NEW IDEAS & How/When To Introduce Them in Your Church’s Missional Lifecycle

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel:  Dr. Charles Arn is one of the best tactical thinkers in the field of Church Growth and health.  In this article he will help you plot your organization’s location in its lifecycle. A helpful byproduct of his article is that Dr. Arn will help you see when and how to introduce a new idea for maximum impact. For more on implementing new ideas (sometimes called “intervention events”) see an article I wrote to accompany Arn’s article, titled: NEW IDEAS & 7 Lessons for Avoiding A Church Split When You Introduce a New Idea.  Additional insights on lifecycles can be found in Ichak Adizes’ classic lifecycle depiction of the Bell Curve of Organizational Change.

“Where is Your Church In Its Missional Lifecycle?”

by Charles Arn (nd).

Gravity exists. And, there’s not much we can do about it. As we grow up, we learn this by dropping things on our feet, falling out of trees, and slipping on icy sidewalks. So, the best thing to do is to learn to live with it, and… even make it our ally. We fill balloons with helium and rise above the earth. We build airfoil wings and propellers to fly with the birds.

Lifecycles also exist. And, there is not much we can do about that, either. Every living thing has them: plants … animals … people … churches. Lifecycles simply are. Life begins … it flourishes … then it ends. So, the best thing to do is to learn to live with it, and…even make it our ally.

To begin, it is important to realize that there is one amazing difference between the lifecycle of churches, and the lifecycle of all other living things. On the following pages I hope to help us 1) better understand church lifecycles, and then 2) consider how a church’s lifecycle can work for us (rather than against us) in accomplishing the mission of Christ’s church.

What is a Church Lifecycle?

First, it is important to realize that every church has a lifecycle. And every church—including yours—is somewhere on its lifecycle. The lifecycle describes a local church’s progression from infancy…to maturity…to death. Where you are on the lifecycle has a great deal to do with your church’s ability to reach new people for Christ and assimilate them into your church family. Churches well into their lifecycle find it increasingly difficult to mobilize people and programs in pursuit of their mission.

The easiest way to determine where you are on the lifecycle is to graph the worship attendance since your church’s birth. Your pattern will not be as simplified as the graph below. But this basic trend in attendance (and, to a lesser degree, membership) can be observed in most churches when averaged out over a period of years. The sobering fact is that at least 80% of churches in America today are on the flat or back-side of their lifecycles.

FIGURE Arn Typlical Church Lifecycle copy.jpg

 

In the early stages of a church’s life there is a high sense of mission among all involved. The church is purpose-driven. Charter members, and often a bi-vocational pastor, volunteer their time to help the church reach people and grow. Buildings are less important; structure is less important. The motivation is mission. And the result is growth.

As the formative years give way to time, the church reaches a comfortable size and attendance begins to level off. Where this plateau occurs depends on the church’s growth in the first stage. Congregations typically plateau near 35, 75, 100, 250, 400, 750 or 1,000 in attendance. People who affiliate with the church in this stage come predominantly via transfer growth, while fewer and fewer people are added by conversion growth. An emerging pattern of “institutionalization” is reflected by the increase in committees, and the decrease in accomplishment.

The final stage of a church’s lifecycle—decline—often begins after a church’s 50th birthday. Few, if any, members reflect the mission priority of the founders. The community has usually changed, while the church has not. Decline in worship attendance during this stage may be gradual or abrupt. Few in the church, including the staff, believe the church’s best days are still ahead.

Here is the critical insight that has grown from the study of church lifecycles: The longer a church exists, the more concerned the leaders and members become with self-service, and the less concerned with the church’s original mission and reason for being.

Robert Orr has enlarged the three stages of growth, plateau, decline into a more detailed description of the changes that occur as a church moves from “initial structuring” toward “disintegration.” [1]

CHART Robert Or 5 Stages of Lifecycle of Churches copy

But, the good news is that, unlike other living organisms that face an inevitable end to their lifecycle, the local church CAN begin a new lifecycle. In fact, the study of church growth (to which I have devoted much of my professional life) is actually the study of how churches can break out of the gravitational pull toward attendance plateau or decline, and actually re-discover the visionary excitement and missional focus that occurs at the beginning of a new lifecycle.

