T H E P A... P A P E R

Coeditors: Herb Miller, Lyle E. Schaller, Cynthia Woolever - www.TheParishPaper.com
January 2012 - Volume 20, Number 1
Copyright © 2012 by Herb Miller
How to Perfect Your Leadership Triangle
The most effective pastors, staff, committee chairs, and
ministry-team coordinators possess three skills in equal
proportions: relational, organizational, and spiritual.
Relational Leadership
Yes, church leaders need more than relational skill. But
without relational skill, other skills become irrelevant.
Relational skill includes twenty qualities:
1. Joyful Attitude—spiritual institutions whose leaders
need a joy transfusion attract few participants.
2. Sense of Humor—counteracts the tendency to develop an overly serious demeanor that is the personality
equivalent of a turpentine bottle.
3. Enthusiasm—displayed in facial expressions, body
language, and words.
4. Optimism—which the Bible calls hope. People who
dispense this quality in their conversations tend to attract
rather than repel allegiance to themselves and their goals.
5. Caring Spirit—genuine interest in people and a concern for their individual needs.
6. Indiscriminate Affirmation—praise-filled conversations, despite bushels of reasons to go in the opposite
7. Sensitivity—the ability to understand people and
their reaction patterns.
8. Objectivity—the ability to accurately assess and respond to reality, which protects people from seeing issues
through a window of bias and emotional distortion.
9. Forgiving Spirit—a poor memory of wrongs done
by others, which counterbalances the wrongs observed
via objectivity.
10. Nonjudgmental Nature—the habit of communicating grace to people who do not share identical moral,
ethical, or religious standards.
11. Receptive Listener—able to gather information
and insights from conversations with people who express
a wide variety of concerns and opinions.
12. Openness to Considering New Ideas—the inclination to express a “Why not?” attitude when listening to a
proposal, instead of blocking new ideas by immediately
citing several reasons why they won’t work.
13. Forthrightness—the courage to sensitively share
concerns with others, even at the risk of alienation.
14. Communication Skill—the ability to clearly express ideas and goals.
15. Effective Conflict Manager—with regard to both
personal criticism and organizational-conflict issues.
16. Cooperative Spirit—a team player who can mesh
personal goals with those of other church leaders, in
contrast to coming across as defensive, paranoid, or argumentative.
17. Honesty and Integrity—consistently (a) keeping
promises, (b) functioning responsibly, even when tasks
are not especially enjoyable, (c) leading a disciplined
moral life, and (d) communicating identical information
to various groups and individuals, rather than shading
reality to tell people what they want to hear.
18. Humility—serving without a demand for public
19. High Energy Level—the stamina to maintain a
fast pace and juggle several demands simultaneously,
without complaining of overwork.
20. Positive Appearance—clean, neat, and appropriate apparel, shined shoes, and well-kept hair.
Can you think of people serving in church roles who
lack one or several of these relational qualities? Does
that deficiency damage their leadership influence?
Organizational Leadership
Not all church leaders with high relational skills possess strong organizational abilities. An executive coach
who works with both churches and corporations lists five
prescriptions for successful leaders of organizations:
1. Get clear regarding goals and standards. Understand what you are trying to accomplish and how you
plan to measure the results.
2. Communicate goals and standards. Make sure that
everyone is clear about expectations and feels accountable for results.
3. Set direction for and coordinate the work of others. Develop a disposition toward delegation—the inclination to coach the team rather than try to play all of the
4. Address problems sooner rather than later. Instead of running from potential conflict, approach it as an
opportunity to care about people and increase their satisfaction with a job well done.
5. Provide feedback to team members. Frequently
applaud actions that support the organization’s goals.
When things do not go well, explain why a change in
approach is beneficial. [Scott Eblin, “Pastors and Managers,” Congregations, September/October 2001, The Albin Institute, pp. 22-24]
Can you think of people serving in church roles who
lack one or more of these organizational qualities? Does
that deficiency damage their leadership influence?
Spiritual Leadership
Effective church leaders possess more than relational
and organizational skills. They give the overall impression that encouraging people to strengthen their spiritual
connection with God is one of their primary goals.
The five behaviors listed below are not the only means
by which people achieve spiritual growth. However, people in a national survey said that these five are the most
powerful means by which they moved closer to God and
grew in Christian discipleship. [Herb Miller, Connecting
With God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994)]
1. Worship: This helps us to focus on God and to sense
God’s presence. Be deciding to worship, we say that we
are not sufficient by ourselves. We need another God
besides our own ego.
2. Prayer: This lets God into our lives in four primary
ways. Through prayer, God (a) changes our reality, (b)
speaks to us, (c) redecorates our interiors, and (d) moves
us toward our life goals. Until we are ready to put ourselves second instead of first, we do not pray.
3. Fellowship: This is one of God’s ways of reinforcing
our inclination to spiritually connect with, and stay connected with, God’s goals for our life. Fellowship with
other Christians increases our self-esteem in ways that
make us more open to (a) listening to God’s guidance
and (b) making positive changes in our lives.
4. Bible Study: This is another tool that helps us hear
God speaking to us and moves us closer to God in our
thinking and behavior. Participation in a regularly meeting group that focuses on Bible study helps us stick to
our values and ideals.
5. Financial Stewardship: Why do the four Gospels
report Jesus talking more about money than about love
or repentance? Then, as now, people are tempted to put
the god of their money ahead of the real God; and thus,
break the first commandment—“You shall have no other
gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Giving financially to
God keeps money idolatry from replacing God and destroying our ability to grow spiritually.
Can you think of people serving in church roles who
lack one or more of these spiritual qualities? Does that
deficiency damage their leadership influence?
Equalizing Your Triangle
The three sides of an equilateral triangle are the same
length. Shortening one side changes the triangle’s character. Most people serving in church roles are stronger
in one of the their triangle’s three sides than in the other
two. They rationalize that imbalance by thinking, “If I
excel in my gifted side, the other two sides will take
care of themselves.” That assumption is inaccurate.
Productive self-evaluation requires feedback from others. Pick six people whom you trust. Ask them to meet
with you as a group for two hours. Open the meeting by
asking everyone to keep the discussion confidential.
Hand each person a copy of this Parish Paper issue.
Without discussion, ask each person to rank you on each
item, using a scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest. Ask people not to sign their names.
Collect the sheets. During a break, ask someone to
tabulate the answers and calculate the average score for
each item. Distribute another copy of this Parish Paper
issue. As you read the averages aloud, ask group members to write the average beside each of the items.
On the five items with the highest scores, go around
the room, asking everyone to say one sentence regarding
why she or he thinks that score is high.
On the five items with the lowest scores, go around the
room, asking everyone to say one sentence regarding
how you might strengthen that quality.
Articulate to the group any points at which you need
their help or the help of other church leaders in strengthening these traits.
Close with one-sentence prayers, asking each person
in the group to pray.
The Bottom Line
In which side of the leadership triangle are you most
gifted. How can you lengthen the other two sides?
Copyright © 2012 by Herb Miller
Coeditors: Herb Miller, Lyle E. Schaller, Cynthia Woolever - www.TheParishPaper.com
February 2012 - Volume 20, Number 2
Copyright © 2012 by Herb Miller
How to Manage Change Resistance
Why do church leaders so often underestimate resistance to change—even when the status quo is not working and the change promises to deliver big benefits?
Dysfunctional Church Culture
Newcomers often fail to see that a dysfunctional behavior pattern—deeply rooted in the congregation’s traditions—often locks the status quo in place. Examples:
1. Inward Focus. Some congregations, especially those
historically prominent in their communities, suffer from
undiagnosed IDD (Insight Deficit Disorder). Their many
successes during past years block the core lay-leadership
groups from looking outward for new ideas.
2. Complacent Arrogance. Other congregations gradually become disconnected from changing realities in their
communities and young-adult families. Thus, they fail to
see and address contemporary ministry needs.
3. Diffuse Accountability. In churches with large boards
and powerful committee chairs, the decision-making systems often kill most of the creative ideas at conception.
