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As Easter approaches, thoughts on challenges facing our churches

MinnPost file photo by Rita Kovtun
Seventy-four percent of Minnesota adults identify as Christians; non-Christian faiths account for about 5 percent of adults in the state; and those who report no religious ties total approximately 20 percent of Minnesota adults.

Christians throughout the world number about 2.4 billion, or just over one in three people on Earth; followers of Islam rank second (1.6 billion) followed by Hinduism (1.15 billion).

The Christian calendar this year calls for Easter to be celebrated on April 1. Easter has become something of an annual floating religious event that culminates a 40-day Lenten season for believers as they prepare for their highest holy day in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

Overall, attendance at Minnesota churches has been dropping for a long time. About 20 percent — far lower than some studies have reported — attend a religious service regularly, with Catholics being only slightly more vigilant than Protestants.

7 in 10 Minnesotans are Christians

For those who study such things, 74 percent of Minnesota adults identify as Christians; non-Christian faiths account for about 5 percent of adults in the state; and those who report no religious ties total approximately 20 percent of Minnesota adults.

Unless the current trend is changed, it is estimated that by 2050, there will be a 50 percent reduction in the number of churchgoers. Three of four Minnesota adults consider their religion important, however, and nearly 90 percent of them say they believe in a God. 

A scan of research done nationally indicates that Minnesotans are in step with national trends. Midsize, established churches are shrinking in size while larger churches and very small churches are either growing slightly or holding their own. Annually, three in four of new Americans immigrants do not attend church of any kind.

Ways churches can respond to today’s realities

How can churches attract potential congregants?

In this day and age, social media is very important to churches. The website is the first thing most people interested in the church will see, making judgments even before ever setting foot inside a church or meeting a single person.

Dr. Richard Krejcir, a noted Christian theologian from Pasadena, California, has advocated a number of what he has termed “Church Growth Principles” that focus on the preaching, prayer and the Sunday worship experience. 

Others say that for newcomers who do make the journey across the church threshold, the top priority should be integration into the wider church family and community. The common theme of belonging will often precede forming faith-based friendships.

Engaging young people with creative programming and offering meaningful ways for them to provide church leadership and creating small groups of like-minded people that fosters friendship and support are ideas pioneered long ago by megachurches of 2,000 or more attendees for regular Sunday services.

Why do some initiatives fail?

Churches are learning that it is not enough to launch a great ministry idea even if you know it’s working at another church. The most frequent reasons for failure are likely to be a lack of genuine congregational buy-in, limited volunteer and financial resources and weak leadership at the top even if there is a passionate advocate within the congregation.

slocum
Chuck Slocum

More important, churches are seeking to survive, like many businesses these days, and are not thinking like the discerning potential “customers” that they covet. Too often, a church insider’s focus comes off as self-serving by exclusively trying to get people to commit to a Sunday service schedule or financially maintaining a church building or other budget commitments.

Denominations are not nearly as important to younger people, who commit far differently today than previous generations.

One good idea is to offer new congregants a relevant challenge worthy of their own individual time and talents.

Relationships over tradition

Those who are church shopping want to develop relationships rather than celebrate tradition. They are seeking genuine friendships and look for churches that know what they are all about and are good at achieving it.

One pastor admonished his struggling congregation to “hang out and listen” to one another and to those desiring a faith-based relationship. “A church does not have to be perfect at what it does, but it must keep getting better at what is most important,” he concluded.

Chuck Slocum (Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com) is president of the Williston Group, a management consulting firm. Pew and Gallup survey research data was used in compiling this commentary. Slocum is an active Presbyterian, having served as an elder, deacon and Sunday School teacher.

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