Keys to Establishing a Multigenerational Congregation: Part One
By Sean G.L. Johnson
Josiah Avery watched the steam rise from his cup of coffee as he watched the symphony of city life in full swing from a window booth at Cavanaugh’s Café on Sutter Avenue. The pressures of leading a growing, one hundred-member congregation were much different than shepherding a flock of twenty. Five years ago, in this very booth, over a similar cup of coffee, Josiah had prayed for South Haven Church to grow. The new problem seemed more complex. How do you create opportunities for fellowship and growth while preserving the intimate relationships currently found at South Haven Church? What steps did he need to take? Pastor Josiah took a sip of steaming coffee and pressed the e-mail icon on his iPad. Up popped a blog post from Sean G.L. Johnson, associate pastor of Soul-Winning Church of God, with the subject line “Four Keys To Establishing Soul-Winning Church of God as a Multigenerational Congregation: Part One.”
The majority of congregations in America are declining in size because the target audience is either those over age fifty, or primarily young families. Frankly, those who have decided to primarily reach the Builders and/or Boomers are declining in membership, or are soon to be closing their doors. It’s true that congregations targeting Generation X/millennial families are more likely to be growing in numbers, but they also often struggle to meet the budget. A multi-generational congregation church not only targets Builders, Boomers, and Generation X/millennials, but it also prompts numeric growth through a manner which fosters deeper connections in the community of believers.
As associate pastor of Soul-Winning Church of God (SWCHOG), I identified four areas needing attention to lay groundwork for establishing SWCHOG as a congregation for all generations: Develop a Value Statement, Establish Bridges to God Activities, Encourage Small Group Participation, and Create Community in the Community.
Develop a Value Statement. Churches often have value statements which are nothing more than scripture verses or lofty platitudes. Greg McKeown suggests value statements must be inspirational and concrete. Value statements with both characteristics have strategic intent (McKeown, G., 2012). For example, Soul-Winning Church of God in Springdale, Ohio, has a value statement comprised of a vision statement and mission statement. Its vision statement, “A People Called of God, and a Place Where People Meet Jesus Through People” inspires congregants to remain focused on the Great Commission.
However, Soul-Winning’s mission statement is concrete because the goal and intent of discipleship is clear—“To win people to Christ and see their lives changed by the power of God. We endeavor to see people: renewed spiritually, restored emotionally, revived physically, and repaired relationally. We plan to accomplish our goal by his grace through biblical preaching and teaching, faithful and consistent application of biblical principles, and by loving to life those we meet.”
A final draft of your value statement my take some time, but once complete, it will act as a compass as you navigate building and sustaining your multi-generational congregation.
Establish Bridges to God Activities. Churches right around one hundred foraverage attendance at Sunday worship services are categorized as big families. And like any family, churches can become insular and focus on the spiritual, emotional, financial, and physical well-being of its members. While this develops great natural intimacy and attachment within the congregation, Dr. Robert Whitesel suggests it unintentionally excludes the unchurched (Whitesel, R., 2006, p. 191).
Soul-Winning established Breaking Bread Week. This is an opportunity for members to identify a neighbor, co-worker, or friend to enjoy a meal with once per week. Eating together allows for discussion, signifies acceptance, and was a redemptive act in its own right when practiced by Christ with the social outcasts of the day. Also, it reminds us to be engage people in the natural rhythm of life, building friendship and trust. As friendship and trust are built, opportunities to lead others to Christ and invite to Sunday celebration services present themselves during the natural rhythm of relationship.
Other traditional Bridges to God activities include Family and Friends Day, church-sponsored sports teams or leagues, and picnics. Whatever the avenue—or bridge—make sure it is a part of the natural rhythm of life, or it will come off as another church-scheduled event to try to “save the heathen.”
Encourage Small-Group Participation. Mars Hill has grown to more than 15,000 members across fifteen locations in five states by employing small groups. These small groups, according to the director of community for Mars Hill, are catalyst for growth (Smith, B., March 19, 2015). Rick Warren states that “affinity groups” (small groups simply known by another name) are essential for growth because the more groups you have, the more ways you can connect with the congregants and create community, as well as connect with the unchurched (Warren, R., February 20, 2015).