Other Change-Resistance Causes
A list of other, more-specific, barriers to change would
include the following:
1. Fear of making a damaging mistake
2. Fear of changing a method that has worked well
3. Fear of losing familiar habit patterns or relationships
4. Fear of discarding a cherished value
5. Fear of an uncertain future
6. Fear of trying to learn a new skill
7. Fear of losing financial support from parishioners
8. Painful past experiences with change efforts
9. Power-needy leaders who “want to do it my way”
10. Denominational norms make the change feel wrong
Change-Resistance Tips
Practical ways to reduce the stress that often accompanies change efforts:
1. Remember that people make changes when their survival anxiety becomes high enough to counterbalance the
anxiety they feel when contemplating a change.
2. Many people feel that the word change condemns
“the way we’ve always done it.” Therefore, replace that
word with “fine-tune,” “update,” “refine,” and “continue
in the direction we’ve been heading for several years.”
3. If possible, avoid actively killing a cherished tradition. Try to add to present ministries instead of deleting
one of them. Let sacred cows die a natural death.
4. Avoid (a) making major changes via newsletter pronouncements and memos, (b) letting stressful situations
pressure you to make instant decisions, and (c) LoneRanger actions instead of developing a consensus.
5. If the proposed change is substantial, such as altering worship times, adding a Saturday night worship service, or introducing an unfamiliar worship-music style,
appoint a special task force to study the matter and make
recommendations. Compared to a standing committee, a
special task force tends to (a) view the proposal from a
new perspective, (b) think more creatively, and (c) produce a better product.
6. In some instances, set up a pilot program. Testing a
new method for one year “to see how well it works”
runs minimum risk. Pick pilot projects that church members perceive as (a) important to maintaining one of our
congregation’s historic ministries, (b) a dramatic way to
attack an old challenge with a new technique, and (c)
something we can test in a brief time span.
7. In some instances, measure and report performance
differently. Examples: the number of first-time worship
visitors each month, the percentage of regular attendees
who started attending during the last five years, or the
percentage of members above age sixty-five compared to
the percentage below age twenty-five.
8. Say that making the proposed change will be a challenging task but is theologically important. Preaching and
teaching on issues related to the proposed change helps
move parishioners’ perspectives beyond “what our pastor
wants us to do” to “what God wants us to do.”
9. In some cases, consult with an outside expert. Creative innovation often occurs when someone helps church
leaders view reality from a new perspective.
10. Begin discussing the change months before it would
take effect, so people have time to revise their thinking.
11. Present change proposals openly and comprehensively. Allow time for questions and clarifications. The
greater the participant involvement, the greater the likelihood of acceptance.
12. In the initial presentation of your proposed change,
review the pros and cons of other options already considered and rejected. Frankly acknowledge any potential
losses and pain the change could produce. This lets people know that you have thoughtfully considered the
tradeoffs—and takes the steam out of detractors eager to
point out “the reason that won’t work in our church.”
13. If prudence or organizational rules require that you
take a vote, never do that during the meeting in which
you initially introduce the possible change.
14. Rarely do more than 5 to 10 percent of people initially view a new idea as desirable. At the other end of
the spectrum, 5 to 10 percent of people strongly resist a
potential innovation the first time they hear about it.
(Both groups consist of people who feel they should take
immediate, aggressive action for or against a new idea as
soon as they hear it.) Don’t disregard these needs:
• Most of the 80 to 90 percent of initially passive
people, who do not care that much one way or the
other, need time to discuss and ponder the idea—so
that they develop sufficient passion to unite with
the 5 to 10 percent who immediately favor it.
• Most of the 5 to 10 percent who initially oppose the
idea need time to rethink it so they can move from
resistance to passive acceptance or enthusiasm.
15. Conflict is an essential part of every change process—and moves people toward acceptance. Provide appropriate times and places for “concerns” and objections
to freely bubble up.
16. When people criticize your proposal, you may feel
personally attacked. But their objections are more often
an attack on your leadership role (anyone else occupying
that role would receive the same criticism).
Understanding criticism for what it is—anxiety because
the change affects people’s lives—prevents negative reactions from undermining your emotional stability and
sense of self-worth.
17. Respond coolly to what feels like a personal attack,
especially when the criticism comes from people you
care about. When you take change-resistance personally,
you aid and abet a common way of taking leaders out of
action: making yourself the issue.
18. Discuss the proposed change in all groups that the
change would affect. The more significant the change,
the longer you must work at coalition building.
19. During group discussions, ask people to list positives and negatives related to the proposed change.
20. Encourage people to speak honestly about potential flaws in your strategy or initiative. Without that input, your overconfidence about the idea can lead to (a)
intellectual arrogance, (b) a grandiose sense of selfimportance, (c) self-deception that sees only the factors
that confirm your opinion, and (d) disastrous missteps.
21. Increase your communication with core leadership
people. For example, during the period when the change
takes effect, have coffee once a week with the staff
member or layperson who (a) must lead the change or
(b) is dedicated to seeing the initiative fail.
22. Tell the staff in kind but firm ways the importance
of cooperating and the consequences of failure to do so.
23. Expect to give the same explanation speech—in
which you outline the reasons why this change is beneficial—at least six times during several weeks or months.
Some people are so busy rejecting the idea the first time
you present it that they cannot hear, or remember, anything positive from that explanation.
24. Close to the implementation stage, ask people to
throw in suggestions for how to accomplish this change
as smoothly as possible.
25. When implementation is approximately 75 percent
completed, don’t be surprised when a few people—from
whom you have heard no resistance until now—become
quite vocal in their objections. Remember to ...
• Smile and say that you understand how they feel.
• Remind them which church group or groups decided this change is a good idea, and why.
• Resist their effort to (a) suck you into their doomsday emotion and (b) get you to rescue them from
their anxiety by blocking the proposed change.
The Bottom Line
Ninety-five percent of resisters eventually say with
pride how glad they are that “we made that change.”
Five percent of resisters will never like the change, no
matter how logically anyone explains the reasons, and
they will continue to loudly denounce it in their individual conversations and in church groups.
Love them anyway.
Copyright © 2012 by Herb Miller
Coeditors: Herb Miller, Lyle E. Schaller, Cynthia Woolever - www.TheParishPaper.com
March 2012 - Volume 20, Number 3
© 2012 by Cynthia Woolever & Deborah Bruce
What Type of Future Are We Building?
Three churches: totally different, yet identical!
The three churches are miles apart geographically.
They are oceans apart in other ways. Each church serves
a radically different kind of community. Their members
have dissimilar backgrounds and life experiences.
Yet the three churches are identical in one way! Their
lay leaders made big sacrifices to protect them from sliding into a negative future when they began serving a new
First Presbyterian Church, Osawatomie, Kansas
(population 4,488) was founded in 1887. The congregation’s sanctuary seats 219. Because of steady worship
attendance growth during the last five years, it offers two
Sunday morning services. The church’s Website describes the early service as “serene and streamlined” and
the late service as “robust and lively.” The pastor, Leslie
King, says that while the older members have longstanding and deep relationships with one another, they
joyfully welcome and honor newcomers.
The small town of Osawatomie grew up as a “ribbon
development” community—scattered along a state highway—rather than as a suburban bubble on the edge of an
expanding city. An hour’s drive from Kansas City to the
northeast and three hours from Wichita to the southwest,
locals and outsiders perceive the town as “out there.”
But one of the church’s elders developed a partnership
with the School of Music at the University of Kansas.
Some of the KU students travel more than an hour each
week to provide instrumental music lessons to Osawatomie’s children. Graduate music students provide music
leadership in worship services.
The flourishing youth program stands front and center
in the church’s mission. See some pictures of the amazing youth group on the congregation’s Website (http://
osawatomiepresbyterian.org). Lisa Hastings, the church’s
technology director, says, “We do big things here for a
small place.”
