steps”, plan for “next step” opportunities and consistently include “next step” opportunities in worship and in announcements so that everyone believes in “next steps” talks about “next steps” and faithfully pursue “next steps” in their faith journey.

For one church “next steps” meant: “Connect: Being a part of community is an essential part of following Jesus.” Another proclaimed: “Circles are better than rows: Sustained life change happens best in the context of community.” What mattered was for everyone to passionately believe that taking the “next step” is crucial.

“Next step” opportunities tended to fall in four general areas:

* Teaching – Bible Studies, Curriculum Studies, New Member or New Christian

* Neighborhood or community – often meeting in homes, using materials provided by the church

* Need based – Cancer, Divorce, Grief, New Mothers, Addictions, Exercise, Job Transition

* Missional – Literacy, Food, Clothing, Construction or Maintenance, Car Repair, Local and Worldwide

The mission statement for the United Methodist Church is: Making Disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Making Disciples starts with first learning to be a disciple yourself. Learning how to be a disciple is taking the “next step.” Becoming more involved in the transformation of the world is about disciples taking the next step toward service.

A church should provide an atmosphere of encouragement and love for you to improve your relationship with God as you strive to become a Disciple for Jesus Christ. Lovett Weems writes: “The church is to connect people with God.” Jesus said in response to a question: What is the greatest commandment?, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being and with all your mind.”

Learning to love the Lord with all your heart, with all your being and with all your mind is about “next steps.”

A church should help you discover your unique gifts and talents and use them toward a ministry of serving and transforming the world. Lovett Weems calls this: “To connect the church with the community.” Jesus said, “And the second is like it; You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Working to be involved in the transformation of the world is about “next steps.”

What is the “next step” in your faith journey? Is your church providing help? What potential “next step” opportunities are there for others within your church, new to your church or live in your community?

Jesus said: “Love he Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being and with all your mind. And You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Visiting four churches taught me the value of being aware of and continually providing opportunities for “next steps.”

Do you have questions about the Christian faith? Are you a new Christian? Have you been attending church for years and asking: “What’s next?” Are you looking to deepen your faith? Do you feel called to be involved in meaningful community service and outreach? Are you in career transition? Are you going through a separation or divorce?

Thriving churches provide “next step” opportunities to help you find answers and deepen your faith journey.