In spite of the impressions given by a handful of mega-churches, congregations all over America are in decline. That is the verdict of all of the reliable research.
While I typically don't give this sort of data much thought, I've had an experience that stretches over three years now that has been very instructive.
About this time three years ago, I received a call from the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The leaders there told me that they were trying to design a plan to manage the changes occurring in their congregation. They invited me to come up for a day of conversation. I suggested that I bring John Greenan, the Executive Director of the Central Dallas Community Development Corporation along for the day. They readily agreed.
Forty years ago, the church had been on the "cutting edge" of church growth. Under the leadership of a dynamic minister, and thanks to a very successful strategic plan for outreach, Garnett grew to have thousands of members.
But, things and times changed, so that by the 1990s the church experienced sharp decline in numbers, funding and morale. By 2006, the church was down to about 500 members with others continuing to leave its membership. And, the church did not seem to be successful in attracting new members, a problem most churches experience today.
The day John and I spent with a group of the church's leaders turned out to be fairly remarkable. To be frank, I don't think I've ever seen a group of people more frustrated, concerned or depressed. We sat in a very large mall area outside a very large sanctuary (and there was much talk about how to use or change the huge space which proved a real "downer" on Sundays due to the relatively small crowd in attendance). We formed a discussion circle. Twenty minutes into the conversation I noticed that everyone seemed to speak in hushed tones, much like in a funeral parlor. Defeat tried hard to define the discussion.
Of course, we were outsiders without the history, the recent conflict or the responsibility for planning, debt or programming, so we didn't' feel the same as our hosts. Our advantage was that we didn't know what they knew. We didn't have their experience, a real advantage, especially for our thought processes.
We listened a lot.
At the end of the day, we offered two suggestions.
First, we advised that the church should form a separate non-profit organization. The church would then deed to the new organization all of its assets and liabilities. Next, the church could lease back from the non-profit only the space it needed for its smaller present operations. The non-profit could then create a community service oriented, meeting center business to further reduce debt while bringing life back to the property.
Second, we looked outside the building to the church's 35 acres of undeveloped property. We urged the group to consider using the property for the development of senior housing and/or mixed-income housing along with a possible mixed-use component. In addition to being able to gain some profit, a new community could be built up all around the church property and all sorts of ministry efforts could be brought to the new development.
The ideas seemed a bit, well, "out there." but we left feeling we had given it our best shot. Still, I noticed that by the end of the day the volume had cranked up. Clearly, the group was out of the funeral mood!
Last Saturday and Sunday, I returned to the church to receive an update from the leaders and to see what had happened.
I was blown away!
The church formed a legal limited partnership resulting in the creation of the Green Country Event Center. The place was a beehive of activity! On Saturday evening, I witnessed the wedding ceremony of an Hispanic couple attended by over 200 guests. That same evening, a large group of Pakistani women, all Muslim, gathered in traditional dress for a bridal reception with all of their traditions in play. In the auditorium a church conference had been going on since the previous Thursday. The facility's large commercial kitchen houses a new catering business operated by one of the church's members and provides meals for the groups who need them.
Earlier that day I toured the entire facility and noted that various organizations now leased offices and ran community education, child care, counseling and faith services from the once quiet buildings. And, the center is profitable, allowing the church to retire its debt as it plans for even better days.
Possibly, most important of all, the new event center signals to the entire Tulsa community that the Garnett Church is there for everyone. The center is quickly becoming a major, community crossroads for the entire city. The church finds itself ministering and serving on a daily basis and new folks are showing up to join in the new found significance.
During my weekend, we talked about housing development as the next step. I'll be happy to return in another year or two to see what else has happened for the good.
Here's a church responding to changing circumstances with creativity, effectiveness and an incredibly welcoming heart for everyone in Tulsa.
Church as hospitality center and gathering place. . .now there is a novel idea!