The church recently remodeled its original building,
combining it with a house acquired in 2006 to form a
single remodeled worship and education facility. Two
decades ago, no one would have believed such a facility
necessary, or financially possible.
The congregation’s current chapter of inspiring vitality follows a challenging period of its history. For ten
years, the lay leaders carried the load without a pastor.
During that time, few new people joined. The median
age of members increased. The lay leaders became increasingly concerned about the congregation’s future.
So they decided to “bet the farm” and take a big risk.
They spent all of the church’s reserve funds to call a
new pastor. Sixteen years later, that investment in their
church’s future continues to bear fruit.
Forty miles to the north, the six-year-old Kaw
Prairie Community Church is in a growing Kansas
City suburb: Lenexa, Kansas (population 46,822).
The Heartland Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church
(U.S.A.) donated eighteen acres for the church site. The
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America gave the initial
start-up funds. A local developer added new roads, a
pond, and other improvements. This two-denomination
marriage of funding and property creates a congregational model more often seen in the Great Plains and
mountains of the Western United States.
Kaw Prairie’s leaders decided to construct a community building rather than a traditional church structure.
The facility includes PlayLand, a two-story indoor climbing-tower play area (think McDonald’s) that caters to
young children and their parents. Situated next to PlayLand is a Wi-Fi equipped commercial coffee shop that
gives parents and other community residents a place to
meet. Children and adults can also use the church’s gym,
which is open to the public daily, except during worship
Kaw Prairie focuses on caring for children and youth,
looking to the future, and welcoming new people. Worship services offer open communion. Everyone who
“truly wants to have Jesus at the center of their lives” is
welcome, regardless of their church background or baptism. Yet the church also makes clear its membership
requirements. New members are expected to (a) give 10
percent of their income within three years after joining,
(b) participate in a small group or a ministry team, and
(c) avoid gossip. See the www.kawprairie.org Website
for a compelling video overview of how attendees interact with their church.
The congregation attracts numerous first-time churchgoers. Pastor Dan McKnight believes that many of them
were not challenged by the church they previously attended. Knowing that most adults receive little biblical
education beyond Sunday worship services, he tries to
make his forty-minute messages count. The goal is to
inspire worshipers to think and to act in new ways. Sermons are posted on the church’s Website.
The generous spirit of Dick Frohardt, a lay leader,
played a major role in the church’s formation. Frohardt
offered to work for the new church full-time without a
salary. After thirty years in Human Resources Management, he had studied to become a Lutheran Parish Ministry Associate. He dreamed of taking part in a new mission church some day. That opportunity blossomed with
Kaw Prairie.
The First Presbyterian Church of Albany, Georgia
(population 76,574) is 200 miles south of Atlanta. This
historic downtown church’s bell began ringing in 1850.
In 2005, when the congregation’s membership had
dwindled to a few dozen, leaders gravely discussed
whether the time had come to close the church and sell
the property. But a community leader and committed
Presbyterian layman stepped forward. Tom Cousins valued the church’s ministry in the community’s and in his
family’s life. He promised to fund a pastor’s salary for
five years if the members would commit to continuing
their service to people in downtown Albany.
A dedicated core of lay leaders rose to his challenge.
Today, the lay leaders and members actively engage in
efforts to deal with the city’s persistently high rates of
poverty, infant mortality, and community violence.
This is Pastor Garrett Andrew’s first church out of
seminary. He was attracted by the church’s vision for its
role in the city’s future. Earlier—during his seminary
internship—Andrew served in a predominately African-
American church. During that time, Andrew, who is
white, adopted a preaching style often heard in black
churches. But that style is a good fit for Albany, which
is now 64 percent African American. Lay leaders recognize that continuing service among members of the present generation necessitates moving beyond their congregation’s historical roots.
Andrew hopes the church will someday be a vibrant,
multicultural faith community. The congregation’s vision statement—“Praying to be God’s hope and joy”—
reveals its desire to shine the light of hope among community residents. The objective: help people to slay despair, address the underlying causes of poverty and violence, and heal long-standing racial divisions.
First Presbyterian Church, Albany, boasts that it is
“an old church doing new things.” Examples include
investment in a Website to help attract new people, particularly younger adults, to the services and programs
(http://1stpresalbany.org). The Website links to Pastor
Andrew’s Blog and also provides Podcasts of all sermons. A church social networking site (like Facebook)
fosters a sense of belonging—especially important since
more than half of the 150 members joined in the past
two years.
What do these three extraordinary churches have
in common? Three behavior patterns stand out:
1. Sacrifices by lay leaders. In each congregation the
lay leaders made the type of sacrifice seldom seen in
contemporary churches. They moved beyond their own
personal comfort zones and preferences and enabled
their church to offer Christ to a new generation.
2. Active involvement by laypersons. In each church
numerous volunteers drive the congregation’s various
ministries. Leaders challenge members to share their
time, talent, and resources to make a remarkable difference for the church and community.
3. Outward focus. Each congregation invests funds
and staff time to enhance its electronic presence with a
great Website. Podcasts enlarge the reach of the pastor’s
messages. Special events connect with community residents. Mass mailings publicize these events. Members
place signs in their front yards and at public intersections. Members make friends in the community and invite them to worship and church events.
Why do the people in so many churches spend so
much time looking back at their good old days and so
little time discussing how to press on toward the future? Because looking back at the past requires only
memories. Looking forward to a great future of ministry
with the next generation requires sacrifices!
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever & Deborah Bruce
Coeditors: Herb Miller, Lyle E. Schaller, Cynthia Woolever - www.TheParishPaper.com
April 2012 - Volume 20, Number 4
Copyright © 2012 by C. Jeff Woods
How Is Your Congregation’s Health?
While every congregation is unique, congregations
fall into three broad categories of health: healthy, intentional, and fragile. Within these three health categories
are ten specific types.
Where would you place your congregation’s health?
Healthy Congregations
While not perfect, these congregations recognize and
capitalize on their strengths. That factor alone is often all
they need to move to a healthy operating level. Healthy
congregations are well past survival mode. They possess
a well-articulated focus on the future, and their budgets
reflect their priorities. They embrace change. Every year,
they add a few ministries and abandon others, according
to their members’ gifts and their communities’ needs.
Equipped with these values and behavior habits, these
congregations maintain their health in a variety of different ways.
Teaching/Modeling Congregations are creative, independent thinkers. They maintain their health by focusing
on Godly things and staying away from distractions. Often excelling in certain ministries, they may be a leader in
one or more specific aspects of ministry (such as tutoring
or hospital follow-up) and not realize it. Their leaders
and members may take for granted or under-estimate
their church’s strengths and abilities. But neighboring
congregations are typically aware of these strengths and
learn from this teaching/modeling behavior. Teaching/
Modeling congregations compare well to the Church of
Smyrna, “… you are rich.” (Rev. 2:9, NRSV). These
churches do not try to be all things to all people, but they
are clearly God’s letter to certain people.
Leadership Congregations prize their leadership position among neighboring congregations and within their
denomination. Populated with long-tenured members,
they embrace the values and achievements of previous
generations. Their members look beyond the local church
for places to make a difference nationally and internationally. They regularly hold new member classes, promote giving to denominational offerings, and mirror the
espoused values of their heritage. Their commitment to
furthering the works and ministries of previous saints
propels them. Leadership congregations echo the Church
of Pergamum—“…you are holding fast to my
name….” (Rev. 2:13). Mission-minded globally and
locally, they regularly develop new disciples of Jesus
Christ who are committed to their congregation’s ministry priorities. They supply judicatory and denominational leaders and benefit from those relationships.
Networking Congregations maintain their health by
relating to like-minded churches. Some of them develop
membership in networks, such as Willow Creek in Chicago. While teaching congregations tend to underestimate their potential for growth, networking congregations tend to over-estimate their potential. Because of
that, these churches are vulnerable to conflict. While
both teaching and networking congregations reflect the
Church of Smyrna, networking congregations might
benefit from the instruction to Smyrna, “Do not fear
what you are about to suffer.” and, “Be faithful until
death.” (Rev. 2:10). Judicatories can be a catalyst for
relationship building, spiritual formation, and accountability.