And what about those churches that do not seem to be affected by this lifecycle pattern? The ones that are growing beyond the first 15 – 20 years. How do they do it?

First, here is a graph of what does not occur in growing churches:

FIGURE Arn Non Typlical Church Lifecycle copy.jpg

Rather than a linear pattern of growth, churches that are growing when they shouldn’t be (based on lifecycle projections) show a “stair-step” pattern of growth, as illustrated below…

FIGURE Arn Typlical Church Growth Lifecycle copy.jpg

Here’s an important insight: Most churches that are growing at a time when they should be plateaued or declining have begun new lifecycles! Something has interrupted the church’s normal pattern—I call it an “intervention event”—and a new lifecycle has begun before the old lifecycle has pulled them into decline or death.

Beginning a New Lifecycle

The secret to beginning a new lifecycle is just that… beginning something new. An intervention event is an interruption in the status quo. These interruptions are sometimes “controllable,” sometimes not. Hopefully they are perceived as “good,” but sometimes the interruptions seem “bad.” Whatever their nature, intervention events “change the rules.” And, with a change in rules comes an opportunity to reconnect with the passion—the mission—which was the source of growth in the early stage of the church’s lifecycle.

Here are some intervention events I have seen ignite new enthusiasm and mission in a church that was on the flat or backside of its lifecycle:

  1. A change of pastors
  2. A crisis
  3. Planting a church
  4. Closing, then re-opening the church
  5. Renewal of the pastor
  6. Renewal of the laity
  7. Denominational intervention
  8. An outside consultant
  9. Relocation of the church facilities
  10. Beginning a new (style) worship service

There is no guarantee that an event which disrupts a church’s status quo will automatically begin a new lifecycle. An intervention event is simply a moment in a church’s life when “the time is right” for change. Intervention events provide open “doors of opportunity,” but not every church is either aware of this fateful moment, or chooses to walk through those open doors and begin a new lifecycle. (By the way, of all the “controlled” interventions I have seen, adding a new style worship service is consistently the most successful in beginning a new lifecycle.[2])

There are three places in a church’s lifecycle where the intervention event might occur—the growth stage, the plateau stage, or the decline stage. The results of the intervention in a church will vary depending on where it is in the lifecycle:

 FIGURE Arn Critical Points Church Lifecycle copy.jpg

Critical Point “A”

Introducing an intervention strategy at this point in a church’s lifecycle is reasonably difficult. But it is ideally the best time and place to do so. The difficulty comes as lay leaders look at the present church attendance—higher each year than the year before—and wonder whether the benefit of significant change is worth the risk. Things seem to be going reasonably well in the church. Why fix it if it isn’t broken?

Despite the challenge of introducing significant change at this point, church leaders that successfully do so will add at least ten years of growth to the church’s present lifecycle. For such churches, the “new rules” serve as a booster to maintain the momentum of growth. Beginning a new lifecycle while the church is still growing continues the outreach priority before the gravity of the old lifecycle can pull the church out of its growth and missional mindset.

Critical Point B

If your church’s worship attendance has been plateaued for the past ten to fifteen years (no more than a ±5% change), a successful intervention strategy will help to avoid the attendance decline that is soon to follow. Critical Point “B” is actually the easiest time to gain congregational support for a new way of doing things. An assessment of church attendance will confirm non-growth. But because these churches have experienced growth in the relatively recent past, and generally want to see an increase in attendance, a well-conceived intervention strategy is likely to receive a positive endorsement. The exception is when the following three ingredients come together: the church is able to easily meet its financial obligations (perhaps through an endowment), the sanctuary is at least 50% full on an average Sunday, and the congregation has little taste for involvement in outward-focused activities.