Small groups are not a fad or trend. Christ himself employed the model when he called twelve individuals into his ministry context and created community by instructing and investing himself into relationship with them.
Our postmodern society has relegated small groups as simply a program or fellowship-type ministry. However, the early church in Acts viewed it as a way of life. The relationships born in these groups were essential to developing a deep, intimate relationship with Christ and witnessing that relationship to the world. Carolyn Taketa states “it would be impossible to experience biblical community apart from spiritually significant, intentional relationships with other believers. Relational structures like small groups, therefore, are an integral part of “being” the church and not just “doing” church (Taketa, C., 2011).
Soul-Winning Church of God is developing a few affinity groups with target audiences including people who enjoy fishing, traveling, cooking, reading, sewing, and sports. Again, the purpose of these groups are to engage the unchurched by developing relationships around shared interests.
Whitesel suggests measuring growth by educational opportunity attendance. Soul-Winning has expanded the idea to “engagement opportunities attendance.” Our EOA will capture traditional educational opportunity attendance and times of simply connection between congregants and the unchurched (Whitesel, R., 200, p. 209). For example, the primary purpose of small-group Bible study and prayer is to edify the congregants. But or expanded EOA definition includes affinity group attendance by the unchurched which happen in the natural rhythm of life. These metrics become important as we measure the effectiveness of particular affinity groups against the overall goal of winning souls for Christ.
Create Community in the Community. Whitesel, in reference to McGarvan, warns against congregations succumbing to the “redemption and lift” phenomenon. McGarvan states “as a person embarks upon a life redeemed by Christ, one naturally behaves in a way that removes him or her from the everyday life of people who do not yet know Christ” (Whitesel, R., 2006, p. 107). So churches must be mindful not to focus so much on creating community among congregants that it forgets to be a good community citizen. For example, Soul-Winning has hosted an Annual Back to School Block Party on its seven-acre, park-like campus for the past three years. The event open to the entire community and includes Springdale police and fire departments giving rides to the kids and talking about safety, as well as offering free food and backpacks filled with school supplies. Last year, SWCHOG had more than eight hundred community members pass through the grounds during the five-hour event. Also, SWCHOG has hosted a Community Health Fair for the past two years. Individuals can get free blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar readings, mammograms, and other health screenings. Also, there are health professional on hand to provide basic health education.
Whitesel describes the multi-generational church as a holistic congregation with multiple, distinct generational sub-congregations peacefully co-existing under one roof, one name, and one leadership core. It’s an ambitious task for any organization to grow (Whitesel, R., 2000, p. 29). But we, the church, have been empowered and charged to do so by none other than Christ himself: And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (NKJV).
Our next post will look at creating and keeping community as you grow into a multi-generational church.
As Josiah bookmarked the blog post filled with practical, applicable information, he left a tip for the waitress. Sutter Avenue was quiet as he headed out the café door, making his way to South Haven Church. Josiah’s mind, however, was busy contemplating critical changes to the ministry as he eagerly awaited next week’s blog post from Pastor Johnson.
Read the completion of this two-part series at http://chognews.org/2015/04/16/keys-to-establishing-a-multigenerational-congregation-part-two/.
McKeown, G. (2012) If I Read One More Platitude-Filled Mission Statement, I’ll Scream, retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/10/if-i-read-one-more-platitude-filled-mission-statement
Whitesel, R. (2006) Inside The Organic Church: Learning From 12 Emerging Congregations. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Smith, B. (2012) How To Build Church Community Organically, Without Rigid Structures, retrieved from http://www.christianpost.com/news/how-to-build-church-community-organically-without-rigid-structures-71697/
Warren, Rick (2015) Structuring Your Church to Grow and Not Plateau, retrieved from http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/247657-structuring-church-grow-not-plateau.html
Taketa, Carolyn (2011) Why Small Groups? The Reason Behind Intentional Christian Community, retrieved from http://www.smallgroups.com/articles/2012/why-small-groups.html?start=2
Whitesel, R. & Hunter, K. (2000) House Divided: Bridging The Generation Gaps In Your Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Thomas Nelson Publishers (1982) New King James Version