Intentional Congregations
These congregations plan, set priorities, or unleash
energy to strengthen the sense of community among their
members and discern where God is leading. Typically,
these churches have used some type of internal reflection
or congregational assessment to learn their strengths and
problem areas. They know where they are, where they
would like to be, and are working on a strategy to get
there. Intentional congregations come in two forms, those
that are learning more about healthy congregations and
those that are striving to become one.
Technical Congregations look for a quick fix to
achieve congregational health. They are convinced that
the right approach, a key program, or an insightful conversation with someone “in the know” will launch their
congregation into a pathway of renewal. They view
transformation as following the right steps rather than
adapting sound principles. Technical congregations may
emulate other churches, but more often, they seek to add
one or more new programs as their silver-bullet to success. Like the Church of Thyatira, their “love, faith, service, and patient endurance” and their recent ministries
may be “…greater than the first.” (Rev. 2:19).
Transforming Congregations are on their way toward
becoming healthy congregations. Their people have attended church-health conferences, read and worked
through resource materials together, and started to implement the principles that they gained. Transforming congregations reflect the Church of Philadelphia—“If you
conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my
God; and you will never go out of it.” (Rev. 3:12). These
churches’ needs are specific—such as the ability to normalize conflict and to receive encouragement as obstacles appear that threaten their effectiveness.
Isolated Congregations may be in the “middle of
nowhere” geographically, or in the heart of a city. Most
members drive in from other neighborhoods. In either
case, they have largely cut themselves off from the community. Like the church of Sardis, they must “Wake up,
and strengthen what remains….” (Rev. 3:2) or eventually face death. Isolated congregations display amazing
resiliency, but find vitality difficult when cut off from
the world. Until these churches sense urgency and request assistance, denominational staff can do little to
assist with change.
Learning Congregations have arrived at the key recognition that they cannot continue doing the same things
over and over and survive. This understanding is the beginning of all transformations. Prior attempts at renewal
looked like a solo leader’s efforts that were too far ahead
of the rest of the congregation, or the acquiescence of a
small group of people who believed that they were doing
the judicatory a favor by attending the latest church renewal seminar. Obtaining congregation-wide ownership
and commitment to renewal is critical.
Distracted Congregations, like the Church of Ephesus, have “…abandoned the love you had at first.” (Rev.
2:4). They pay too much attention to internal conflict,
the pain of a former disappointment, or the antics of a
resident antagonist. As a result, they have forgotten how
to do effective evangelism, discipleship, and worship.
Common reasons for their denial and distraction crop
up—a controlling patriarch or matriarch, an angered
family, a previous split, clergy misconduct, tragic loss,
or a revered leader who never left the congregation. Often in a co-dependent relationship with their distractions, health eludes them until these issues are addressed.
Fragile Congregations
These churches may exhibit few vitality signs, and
they typically are unwilling to invest in the learning and
work required to become a healthier congregation. Lesshealthy congregations come in five forms, outlined below. Some are unaware of, or in denial, about their
changed environment, think a quick fix will do it, and are
blocked from considering transformation due to distractions. As the Church of Laodicea discovered when they
were told, “…because you are lukewarm, and neither
cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my
mouth.” (Rev. 3:15).
Stalled Congregations display many signs of vitality,
but have become routine and lost energy. Their primary
distinguishing mark is that they have neither abandoned
nor added new ministries in the past five years. They may
still be doing some excellent ministry. But without a constant flow of new ideas and relinquishment of old ones,
they soon find themselves battling more over their assets
and properties than over the quality of their ministries.
New Congregations, often defined as churches established within the past five years, are by their nature also
fragile. Encouragement, support, and appropriate challenges from their regional denominational leaders can
help to counter this fragility. New congregations need to
stay focused on ministry. They are most effective when
they only develop the minimal organizational structures
and systems necessary to support their growing ministries.
Note: Go to “Free Resources” on the www.TheParishPaper.com
Web site to download resources for these congregational categories
and types titled A Typology of Congregational Health.
Copyright © 2012 by C. Jeff Woods
Coeditors: Herb Miller, Lyle E. Schaller, Cynthia Woolever - www.TheParishPaper.com
May 2012 - Volume 20, Number 5
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever
How to Turn Bystanders into Active Disciples
Every congregation faces the same challenge—a fraction
of the members carry the majority of the load. These loyal
few attend services weekly, participate in church programs,
support the church financially, take on leadership roles,
and volunteer for mission and outreach activities.
Is it true that a mere 20 percent of the congregation’s
members do far more than the other 80 percent? What
can leaders do to encourage spiritual growth and discipleship among the other 80 percent?
Testing the 80/20 Rule
Researchers Scott Thumma and Warren Bird put this
80/20 notion to the test in The Other 80 Percent: Turning
Your Church’s Spectators into Active Participants
(Wiley Press, 2011). They found that the statistic varies
widely but every church’s membership list reveals uneven levels of involvement.
Yet some congregations find ways to shrink the numbers of those who observe church life from the sidelines.
The remedy for converting bystanders into highly involved participants engaged in meaningful ministry depends on the type of nonparticipant—each spectator type
requires a different strategy for reengagement.
Types of Bystanders
Thumma and Bird’s research reveals several distinct
groups of spectators:
The underinvolved member. This category describes
those who are minimally active. Their worship service
attendance may be steady, but they are rarely spotted at
anything else that happens at church. They do not participate in a small group—such as adult education, prayer
groups, or Bible studies. They have never taken on any
kind of lay leadership role—chairing a committee, working on a mission project, teaching a class, or sponsoring a
youth trip. Their financial giving is occasional and typically modest. However, the reasons behind their lack of
involvement remain a mystery.
The decreasingly involved member. This category describes those who were once active members, but who
slowly become less and less involved. Many times this
decreasing involvement stems from complications at
home—a husband who loses his job and continues to
look for employment or a wife’s declining health.
Changes in work or health, new family responsibilities, or other challenging personal circumstances take
their toll on the once active. Others curtail their involvement for other reasons: a negative church experience
such as a change in the worship service, a pastor or staff
member who failed to meet their expectations, or a
sense of disillusionment resulting from continuing
church conflict.
The waiting to be asked member. Church leaders often overlook members in this category. Newcomers to
the church, especially first-time church members or denominational switchers, need special attention to help
them figure out the mechanics of involvement. Because
they wait to be asked, a sign-up sheet or self-nomination
strategy rarely works for them. Introverted members or
those uncertain about taking on a new role need targeted
encouragement too.
The disconnected member. One church expert refers
to this group as “mental members.”1 Those missing in
action think of themselves as church members, even
though they have not attended in years, and have yet to
meet the current pastor.
These paper-members receive some reward for their
loose affiliation—such as connecting them to memories or
family history, secure reservations for future weddings or
funerals, or an easy way to maintain a Christian identity.
The virtual member. These attendees may be regular
participants but they have never officially joined. However, in their heads and hearts, they are members. Their
lack of involvement may stem from their uncertainty
about what roles nonmembers can legitimately perform.
Strategies for Creating Greater Participation
The multiple reasons for nonparticipation require multiple strategies for reaching the 80 percent. Because every
church has a unique profile of lightly involved members,
the first task involves identifying your congregation’s
participation profile. Find out:
 What percentage of your church’s membership
is highly involved?
 How are these actively engaged members
different from other members?
 What percentage of your church’s membership
is less involved?
 What types of bystanders do you observe
in your church?
Thumma and Bird recommend that after leaders answer
these questions they should follow a three-part strategy:
1. Listening to bystanders. The listening team interviews two or three members that fit the profile of each
bystander category. The conversations with nonparticipants focus on three questions:
 How do they grow spiritually?
 What are their gifts and passions?
 What would increase their involvement?