Critical Point “C”

If an intervention strategy is not introduced at this point, the church will slip into a coma beyond resuscitation. It is difficult to know exactly when a church reaches this point in its lifecycle. In reality, it is the point of no return. One of the intervention events noted earlier can be most successful at this point—closing the church, then beginning the process of planting a new church which opens the following year.

Most churches beyond Point C in the lifecycle do not have the energy, vision, or resources to live through a major change. The situation is not unlike a dying person so weak that further surgery would hasten the end rather than prolong it. However, if there is still an adamant desire for life in a church at this point, it is usually easy to get a “survival vote” supporting the intervention. Even then, however, more people are willing to vote for the change than to actively participate in its pursuit.

Conclusion

Time and space do not allow for a detailed discussion of every phase in a church’s lifecycle. [3] Indeed, re-missionalizing a church’s priorities involves many activities. Accounting for the lifecycle effect is just one of those concerns. But it is an important one, because an increased understanding of lifecycles will help you plan more strategically for how to recapture your church’s missional priorities.

To consider the lifecycle factor in your church, and how to make it your ally, I suggest that you …

  • graph the attendance of your church since its inception, and discuss whether you can see the lifecycle pattern(s) in your history;
  • discuss what events occurred that might have precipitated any new lifecycles that occurred in your church’s history;
  • duplicate the chart on page 3 and ask church leaders to identify where they believe the church presently is on each item;
  • ask whether your present location on the lifecycle has an influence in your ability to identify and pursue your church’s mission;
  • discuss whether your church needs to consider an intervention strategy to begin a new lifecycle. And if so, what are the next steps.

[1] Robert Orr, “Is Your Church in a Mid-Life Crisis?” in The Growth Report, No. 4, Institute for American Church Growth, Pasadena, California.

[2] Because of this, I researched the process of starting a new service, and reported it in the book How to Start a New Service (Baker, 1997).

[3] Gary McIntosh has written an excellent new book (not yet published as of this writing) entitled Church Lifecycles. I strongly recommend his work for a much more comprehensive exploration of this important dynamic of church lifecycles.

WORSHIP & Why Sunday Mornings Remain the Best Time to Reach Non-churchgoers

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 2/21/16.

Recently a student asked if their church should solve their Sunday morning crowding problem by adding a Friday evening service.  I replied that Friday evening worship times offering a similar convenience as do Saturday evening options. But, my experience has been that they (Fri. and Sat.) must begin before 7 pm and be done by 8 pm. This is my research from client churches, but it does cover several hundred churches.  Here is an extended explanation of how many services should offer and when: How many worship services you should offer and when.

The student then asked why Saturday services don’t usually meet expectations.  I responded that a reason many Saturday evening worship options fail, is because leaders expect them to be as well attended as Sunday morning services. However, in my observations, Sat. only garners about 20% of the attendance of Sunday mornings. This may be because there are so many competing activities on Saturday nights.

Therefore, if a church is running 250 in attendance on Sunday morning and they start a Saturday service, then they should only expect to run about 50.  Usually churches feel this is a failure, when actually in my case-study research it is proportionally the same size.  Remember this is just my research among clients, which is a skewed sample because my clients are usually evangelicals. But, it does indicate a testable hypothesis (any of my DMin/PhD students listening?).

Sundays also appear to be the best time to offer services to reach non-churchgoers.  When I interview non-churchgoers in connection with consultations, for 20+ years I have heard the following response to the question, “If you were to attend church,  what time during the week would be most convenient for you?”  Their most frequent answer: “Sunday mornings.”  My guess is that Sunday mornings continue to be the time during the week when people don’t (yet) have a full schedule.

So based upon the above, it is usually better to offer multiple services on Sunday (by even making them shorter) than by trying to reach out at less convenient services such as Sat or Fri.

For more on this, here is my ranking from  case-studies of the best times on Sunday to have services: Worship & the best times on Sundays to have worship services.

