In the beginning, Sam Walton acquired a small store in Arkansas and named it Walton’s 5 & 10. And Walton’s 5 & 10 begat WalMart, which, in a way, begat Amazon.
And shoppers throughout the land flocked to each new retail incarnation offering easier access to a greater array of products, while tens of thousands of small stores unable or unwilling to compete shriveled and many eventually died.
The same phenomenon is happening in U.S. congregations today.
People in the pew are increasingly choosing congregations that offer multiple worship services and an array of small groups and other programming that make faith compelling in their lives.
Many of the fastest-growing churches are even rapidly spreading out to offer multiple sites for geographic convenience and more opportunities to meet the individual needs of churchgoers in their neighborhoods.
The result is a period of what you might call increasing congregational inequality; just 7 percent of churches now attract about half of attenders, according to the 2012 National Congregations Study.
That puts the majority of congregations at a crossroad today: They must adapt to a culture where churchgoing is increasingly more of a choice than an obligation, or face a future of sustained decline, sociologists of religion note.
Yet, many congregations have been reluctant to embrace any major changes in outreach to attract new members or retain younger generations.
Instead, they appear to be cutting back.
In analyzing Protestant church data from the 2005 to 2015 Faith Communities Today surveys, Hartford Seminary Dean Scott Thumma found:
• The percentage of churches offering multiple weekend services decreased from 55 percent in 2005 to 47 percent in 2010 to 41 percent in 2015.
One result: Continuing losses for many of the 93 percent of churches splitting the remaining 50 percent of worshippers.
Median weekend worship attendance overall decreased from 129 in 2005 to 80 in 2015, according to the Faith Communities Today Survey. The percentage of congregations with less than 100 attenders rose from 47 percent to 2005 to 58 percent in 2015.
Multi, multi, multi
The increasing demands of modern life, from never being disconnected from work to youth soccer tournaments on Sunday mornings, render the one-size-fits-all approach obsolete. No longer can congregations take for granted worship attendance and denominational loyalty, researchers state.
Congregations most likely to experience growth both in numbers and spiritual vitality today are those that can adapt to meet the needs of worshippers.
It could be as simple as adding a service on Saturday evening, offering both contemporary and traditional worship or having Bible study groups of people of similar age or gender where they feel heard and understood.
The research on the benefits of being open to change is compelling:
• Thirty-six percent of Protestant churches that have multiple services reported high levels of spiritual vitality; just 24 percent of churches with a single service said they were equally spiritually vital and alive.
Overall, strong, growing churches fast-track new people into meaningful ministry roles, create additional small group experiences, such as prayer or study groups, and use multiple ministry methods and strategies “all the time,” according to the U.S. Congregational Life Survey.
So why are so many congregations slow to embrace innovation?
Like many small businesses overwhelmed by superstores, the shrinking of the average congregation may often be as much a matter of a lack of will as a lack of opportunities, analysts note.
For example, survey respondents at 37 percent of Protestant megachurches strongly agreed their congregation was willing to change to meet new challenges, according to a 2015 study by Thumma and Warren Bird of Leadership Network.
In contrast, just 16 percent of respondents at smaller churches said their congregation had such a strong commitment to change.
So what can be done?
First, smaller churches should not be discouraged into inaction, state researchers such as Thumma, president of the Religious Research Association.
Larger churches have advantages. In general, they have more staff, larger budgets and a younger, more diverse membership that enables them to offer services geared to different age groups.
But congregations of all sizes can also make major changes, such as adding a contemporary service or a new program that would be attractive to people in their community.
For example, the 2005 Faith Communities Today survey found about a quarter of all multi-site churches were congregations with fewer than 100 attendees.
Another alternative is to build cooperative ministries with other churches.
Working with three or four other congregations can allow a cluster to offer contemporary worship and recruit enough people to fill up a teen program or a young adult ministry.
“The smaller you are the more creative you will have to be,” Thumma said in addressing pastors and scholars at the recent annual meeting of the Religious Research Association. “Given the trends of our culture, and the advantages of multiple services, styles and sites, it is something that every congregation should consider if it is at all possible.”
The alternative can be painful, analysts note.
Those churches that ask not how they best can serve the spiritual needs of people in their communities, but ask only how they can make their surviving members comfortable, are much more likely to find themselves in the same situation as many businesses who chose to ignore WalMart, and now Amazon.
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