Remind team members that there is only one goal:
listening to the member’s story. Coach interviewers to
reign in any defensive responses.
standers. Too few churches offer vigorous programs
for helping people to develop a life of faith. Many
congregations have discontinued any form of adult
education or have greatly diminished it. Leaders
should review every church ministry and ask, Does it
make disciples?
More Strategies For Making Disciples
Additional action steps boost participation for all
groups in the church:
 Create ministry teams to replace committees.
 Train leaders to make every group’s experience
spiritually formative.
 Encourage experienced leaders to recruit and
mentor a less-experienced co-leader.
 Help members find their spiritual gifts and
celebrate their contributions.
 Start new ministry teams and groups often.
 Hold a ministry fair to connect people with
groups and ministry teams.
 Invite people to participate in a single-day
ministry project.
 Provide opportunities for families and friends to
do ministry projects together.2
The Bottom Line
Take comfort in the fact that no church engages 100
percent of their members at a 100 percent level. Keep a
balanced focus on the church’s entire ministry. “Do not
neglect the team on the field (present active members)
and the potential team on the bench (prospective active
members) by focusing all of your attention on the exteam that has retreated to the bleachers (inactive members).”3 If some members choose to return as active disciples, welcome them. If they choose to remain on the sidelines, love them anyway.
2. Learning from bystanders. The team’s second step
involves reviewing and discussing what they learned
from those conversations. For example, the researchers
found in many congregations that the underlying conditions and circumstances for decreased involvement
seemed to have more to do with spiritual issues than it
did with circumstantial issues (such as work demands) or
experiential issues (like feeling neglected during or after
a personal tragedy).
According to responses from the least involved,
they would be reengaged if the church strengthened
three spiritual aspects of the church: meaningful worship; pastoral care; and ministry to the sick, shut in,
and bereaved.
3. Engaging bystanders. Building the spiritual life
of the other 80 percent should be the motivation as
leaders creatively accelerate their efforts to reach by-
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever
1. C. Kirk Hadaway, What Can We Do About Church Dropouts? (Nashville: Abington Press, 1990), 35.
2. Visit the Center for Church Leadership Web site (http://
strength.htm) to download materials from the “50 Ways to
Build Strength in Participation” series.
3. Herb Miller, Church Effectiveness Nugget, Volume 6: How
to Shrink Your Church’s Inactive Member List, 24.
Download free at www.TheParishPaper.com/free-resources.
Coeditors: Herb Miller, Lyle E. Schaller, Cynthia Woolever - www.TheParishPaper.com
June 2012 - Volume 20, Number 6
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever
Mission Possible: More Men in the Pews
Women make up the majority of churchgoers. While
about half of the U.S. population is female (51 percent), a
larger percentage of worshipers (61 percent) are female.1
Why is this?
Seven Misconceptions about Men and the Church
One man—in the pulpit—is often the most highly visible person on Sunday. Perhaps that diverts our attention
away from who sits in the pews—lots of women. Inaccurate assumptions keep church leaders from taking any
steps toward attracting and welcoming the missing male
1. There are more women in church because women
live longer than men. This is partly the case because
women in the U.S. live longer than men by an average of
five years. It is true that the percentage difference climbs
highest for worshipers 65 years of age or older (63% are
women). The percentage drops to its lowest for worshipers
15 to 24 years of age (57% are women). However, in
every age group, females still outnumber males in the pews.
2. Just as many men attend but women go much
more often. Neither part of this statement is true.
Women are only slightly more likely to attend worship on
a weekly basis than men (62% of frequent attendees are
In addition, women outnumber men even among
those who attend worship services less often (59% of less
frequent attendees are women).
The church gender gap shows up in other areas of
church life, too. Men are less likely to participate in small
groups (such as Sunday school, prayer or Bible study,
and social activities), community service, or evangelism
outreach efforts. Men take on fewer lay leadership roles
than women as well.
Research shows that one in five married worshipers
regularly attend alone. Most of these worshipers are
women. This male absence pattern led one observer to
quip: “Mom may be wearing an impressive diamond ring
on her left hand, but the man who gave it to her is
nowhere to be seen.”2
3. More young men attend conservative Protestant
churches. The highest percentage of men attending worship
services occurs among worshipers ages 15 to 24 in Catholic
parishes (56% are women; 44% are men). In addition, the
lowest percentage of men in the pew also occurs in Catholic parishes—among attendees age 65 and older (64% are
women; 36% are men).
Yet the gender imbalance remains remarkably consistent across age groups and faith traditions—ranging
from 56% to 64% women in the pews. For Catholics and
mainline Protestants, the percentage of women in the
pews tends to rise slightly as worshipers age.
4. Two out of three churches are small and
women prefer attending small churches. Women always outnumber men, regardless of church size. However, larger Protestant churches—those with more than
500 worshipers—attract the highest percentages of men
(43%, which is higher than the 39% average across congregations of all sizes).
5. But these national statistics don’t take into
account regional differences. Don’t Southern women
go to church more often than anyone else does? The
percentages of male and female worshipers do not vary
much by region of the country either. In fact, the highest
percentages of male worshipers, based on region, are in
the South (an average of 43% male attendees in this region
compared to 39% nationally).
6. Okay, but aren’t there some churches with
more men than women? Nationally, eight out of ten
churches are “gender-gapped”—where the percentage of
women in the pews exceeds the male percentage by more
than 10 percentage points. Two out of three (66%) conservative Protestant churches are gender-gapped. The
numbers of gender-gapped congregations are highest for
mainline churches (86%) and Catholic parishes (93%).
Only 2% of all congregations attract more men than
women. If a church or parish achieves a 50/50 ratio, this
gender balance places them in the top 98% of all congregations in their ability to connect with men.
7. But this gender imbalance is something new,
right? Isn’t there an ever-widening gap between the
number of male and female churchgoers? As far back
as we have records, this is not new. Gender ratios hover
around 60% women to 40% men for church participants.
For at least the past 700 years observers have noted the
lack of men in church.3
What Can Be Done?
David Murrow (Why Men Hate Going to Church, Thomas Nelson, 2011) offers some thought-provoking reasons for why many men avoid church. He asserts that
often churches devalue male strengths and ignore their
needs. His other insights include these observations:
The modern church culture is built to reach
women, children, and seniors. Murrow believes that the
development of children’s ministry bolstered women’s
commitment to the church. A parallel ministry draw for
men does not exist. Interestingly, as more women and
fewer men attend, churches cater even more to women’s
needs and desires. Then, even fewer men attend. Yet he
does not recommend starting a men’s ministry program—but re-thinking existing ministries to make them
more male-friendly. In effect, he calls for small changes
rather than an extreme church makeover.
Murrow advises leaders to consider men’s needs when
planning any event or activity. Create opportunities for
men to gather without women present. Recruit men for
projects that make use of their gifts and skills. Finally, he
recommends steering clear of any hint of feminine spiritual superiority.
Men find worship services boring. Research reveals
that men who attend worship services experience more
frustration and boredom than women attendees. Fewer
men say they feel God’s presence, or find inspiration
or joy. Murrow lists possibilities for making worship
more interesting for men: use humor, laughter, appealing
music, and masculine imagery; keep it short; do some-
thing unexpected; make it challenging; use language that
denotes strength; start and end on time.
He feels that most changes should occur in the background. “Churches that create a healthy masculine environment do not become heavily male.”4 Murrows asserts
that as churches make men feel more welcome, they
attract women as well.
Churchgoers tend to be verbal, studious, and
sensitive. Murrow argues that the average woman tends
to develop the skills that match church culture. Obviously many men excel in these ways too. But most
church activities require mastery of these abilities for
participation (for example, Bible study, praying aloud,
talking in small groups). Anyone—male or female—
required to devote themselves to things they’re not good
at, will find a way to escape.
Drapes, doilies, and other feminine decor deter
men. Imagine the gendered decor of a hair salon frequented by women vs. the very masculine barbershop.