Speaking hashtags: #StLizTX #StMarksTX

WORSHIP SERVICES & How Many Worship Services Should You Offer & When?

by Bob Whitesel, 2/4/15.

Often when considering a multiplication strategy, leaders wonder how many worship services a church should attempt.  Most leaders understand the strategic advantages of offering as many celebration options and styles as feasible.

But how many is too many, and how many are too few?  6 Answers…

The question of type, time, and format of worship celebrations is a very delicate issue.  And, without a complete understanding of each reader’s scenario I would be remiss to state here definitively. But, I can give you some general guidelines.

1.  Have your services on the weekends if at all possible.  These always prove to be better attended (for all generations: builder to organic) than weeknights.  And, in my personal survey of client congregations:

  • Saturday evenings only have 20% of the attendance you can expect on Sunday mornings.
  • 10:30 am on Sunday seems to be the optimum time (for my clients at least) to draw people in.
  • Therefore, try to have as many services at 10:30 am on Sunday.  This might therefore mean multiple venues, sites, etc. for maximum connection with non-churchgoers.

2.  Do not let an occasional teenage service suffice for your adding an emerging/organic church worship celebration.  Emerging/organic ministries are more college-level and 30-something in target and draw.  Keep high school and college-aged gatherings separate from one another.
PreparingChange_Reaction_Md

3.  Analyze your community (I show how to do this in my book “A House Divided,” and to even a greater extent in “CURE for the Common Church”).  It is from your community that you will find unreached age and/or people groups and thus whom the worship celebration should be reaching out to.

4.  Try to offer as many options as you can, given your person power.  In “A House Divided” (Abingdon Press, 2000) I explain how to start a new service:

  • By getting a committed core of (a minimum) 50 individuals who will commit one year to this new celebration and then replace themselves.
  • If you are offering a modern service and it is 80% full, I would reduplicate that.  Or if you have the person power to reduplicate it (even though you are not 80% full) I would duplicate it to reach more people.
  • The more options you offer, proportionally more of the community you will attract to the Good News. 
  • However, if your modern service is less than 80% full and you have another generational or sub-cultural group in the area, you could start a new expression aimed at this new sub-cultural group.  In most communities today, a church should offer a traditional celebration, a modern celebration, and an organic/emergent celebration.  Then reduplicate these as needed.  Times for each should be ascertained from people of these age groups “outside” of the church.

SP_Sm_Pix
5.  Go slow.  As you will learn in my book “Staying Power” (Abingdon Press, 2002) or “Preparing for Change Reaction” (Abingdon Press, 2006, chapter 8) research indicates that if you move too fast with new ideas (such as launching a new worship celebration), then you will not get all of your reticent members on board.  Feeling left out, or at least circumvented, the reticent members will coalesce into a sub-group someday and you will have two factions.  So remember, though you are enthusiastic about offering more worship options after reading this chapter, go slow and get reticent members on board to ensure success.

6.  Finally, there is a very good book that goes into this and is one of your recommended readings for this course.  It is “How to Start a New Service” by Charles (Chip) Arn.  Professor Arn goes into great detail, and to ensure success if you are planning on starting a new celebration, you should get this book.  And, Chip Arn is also a faculty for our  Wesley Seminary at IWU M.Div. program, teaching for us full time as Professor of Christian Ministry and Outreach.

WORSHIP SERVICES & How to Settle Worship Wars: For Churches Both Under (& Over) 100 Attendees #HouseDividedBook

by Bob Whitesel, 10/13/14

Many of our conflict-orientated forces arise from differences over worship. And, though differences over worship have their genesis in cultural differences (and thus life-cycles too) it may be important here for me to describe some of the tools you can use to settle worship conflict.

First of all, conflict over worship has to do with cultural preferences. There is nothing wrong with that. Each generational culture has been brought up in a different milieu.

