I've had a somewhat rare opportunity for a young person such as myself. I've helped start two churches. Both had much in common. Both were very different. Because of this, I often reflect on what it is that draws people in to a church. If you've never started a church before, you won't realize the ridiculous amount of work, effort, and energy that goes into moving people into a building. And no, it's not for the mere idea of having a big church; it's about evangelism and sustainability.
First, though, a note: though "house churches" have garnered more of a following in the past years, it is difficult for them to support full-time ministers. I actually think that house churches are great ideas, but I don't necessarily think they're going to negate the idea of large church communities that make huge impacts on the community and world around them. I think that in many ways house churches can be connected to larger organizations to help shape more and better disciples.
Because I do a lot of contemplation about this, I thought I'd begin to compile a list of what it is that makes a church "successful". I choose not, at this time, to define "success" except to say that growth, outreach, and mission, in my mind, are necessities. This list isn't built off of what the churches I have been involved with have done well, nor are they based on what the churches didn't do as well. Admittedly, there is a bit of both in the points below. However, there are also some observations that I've made from other churches I've visited as well. Also, this list isn't complete (could it ever really be complete?). I invite you to join in with your additions and thoughts in the comments.
Things that I think churches (especially church-plants) ought to strive for:
- A welcoming, inviting atmosphere
- I often tell people that I can tell whether I want to be a part of a community or not within the first minute and a half. It has nothing to do with how the parking situation is, although churches that have weird parking situations and manage it well stand out. It has nothing to do with the worship space. It has to do with whether or not I feel welcome.
- Within that minute and a half, you must be greeted. You must be welcomed. You must be spoken to. Hopefully, they'll hook you up with a nametag.
- I think we've all experienced that awkward moment when there is someone new in the middle of a room of old and everyone kind of wonders who will make the first move. We ought to be clear on this: that shouldn't ever be the case in our churches. We are all guilty of it on one level or another.
- This is a perfect time to help a new person easily get acquainted with the way the time of worship (or whatever stands in its place) will run. In 2011, like it or not, comfort is an important thing for potential church goers. Make someone feel out of place, they're not likely to return. (Please spare me the "but church should be a time of stretching, molding, and challenge" arguments. They're not relevant to new comers.)
- A simplistic, well organized, thoughtful, meaningful time of worship
- Some churches use pre-composed liturgy. Some create a new order of worship every week. Some do a little bit of both. Whatever the case, the order of worship should make sense (which means that if you are straying from lectionary readings, etc...be sure to make sure that the order of worship fits the theme, texts, and MAKES LOGICAL SENSE).
- It should be abundantly clear that I glean this from an Apple-centric way of viewing the world. Apple has had huge success by having all of their business moves seem to at least appear simplistic. Logic, too, is key.
- Transitions are key in a worship service, I think. (Please spare me the "church services shouldn't be produced" arguments.) In 2011, "dead time" means "awkwardness." THIS IS DIFFERENT THAN SILENCE. Silence can be very, very good. But when leadership doesn't know what's going on, it's not meaningful silence. It's distracting.
- I don't always buy that the music should be split up because standing for long periods of time is painful, but I'm often wrong. There are many options available to the planners so that you don't have to sing seven songs in a row. Whatever you plan though, have a plan. When you half-ass it, you aren't fooling anybody.
- A solid community
- Some churches are huge. Some are small. Contrary to popular belief, it does not matter about size as much as it matters about community. Many, many churches that are huge in numbers have strong communities within themselves and everyone feels like they're a part of something. (Think of it like attending a large public University, most students need to find SOMETHING to belong to). Many many small churches speak negatively about each other behind others' backs. When people visit the church, they want to feel like people know each other, but they aren't clique-y.
- Prayer requests, etc are awesome opportunities, I think, for the community to be solidified. People like knowing what's weighing on one another's hearts and they are, many times, more likely to lift it up in worship than mention it as an aside within another conversation.
- Don't rush other things. Allow those who wish to talk and catch up with one another to do just that. Fellowship is extremely important in the growth of a church.
- Inspiring, creative leadership
- Hitler was a bad man. But, in a very strict and technical sense, he was good at his job. Barack Obama was good at campaigning. Jesus was good at his job. Osama bin Laden was good at his job. Steve Jobs is good at his job. Walt Disney was good at his job.
- Some of these were good for the world. Others weren't. All of them were inspiring leaders. They were all, also, well-spoken charismatic speakers. People want to follow that...like it or not.
- We all know when someone is and isn't an inspiring leader. Being charismatic and inspiring isn't always a recipe for success, but it certainly helps. When people are feeling down or tired, they need a pick-me-up. When people are doing well, they need affirmation. This is reality, and it's a reality for churches.
- Creativity is key. Being stuck in a rut is not suitable for relevant ministry and it sometimes takes a little moving and shaking to get things done. This often takes place in today's churches within technological creativity. This is mostly good, but it doesn't have to be done in this way. Be creative in all aspects of your leadership. If it still makes some sort of clear, directional, logical sense, it's probably ok.
- This also includes being a good manager of people and staff.
- I waver back and forth on whether or not I agree with the "Pastor as CEO" model. More times than not, though, I come back to it. Pastors have to be honest with staff members who aren't cutting it. Pastors have to be honest in each and every situation. I truly believe that if the staff is dysfunctional, it will become apparent to new-comers to the church far faster than you would have hoped.
- This leadership (in all aspects of the church) has to truly care for people.
- Some of the biggest time-taker-uppers for pastors are hospital visits, funerals, weddings, and counseling. If you've ever experienced even a hint of any of them, you'll quickly realize that they're all blessings in their own unique ways. However, when a pastor doesn't truly care for or about people in tough or difficult situations, it's evident to everyone. It's truly a calling and, I think, a necessity.
There are many, many more. I think, though, that this is a decent start. There are some obvious omissions and I am sure that you'll disagree with some of what I said.
Here shall be my challenge to you: submit your feedback (both more suggestions and corrections) to me through the comments below. I'd like to make this a working list. I'll update the post (and mark it, giving credit to the authors) with additions that I think are fruitful.
The Church will only change if we change it. I believe that the Church has been ordained to change the world.