Where does your church decor fall along that continuum? Murrow suggests that leaders create an imaginary
male character who tours your church. This male figure
doesn’t have to be a John Wayne type who exhibits rugged masculinity. An unchurched male relative, neighbor,
or coworker will work. Examine everything the church
does. Would this male be interested, intrigued, feel welcome and comfortable?
The Bottom Line
Is it possible for more churches to connect better
with men? Yes—and some churches are already doing
so. Just as warnings of “mind the gap” alert British
passengers to exercise caution as they step from the
platform into the train car, churches need to heed the
warning to mind the gender gap.
1. Statistics cited from Cynthia Woolever and Deborah
Bruce, A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who’s going
Where and Why, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster
John Knox, 2010). And Cynthia Woolever, et al., “The
Gender Ratio in the Pews: Consequences for Congregational Vitality,” Journal of Beliefs & Values, 27, no. 1
(April 2006): 25-38.
2. David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 14.
3. Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-2005 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University
Press, 2007), 36-38.
4. Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church, 174. Discussion questions are free at www.churchformen.com/guides.
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever
Coeditors: Herb Miller, Lyle E. Schaller, Cynthia Woolever - www.TheParishPaper.com
July 2012 - Volume 20, Number 7
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever
What Message Are We Sending about Giving?
The largest source of congregational income is what
individuals contribute through their offerings, pledges,
donations, and dues. On average, nine out of every ten
dollars a church receives come from what individuals
give. Churches rely much less on other income sources such as trust funds, investments, bequests, and
charges for use of their facilities. The typical worshiper gives an average of about $1,500 a year, which
breaks down to $125 a month or $28 each week.1
What encourages or discourages members to give
financially to their church? Part of the answer lies
with the factors that motivate individuals. A second
part of the answer rests with factors associated with
the congregation itself.
Why Do People Give to the Church?
Research findings from a University of Notre
Dame study on the motivations for religious giving
identified four reasons people offer for making financial contributions to their church.2
They were taught to give. Many churchgoers say
that they follow the example set by their parents or
other important adults. Essentially, their habit of
generous giving stems from the training they received as they were growing up. They internalized
that concept and continue a giving practice as adults.
Their beliefs and values foster giving. Worshipers often attach significant theological meaning to their financial contributions. The belief that everything belongs to
God—including one’s material possessions—prompts
some members to return a portion to the church. Others
say that they give out of a sense of gratitude for God’s
love and goodness. Church members who express a
sense of religious duty to give believe that God requires
giving or that it is what the Bible teaches.
They respond to needs. Contributors often say that
they want to contribute to God’s work in the world.
Worshipers who know about needs locally or globally
report that they contribute to support those causes.
They give out of guilt. People can also give because
they want to avoid the negative emotional consequences of not giving. For some, guilt is a motivator for giv-
ing. These givers say that if they do not give, they will
be doing something wrong or letting someone down.
What Are the Obstacles to Giving?
Despite their relative affluence, American Christians give less than two percent of their income to
charity. While some factors push people to give,
other things constrain people to give less or nothing
at all. The Notre Dame research also reveals several
interesting challenges to generous giving.
They feel insecure financially. Some worshipers indicate that they cannot give as much as they would like
because they lack the resources to do so. They are afraid
to give away money due to the risk of losing security or
status. However, people at all income levels offered this
reason—hinting that, in many cases, the perception of
security plays a larger role than actual resources.
They show signs of giving illiteracy. When interviewed, many members were confused about what the
standard of giving should be and about how to apply
this standard. Some members held the belief that they
are high givers when in reality they were not. What are
the sources of this giving misperception? Members
might not know about others’ giving habits (how often
and how much), especially if there are processes to
shield worshipers’ privacy. Or the individual or household simply does not keep track of how much they give.
They experience a comfortable level of guilt. Another
obstacle to generous giving is a low level of guilt. When
members feel guilty about not giving more and yet they
do not experience enough discomfort, their giving stagnates. In the absence of strong push factors, a little guilt
goes a long way to prevent increased giving.
What Does Our Method Say About the Message?
Just as individuals are not all alike, the congregations they attend are quite different too. Differences
in church theological beliefs and tradition set the
stage for particular financial approaches. Among
churches, three philosophies, which are linked to
typical giving methods, are common.3
Tithing churches. In these churches, all members
understand that to be in good standing with God and
the congregation they need to tithe 10 percent of
their annual household income. As a result, the
church does not ask members to pledge. Nor does
the church hold an annual stewardship program or
annual appeal. Many conservative Protestant churches (like Assembly of God or Seventh-Day Adventist) fit in the category of tithing churches.
Pledging churches. These churches favor tithing but
tend to believe it is unrealistic to expect all members to
tithe. As a result, the church asks members to consider
an annual dollar amount or a percentage of their annual
household income when making a financial pledge.
Typically, these churches conduct an annual stewardship campaign. Many mainline Protestant churches
(like Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United
Methodist) fit in this category.
Offering churches. Some churches believe in tithing and pledging but they do not stress either. As a
result, they rarely launch annual campaigns, do little
teaching about the theology of giving, and offer little
guidance about the spiritual meaning of gifts. To
increase giving, church leaders emphasize the size
and quality of programs, costs of buildings and
properties, and future plans. While churches of all
denominations can fall in this category, the majority
of Catholic parishes fit here.
Motivation + Method = Results
The percentage of tithers is the key feature that distinguishes one congregation from another. Overall, only
one in four worshipers report tithing to their church. Yet
among conservative Protestant members, four in ten are
tithers. Fewer mainline Protestants (only two in ten)
and Catholics (only one in ten) tithe regularly to their
church. These percentages relate to the proclaimed
message and methodology used in these congregations.
When worshipers make their giving decisions based
on a percentage of their annual income—the pattern
for conservative Protestants—their church’s total contributions soar. Contributions are somewhat lower when
worshipers decide instead on an annual amount to give—
a pattern common among mainline Protestants. Worshipers’ contributions are lowest when the amount is
decided on a weekly basis—a typical pattern in Catholic parishes, where contributions per worshiper are
about half that of Protestant churches.
The Bottom Line
High contributors are also high in motivation. As
one member stated, “You put your money where
your blessing is.” Low givers focus on giving obstacles. They mention tight budgets and seem misinformed about expectations. They tend to provide an
additional rationale for giving less—that time spent
volunteering is a substitute for their below-average
giving. In reality, worshipers who invest the most
time also invest the most money.
High-percentage-tithing churches teach givingliteracy to children and adults by linking faithful
giving to faithful living. Leaders encourage a
movement to percentage giving with the goal of
growing that percentage over time.
Ultimately, leaders need to answer these questions: How do we communicate the connection between faith and money? Do we use methods and
strategies that help members make the connection?
Do we focus on the need for the giver to give or on
the church’s budget gaps? Are we willing to change
the culture of giving in our church?4
1. Cynthia Woolever, “Getting to the Bottom of a Full Collection Plate,” http://www.uscongregations.org/pdf/howvalues-enhance-giving-woolever-ppt.pdf.
2. B. Vaidyanathan and P. Snell, “Motivations for and Obstacles to Religious Financial Giving,” Sociology of Religion,
72:2 (2011), 189-214.
3. Dean Hoge, et al., Money Matters: Personal Giving in
American Churches (Louisville, KY: Westminster John
Knox Press, 1996), 98-127.
4. See Church Effectiveness Nugget, Vol. 5: How to Increase
Financial Stewardship (www.TheParishPaper.com).
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever
Coeditors: Herb Miller, Lyle E. Schaller, Cynthia Woolever - www.TheParishPaper.com
August 2012 - Volume 20, Number 8
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever
Keys to Growing a Small Church
Small churches can grow. A recent national study
found that 15 percent of small churches—those with
fewer than 125 attendees—grew in worship attendance over a five-year period.1 However, too many
small congregations are like lockboxes that constrain
the current size; this lockdown eventually leads to
While increasing percentages of people are attending megachurches, fewer than 2 percent of all congregations attract more than 1,000 weekly worshipers.