The Builder Generation (69+ in 2014) was raised upon great hymns of the faith sang in the sanctuary. Popular tunes with hand-clapping were only sung at camp meetings (but notice most of the Builders got saved at camp meetings 🙂

HDsmallThe Boomers (50-68 in 2014) and Leading Edge Gen. X (40-49) grew up in a media explosion, where small transistor radios and car radios meant they were exposed to rhythm/blues music (i.e. rock and roll) every where they went. They came to hear this music as the soundtrack of their lives. Not surprisingly it became the soundtrack for their worship too.

Post-modern Xers (31-39 in 2014) and Yers (12-30) have grown up in an increasingly distrustful world, and their music has a much more plaintive and lamentive feel. This often bothers the Boomers who are much more upbeat and positive in their music (see Whitesel, 2007, p. 59).

Which is useful? They all are, but in different circumstances.

And thus many of you have tried to start new services. Dr. Chip Arn has a great book on this called How To Start a New Service (1997) and it is required in my elective course MIN558: Building a Multi-Generational Church. And, I have addressed how to use his book and modified his steps to starting a new service in my book A House Divided, the chapter titled “Worship in a Multi-generational Format.” Here is a brief overview of what you can do to settle worship wars.

If you are running 100+ attendees.

1. Find a time to start a new service that is convenient for the cultural generation you are reaching out to (I have given four charts on when Builders, Boomers and Xers like to go to church in A House Divided, pp. 173-177).

2. You ask 50 people in the church to sign a “covenant agreement” to change their worship time, and come to this new service for one year. At the end of this year, they either replace themselves with someone they’ve invited, or they re-up for another year. The reason you need 50 is because worship does not usually break out in a worship encounter unless there are 35+ people there. This has to do with anonymity and community. To get 35+ each weekend, you need to have 50 people committed to this new worship encounter; and because some will be gone each week, a net 35+ usually results.

3. You develop small groups during this time from the 50 people. The small groups are the discipleship environments for this new worship encounter. Some groups may be Bible-studies, etc., but others will be worship teams, greeters, etc. (creating groups that you need to help you organize the new encounter, but always ensure they practice all three elements of a healthy small group: UP-IN-OUT, see Cure for the Common Church, 2011).

4. You have the small groups meet for 2-6 months, before you launch your worship encounter.

5. Have new small groups ready at the worship encounter launch, for newcomers. The number of new small groups available should be 1-2 small groups for each 50 people who have committed to the new encounter.

PreparingChange_Reaction_MdHowever, if you are running under 100 attendees, things change.

If you start a new worship encounter you will usually have too few people coming to it (after all, the people coming to your church already like the times you have, and they are not likely to attend a new time). The best thing to do of you have less than 100 regular attendees, is the following:

1. Do not have a blended service (where you blend throughout the encounter) but rather have a “compartmentalized worship encounter” where you put the traditional songs/liturgy/elements at the beginning, then the sermon next, and then modern music at the end. You tell the traditionalists that they can go after the sermon, and even have a benediction before they leave. You have thus compromised, giving any who prefer their traditional music a traditional service. But, those who want to can stay around for the contemporary music “After-Glow.” This is 15-20 minutes of contemporary worship. You have thus “compartmentalized” rather than “blended” your worship service. And, each generation can worship without being blind-sided by a change in cultural music. This gives the traditionalist who do not care for contemporary music a chance to leave. In addition, the contemporary people can come late to the service of they want and stay longer. In essence, two worship services are emerging, with a common sermon in between. (You can instead do a contemporary music “Pre-Glow” before the service if that suits your church better. But, then you may wind up with an early second service that is contemporary, and younger generations tend to prefer later morning encounters.)

2. You allow this After-Glow (or Pre-Glow) to develop until you have 30-40 people staying for After-Glow. Then, once you have a total of 100 at the whole worship encounter, your start with Step 2 above.

I have used this with dozens of churches and it allows compromise, and the eventual growth of a new cultural worship encounter in a unifying manner (this process is spelled out more in A House Divided, 2000).