Monday, August 22, 2016

Coming Home: Reflections on a Church Building

On March 22, 2016, our sanctuary was destroyed in a three-alarm fire.  The rest of the building was infiltrated by smoke or flooded by the tons of water poured in by firefighters to keep the fire from spreading. Over 35,000 s.f of space needed new carpets, ceiling tiles, sheet rock, paint, drapes, blinds, etc.  Our previous sanctuary was thought by many to be beautiful and historic, and housed the largest pipe organ in the county.

The fire happened on the Tuesday of Holy Week.  Our Easter services were moved to the Bergen Performing Arts Center, the only available facility that could hold the 500+ we expected for Easter worship.  For the next 18 weeks we were hosted primarily by the Dwight-Englewood School, a private school with which we have historic ties, and Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue.  (A little piece of history, when Temple Sinai was founded , their first High Holy Days services were held in our building.)

Now we've moved back "home" - to Elmore Hall (named after a former pastor).  It used to be our gymnasium, but we completely renovated it into a worship space for 200.  I love it.  A new sound system, A/V capability, even an electronic organ.

But here are two simple things I've learned:

1.  The depth of a person's connection to the people and the Christ-centered mission of the church was largely negatively correlated with the emotional devastation they expressed about the loss of the building.

This may be counter-intuitive to you, but I'm proud of this.  The leadership quickly pulled together and said, "what next?"  Our "every-week" crowd just kept coming, wherever we were.  At the same time, I received messages from people talking about how they cried when they heard about the fire, how much the building meant to them - and in some cases, I had never even met these people in my 11-year tenure at this church!  Note the phrasing they would use: how much the building meant to them.  I learned that indeed there are people who are connected to the church, and there are people who are connected to the building.

Our leaders, our long-time members, our most dedicated volunteers - they just kept plugging away at being the church.  That doesn't mean they weren't sad about the building, but they understood that the church is people serving Christ together.  I was recently invited to speak at Temple Sinai at their Tisha B'av service (a memorial day on the Jewish calendar that marks the destruction of the Temple).  When I made the point about this negative correlation of involvement to sadness, the rabbi asked if any of my members who were present agreed.  One woman - a senior citizen who has been a member since the 1950s - said, "You know, after the fire, I had wondered if I should have been sadder, because I was disappointed, but I wasn't that sad."  For her and for others like her, the church owned a building, but it wasn't the building.

2.  This doesn't mean that a building isn't important to ministry

There is a significance, however, to having a permanent place.  On our second Sunday back, we had an adult baptism of a person who had worshiped with us for some time, but decided after the fire that it was time to make a public profession of faith and be baptized.  Our third Sunday back we had an infant baptism.  In these past two weeks, two more families decided it was time to have their babies baptized and asked to schedule them.  It doesn't matter to them whether we are in a Gothic sanctuary or a cinderblock gymnasium.  What matters is that we are home.  And home is where the people are, where Christ is worshiped and glorified, but it's also a place.

So it seems that the clear lesson is simple: a church is people united in Christ, and the work of the church is facilitated by a church building - as long as we remember that it is a building, and not the building.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Invisible Members

Most churches think about their worshipers as falling into two main categories: active members and visitors.  The "active member" is someone they count on to attend at least 45 times per year, pledge, serve on a committee.  The "visitor" is the person who has attended one, two, or maybe three times - after which churches pretty much expect that they will decide to stick around or not.

But the new reality is that the average family - especially one with children - attends church 20-30 times per year.  To them, that's plenty frequent.  It's a lot more than most of their friends.  It represents those Sundays when they didn't have a kid's sports game or family vacation taking precedence.  These members are often invisible to a church's planning; they continue to be regarded as an anomaly - even dismissed as not fully committed - which is why you are likely to lose them.

As a church attracts the modern family, it begins to change the actual norms of a congregation, which many church leaders have been very slow to adapt to.  Here is what it looked like for us statistically, as we examined our 2015 numbers:

  • Membership was up 3%.
  • Stewardship was up 10%!
  • Worship attendance fell 2%
So this is what I believe is a critical question for church leaders to wrestle with:

How do we structure our churches around a norm of persons attending 20-30 Sundays per year?

We are taking three main steps:

1.  Fewer programs, planned further in advance, communicated redundantly

If people can't attend every Sunday, how often will you get them for a church event?  Not often.  So we are more strategic about which events we want them to attend, and actively paring the number of events back.  And to make sure they can attend, we plan earlier (get on their calendar as soon as possible!) and communicate redundantly by every means possible, including multiple pulpit announcements on successive weeks, multiple email blasts, and even direct mail (paper still has a use).

2.  More opportunities to stay connected other than on Sunday

The younger churchgoers want to leverage the time they have into making even a small difference in the world.  So we are planning more "quick hit" mission opportunities.  Lots of collections of things - even if they are busy four Sundays in a row, they can stay connected by dropping off a bag of clothing, a used cell phone, a package of food.  Give them chances to be a part of doing some good in the community that fits into their schedules. 

3.  Stress online giving

We signed up with an online giving provider (eChurchGiving, aka PushPay) that gave us both a mobile giving solution and the ability to create a fantastic smartphone app.  We did a soft launch of the online giving over the summer of 2015, with a big push at the end of the year.  The main strategic push is for people to setup automatic recurring gifts.  Most people budget their expenses monthly.  Encouraging people to set up an automatic, monthly, electronic gift to the church ensures a steady flow of income even during those stretches when they cannot be physically present.  Seven months after launch, our members have already set up automatic recurring gifts that amount to 11% of our projected offerings for 2016.

We are still working through the adaptation adjustments to this new reality.  The biggest danger is that it is really easy to over-rely on the few persons whom you can still count on to be there every single week.  Chasing down the less-frequent attendee is more work.  Adapting your schedule to theirs is inconvenient.  But the alternative is burning out your diminishing number of every-week attendees - and worse, leaving the less-frequent attendee feeling disconnected from the life of the congregation.

So we don't have all the answers, but we believe we're asking the right questions.