Small churches are the most common type dotting the
American landscape. The nature of these churches is
complex, with a more diverse profile than larger
churches. They exhibit unique leadership arrangements,
member relationships, contextual pressures, and growth
barriers. These features make pastoral and lay leadership more challenging because one-size-fits-all strategies do not fit all small churches.2
Size-Specific Methods
Some church-growth principles are applicable to
congregations of all sizes. However, size is the most
significant single factor in designing effective approaches. These steps highlight how smaller churches can become bigger churches.
Step 1—Increase the church’s visibility. Churchgrowth methods should be consistent with the congregation’s biblical understanding and theology, but
methods are not the same thing as theology. Methods are simply strategies. Ultimately, the message to
newcomers and the community is always: we are
located here, we care about you, and we welcome
you. Hundreds of high-tech and low-tech tactics help
spread that message.
High-tech efforts. An electronic presence enables a
small church to create a billboard as large as any megachurch. New forms of social media multiply the ways
to advertise for free or with minimal expense. Every
small church needs a basic website and Facebook page.
For help, consult Web-Empowered Ministry: Connecting with People through Websites, Social Media, and
More, by Mark Stephenson (Abingdon Press, 2011).
Low-tech efforts. The church building and facilities need to be highly visible to foot and auto traffic
by: readable and lighted signage; greeters in the
parking lot and outside all entrances before and after services; attractive church exterior seasonal
signs, banners, or displays; and well-kept landscaping. If the church is nestled in an area with little
traffic, post directional signs at nearby major intersections.
Aggressively advertise through low-cost approaches
such as windshield fliers, direct mail to all households
within a designated radius around the church, ads in
free community newspapers, and posts on community
bulletin boards (like grocery stores or gyms). Some
churches distribute yard signs for members to display,
while others give gift cards for a cup of coffee at a
local shop.
Members can attend community events as a group
wearing hats or t-shirts bearing the church logo. If
parade, walk, or run routes pass by the church, consider organizing volunteers to hand participants
cups of water or other refreshments. Many churches
host a free event once or twice a year to get to know
others in the community. Above all, look for opportunities to share church facilities with community
Step 2—Increase the number of worship visitors
and visitors to other congregational activities. People cannot visit your church if they do not know it exists, but knowing it exists does not automatically lead
to new visitors. Today’s small-membership church
leaders should target a fifteen-mile radius or more
around their congregation for outreach.
Younger people and new residents may do Internet research before visiting a congregation. However, the majority of people visit a congregation
for the first time because someone personally
invited them. Why do people return? First-time
worship visitors say it is because they get a warm
welcome from other attendees, enjoy the sermon
message, and like the overall worship service
Growing churches of all sizes need to follow-up
with their visitors. The most effective people for
personal contacts are new members who joined in
the past five years or members who joined during
the tenure of the present pastor.
Churches attract first-time visitors of several varieties. People with an active church relationship can
become members as transfers (those moving their
membership from another congregation of the same
denomination) or as switchers (those who move
their membership from a church of a different denomination). Another visitor variety is people with a
dormant active church relationship (returnees) or
first-timers. The varied faith background of potential
visitors calls for more diverse methods to ensure
more results.
Step 3—Customize methods for your community.
Glen Daman in Shepherding the Small Church4 suggests that knowing the predominate community values steers leaders to strategies and programs that
work in context. How would you describe your community?
 Active vs. sedentary: Are people’s lifestyles
filled with activities or do they spend their leisure time indoors? If active, be represented at
sports and outdoor events. If sedentary, use
windshield flyers or free newspaper ads.
 Family- vs. career-focused: Do people form
goals based on their careers or on their family
relationships? If family-focused, host a family
picnic or offer daycare for a Parent’s Day/Night
Out. If career-focused, offer evening programs.
Stable population vs. mobile population: Does
the population exhibit a high turnover rate, or is
it generally stable? What factors contribute to
the turnover rate? If the population is stable,
reach out through family and friend networks. If
the population is mobile, invest in an electronic
presence and direct mail.
Step 4—Build on the unique strengths of small
churches. Small churches excel at nurturing members’ spiritual growth and training young people to
become future church leaders. The best small
churches know how to help newcomers feel a
strong sense of belonging. To produce the needed
changes for growth, do so by addition rather than
by subtraction. For example, start new groups and
ministries for eighteen- to forty-four-year-olds.
Look for ways to change the single-cell church,
which operates like one small group where everyone knows everyone else, to a multiple-cell church.
The latter adds its sense of mission, leadership, tradition, and location as bonding agents. Also, see
Small Membership Congregations (http://www
Step 5—Become a learning congregation. Try
new strategies and evaluate them. Learn from what
does not work. Rework your methods and try again.
The Bottom Line
Anthony Pappas has said that a small church is
like a loaf of French bread. The aroma and taste are
great, but what a thick crust it has! Small churches
are tough!5 Read the above paragraphs with the
church’s leadership group. Underline the phrases
that you feel are true of your church right now and
the methods worth considering. What are the next
steps to break open your small church?
1. U.S. Congregational Life Survey (www.uscongregations.org).
2. Download the free resource, Church Effectiveness Nugget,
Vol. 14: 25 Turnaround Strategies for Small-Membership
Congregations (www.TheParishPaper.com).
3. U.S. Congregational Life Survey (www.uscongregations.org).
4. Glenn Daman, Shepherding the Small Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008), 34-36.
5. Anthony G. Pappas, ed. Inside the Small Church
(Herndon, VA: Alban, 2002), 125.
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever
Coeditors: Herb Miller, Lyle E. Schaller, Cynthia Woolever - www.TheParishPaper.com
September 2012 - Volume 20, Number 9
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever
Where Are the Unchurched?
About half of all Americans are affiliated with a
church or congregation.1 However, some parts of the
country—like the Northeast, New Mexico, and Texas—with high percentages of Catholics, boast high
affiliation rates. In these places, a congregation of
some kind claims almost 59 percent of the population. Some upper Midwestern states—Nebraska, the
Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin—are also
highly churched. Western states typically show the
lowest affiliation rates.
American congregational geography reveals a
church landscape marked by dispersion and concentration. Churches affiliated with the largest U.S. denominations are not uniformly spread across the
Dispersion: Of 236 major U.S. religious organizations, only twenty-one denominational groups report
adherents in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.
Concentration: Yet many of these twenty-one
denominational groups’ adherents are also extremely
concentrated geographically. All twenty-one groups
report that at least half of their adherents live in just
ten states. Here are some of the major differences
in denominational dispersion and concentration patterns.
 United Methodists and Unitarian/Universalists
are the least concentrated geographically (55%
and 54% of their adherents, respectively, reside
in just ten states).
 Other groups are slightly more concentrated,
such as the Salvation Army and Presbyterians
(58% of adherents reside in just ten states).
 Much more concentrated than other groups are
Churches of Christ and Southern Baptists (72%
and 75% of adherents, respectively, reside in just
ten states).
 Muslims are most concentrated (86% of adherents reside in just ten states), with Mormons following not far behind (76% of adherents reside
in just ten states). One in three Mormons resides
in Utah.
The dispersion and concentration of religious
groups affects how their members feel. Worshipers
in low-concentration regions of their denomination
may feel like outsiders or an overlooked minority.
At the same time, holding a unique religious status
in the community can fuel a cohesive, congregational identity and a strong sense of belonging
among members.
The dispersion-concentration factor influences
what effective congregations do as well. What works
in one church setting will not necessarily work
in another community with a different religious geography.2
Updating the Religion Atlas
In 1952, religious demographers began collecting
information on congregations and adherents for
every state and county. The Religion Census replicated that effort in 1971, 1980, 1990, 2000, and
2010. Their most recent census identifies 344,984
congregations with a total of just over 150 million
The Religion Census shows that Mormons (Latterday Saints), Muslims, and nondenominational Christians are on the rise across the country. In fact, the
Mormon denomination is the fastest growing group
in about one-third of the states. The Muslim population is growing at a faster rate than the general population, which grew about 10 percent between 2000
and 2010. Other faith groups experiencing significant growth include Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and
Unitarian Universalists. Both Buddhists and Hindus
have temples in most states now—adding to greater
religious diversity in the western states and northern
New England.
