Church Needs & My Optimism

(The chart included with this post represents at any point in time the average Sunday attendance for the previous four weeks.)
For two weeks now, I’ve been mentioning in our worship gatherings that our church is going through a bit of a financial and attendance lull. First, let’s get the numbers out of the way. (If you aren’t a numbers person, this will be quick.)

  • Last Year’s Average Adult Worship Attendance: 161
  • Current Average Adult Worship Attendance: 124
  • Last Year’s Average Monthly Donations: $18,481
  • Current Year’s Average Monthly Donations: $17,061
  • Last Three Months (August – October) Average: $14,300
  • 2019 Monthly Budget Need: $20,000
    (building, staff, debts, utilities, maintenance, benevolence, local and global partnerships, curriculum)

I have been wrestling with these numbers for the past three months, and I’ve been hoping that it was all just a “Summer Slump” or the result of multiple weeks of Fall Break back to back, but the truth of the matter is that we have lost a huge amount of church momentum in the past few years, and we need to do something to turn things around and move forward into a new era of effectiveness in ministry.

How’d we get here?

The first question we always need to ask when we are facing difficult times is to ask how we got to where we are. As I understand it, there are a few key components to our recent downturn in these numbers:

  • 2018 was actually stagnant in terms of attendance. We ended 2017 with an average of 230, and we ended 2018 with an average of 230. That’s not a good sign; however, one of the things that’s true with churches is that finance changes always follow attendance changes, so even though 2018 had a flat attendance curve, the giving was going up all year long. We didn’t recognize it as a red flag at the time.
  • 2019 saw a few massive changes to our ministry because we had a few massive changes in the lives of key families. Some families adopted or had babies (always requires more time at home and less time for volunteering or attending), some families went through personal upheavals (divorces, family health problems), some families graduated, got jobs, and moved away, and other families left the church because of the ministry changes brought about by those other issues. To be specific, there were four ways our ministry was affected by this attendance shift.
    • One of the biggest changes was the departure of our long-time associate pastor Billy Hardy which resulted in a major shift to our youth programming.
    • Another change is that the reduction of volunteer labor for Kidopolis significantly affected our Sunday morning experience. At any given Sunday worship gathering, one or more Kidopolis rooms will be closed which puts extra pressure on the other teachers reducing our overall ability to make an awesome Kidopolis program for kids.
    • These two changes have caused some families to leave our church looking for other churches that have better programs for their families, and their departures have had a chain reaction effect. Anytime one family leaves, there is a strong likelihood that others who were close to that family will also leave.
    • Finally, lower attendance on Sunday morning with understaffed ministries results in lower energy and enthusiasm on Sunday mornings, and lower enthusiasm makes it far less likely that visitors will return. No one wants to START going to a church that looks to be on the decline.

So what can we do about it?

There’s no question that things are not currently going as well as I’d like them to go. I’ve been stressed out by these number worries, and every week I bounce back and forth between feeling optimistic and feeling worried.
There’s just one problem with my feeling worried…

If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. — Matthew 6:30-34 NIV

Jesus tells his followers clearly that our God is in charge of the world, that he cares for us, and that worry doesn’t do us any good. And so, on most days, I look at the condition of our church with enthusiasm and optimism!
In fact, on most days, I’m more excited and optimistic about our church than I ever have been. As I shared in my message on Sunday, God has given us an absolutely incredible pair of promises that I’m just beginning to grasp:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” — Matthew 16:18-19 NIV

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. — John 15:7-8 NIV

Jesus has made a promise that when his people are on his mission of freeing people up from what has bound them nothing can stand in their way. Jesus has made a promise that if we are about the mission of bearing fruit, making new disciples, reaching new people with his good news of God’s incredible Kingdom, that brings God so much glory, he is willing to respond to remarkable prayers to make it happen!
Because Jesus has made these incredible promises, I’m really not worried. I’m sold out to that mission, and because I’m all about that mission, I don’t have any fear at all that God is going to empower me to play my part with fruitfulness. In fact, I’m excited about what God can do in the next phase of this church.
I’m not worried, but I do have one concern. The concern is this: I wonder who is willing to go on this journey with me. Who is going to join me on this mission?
Back in 2006 when Jen, Charlie, Katie, and I moved to Lafayette, this church had no one in attendance and no money coming in. We had a small number of people on our prayer and support team who made a commitment to put money into this project of launching a new church in Lafayette, because those people knew that you and people like you needed a church like this.
But now it’s our time, it’s your time, to do that same thing for the next generation of this church.

Our Specific Action Steps

There are a few specific action steps we need to take over the next few months to start turning things around. I’m making some major changes, and I’m asking you to make some big bold commitments.

My Changes

  • I’m working with the Board of Elders to reconstruct our ministry from the ground up. During the month of January, I’ll be sharing with you a new understanding of our mission as a church and some of the structural changes we are going to make as a result.
  • I’m refocusing myself on developing people into disciples. For the past few years, I’ve followed the “relational” and “coaching” paradigms of discipleship, and I don’t intend to get rid of our Community Groups or our coaching program, but I will refocus my energies into more of a teaching paradigm to help us reach more people faster.
  • I’m also refocusing my energies on communication. I want to make sure you are well informed about all that is going on with the church, so you can feel well connected and so our family can get stronger. You’ll see more frequent blog posts, video clips, and more from me in the days ahead.
  • I’m also going to be tweaking how our Sundays look and feel. From our music, to our interaction time, to how we end our worship gatherings, and what we do for visitors, you will see some changes, and I need you to roll with it!

Your Commitments

I’m asking you to join me in making these commitments:

  • Make a commitment to attend one (or both) of our worship gatherings every Sunday through the rest of the year. If a visitor comes on a Sunday and sees an empty room, they are less likely to return, and it usually takes a person multiple Sundays before they are ready to make a commitment of faith. Your attendance can help someone else discover Jesus.
  • Make a commitment to give more money. I know the end of the year is a tough time to ask for money since everyone is worried about end of the year responsibilities and Christmas gifts and whatnot, but I can’t get around the fact that we need a serious uptick of a few thousand dollars extra each month to meet our 2019 financial obligations. Listen, there’s no nicer way to put it. We set up our 2018 & 2019 financial commitments based on the people who made membership commitments each of those years, but a number of those people have since left, and that means the rest of us have to make up the difference somehow.
  • Make a commitment to volunteer. We have ministries that are on the struggle bus right now because a number of our volunteers have gotten burned out or left, and your enthusiastic face will help us bring some life back to those efforts. Remember, we don’t do the ministries on Sunday just because it’s a program we have to keep running. We do what we do because we want to warmly welcome people into an experience of the life of Christ. Whether it’s with coffee or Kidopolis, the things we do on Sunday are specifically to help people feel welcome in our fellowship so they can hear the message of Jesus and find life in him!
  • Make a commitment to pray boldly for me, the elders, and the effectiveness of the church. We have been holding a monthly prayer evening each month to increase our focus on prayer, and you should come to those prayer gatherings, but more than that I’m asking you to do more bold praying in total. Ask God to bring us a windfall of cash. Ask God to bring us an influx of visitors. Ask God to change people’s lives every Sunday. Ask God to draw more people into volunteering. As Jesus said, “Ask whatever you wish.” Because God is glorified when the church advances!

Our church is in a tough spot right now, but that doesn’t mean God is finished with us or that his work in this world is on the decline. It just means it’s time for us to band together to do something brand new all over again!
Let’s finish 2019 strong, so we can break new ground in 2020 and beyond!