The new census also brings to light the impressive
size of the nondenominational movement. Nondenominational and independent churches are now the
third largest faith group, with more than 12 million
adherents, claiming 4 percent of the U.S. population.3 In 48 states, nondenominational churches rank
in the top five religious groups.
Also record the number of adherents for each of
these top ten denominations and the percentage of
the county population the number represents.5 (The
website displays this information.) Finally, discuss
with your leadership group:
 How does the unaffiliated percentage in our
county compare to the national average of 49
percent unaffiliated?
 Compare the 2010 report to the report from
2000 on the website. Are the county’s largest
faith groups growing or declining in number of
adherents? Is our congregation in one of the
largest denominations?
 What implications does this growth or decline
have for our congregation?
 In what ways does the religious makeup of our
region influence how worshipers feel about their
affiliation with our congregation?
 In what other ways does the religious profile of
our county shape our congregation’s ministries?
Americans Are Spiritual but Unchurched
This news challenges any prevailing myth that
there is no one for churches to reach in their community. The past decade of change often hinders church
leaders from a current feel for how many of their
neighbors are unchurched. Members can also lose
track of who really lives around the church.
Many people identify themselves as Christian,
Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or something
else, yet do not affiliate with a specific church, parish, temple, or mosque.4 The rising tide of unaffiliated Americans is not evidence of increasing secularism because polls consistently show that most adults
still believe in a personal God (seven out of ten
adults). Why people continue to believe but decline
to belong is an important question for all faith communities. This new information leads us to ask the
right kinds of questions about the people in our community and can direct our focus outward. The essential jump is from this new information to action.
The Bottom Line
Each congregation’s ministry occupies a niche
within a specific religious landscape. Every church
location holds the potential to be “a holy place because the reign of God can come anywhere. For
Jesus, the holiness of a place is dependent . . . on
whether the signs of the kingdom’s presence are
there.”6 Is your congregation called to be a local
expression of the kingdom of God? What is God’s
intention for your congregation in this place?
Map the Unchurched in Your Community
The Religion Census website provides information
for every county in the U.S., and allows users to
chart religious trends in their community. The website also displays national maps that show the geographic concentration of all major denominations.
First, go to www.thearda.com/rcms2010/ and select
the county where your church is located. Next, make a
list of the ten largest denominational groups in your
county based on the number of adherents in 2010.
1. Information in this article is from 2010 U.S. Religion Census:
The Religious Congregations and Membership Study
(Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies:
2012), www.thearda.com/rcms2010/.
2. Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, Places of Promise:
Finding Strength in Your Congregation’s Location
(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 27.
3. In comparison, the United Methodist Church membership
claims about 3 percent of the U.S. population.
4. Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2001).
5. Trey Hammond’s “Leader Guide for Places of Promise”
provides a worksheet for this exercise (http://www.us
congregations.org/pdf/leaderguide.pdf), 22-24. The guide
has other sessions to help groups develop a local theology
of place.
6. Robert M. Hamma, Landscapes of the Soul: A Spirituality
of Place (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1999), 84.
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever
Coeditors: Herb Miller, Lyle E. Schaller, Cynthia Woolever - www.TheParishPaper.com
October 2012 - Volume 20, Number 10
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever
Preventing Church Fraud
Police charged Marilee Smith with embezzling
$230,000 from the Baptist church where she worked
as church secretary for twenty-one years.1 Authorities
believe that she issued checks to herself and forged
signatures. John Jones, treasurer of a United Church
of Christ congregation, embezzled nearly $300,000
over an eight-year period. He took cash from the collection plate and fraudulently withdrew funds from
the congregation’s endowment account for his own
benefit. Patricia Taylor stole more than $150,000
from the Catholic church where she served as youth
director and as the bookkeeper responsible for payroll. She made unauthorized credit card charges and
issued fraudulent church checks to personal vendors.
Another church employee stole more than $130,000
in just fourteen months because she was the only person able to write and sign checks, manage and reconcile the church checking account (including making
cash deposits), and authorize the transfer of funds between accounts. Her monthly financial reports to the
church board were pure fiction. How do congregations prevent this sort of thing from happening?
Needed: Checks and Balances
In each of these congregations, leaders, and members expressed disbelief, betrayal, and disgrace. Because they believed “it could never happen here,”
they failed to put necessary safeguards in place to
protect the church’s finances and reputation. Every
church controls large amounts of money that have
been given by others for God’s work. Therefore,
every church needs practices and procedures for financial transactions, especially for handling cash
receipts and disbursements.
Never allow one person to control church finances. When churches fail to segregate financial duties,
fraudulent cash disbursements are more common.
These include forging or altering checks, submission
and payment of fictitious invoices, doctored payroll
documents to increase hours worked, falsifying expense reports, and using church credit cards for personal expenses or gas cards for personal travel.2
Church computer software adopted by scores of
congregations actually increases the odds of oneperson financial management with little oversight.
Although such software is a good investment, all
the modules should not be in the hands of just one
staff member or volunteer. When too much access
and control is concentrated in one individual, a
good church is asking for bad things to happen.
Always use a team approach when handling cash.
After receiving the offering during worship services,
ushers should take the offering immediately to a secure place.3 Alternatively, plates can remain at the
front of the church until the service ends and then be
taken to a secure place for counting. At least two unrelated people who are not church staff and serve rotating terms should be with the offering at all times
until it is counted, recorded, and secured or deposited.
Having two people present protects the funds and reputations of the people handling the funds—they serve
as witnesses to each other’s honesty. After counting
behind locked doors, the team completes a tally sheet
and bank deposit slip. The two counters sign both documents and make copies of the documents for the pastor, church secretary, and treasurer. If possible, the
team deposits the funds in the bank’s night deposit box
on Sunday after counting. Use a count-team system
whenever the church takes in cash—mid-week offerings, registration fees, or special event sales.
Give monthly written financial reports to the church
governing board. The temptation to commit fraud increases when a board chair says in the meeting,
“How’s our money situation, Joe?” If Joe forgot to
bring the financial report that night and says, “We’re
doing OK,” the process of accepting oral treasurer’s
reports may begin. Eventually, that can lead a treasurer into temptation that he or she cannot withstand.
Leaving information out of reports can do just as
much damage as putting phony information in. For
instance, a business administrator with something to
hide may resort to presenting budget reports generated by electronic spreadsheet software. Because
spreadsheets are detached from the church’s accounting software, they can easily be manipulated to
cover up indiscretions. The monthly detailed written
report to the board typically compares actual revenue and expenditures to budget and compares revenue and expenditures to the same period from the
previous year. Significant deviations from the budget should be highlighted. The treasurer’s report
should also show information on all investments and
endowment accounts, including the drawdown percentages and year-to-date gains and losses.4
Enforce adherence to written church financial policies. The heart of money management—receiving,
recording, budgeting, and spending—enables the
church to accomplish God’s mission. Written church
policies should
 address segregation of duties (i.e., the person
who prepares checks based on approved vouchers or bills is different from the person who receives and reconciles bank accounts);
 require church checks to have two signatures;
 require background checks on employees and
volunteers involved with financial tasks;
 offer guidelines for expense reimbursement and
pastor’s use of discretionary funds;
 and state the rules for restricted funds and gifts.
The church board exercises responsibility for ongoing financial reviews and audits to identify fraud
“soft spots.” Strong internal controls make the likelihood of someday needing to tally the total dollars
lost through theft—after the fact—much less likely.
The pastor should never handle cash under any
circumstances. The reason for this rule is to protect
the pastor’s reputation. In general, it is also wise if
the pastor does not sign checks. The pastor plays a
critical role in setting the tone for how church finances are managed—cultivating a culture of transparency and accountability. The pastor reminds
others of the church’s policies, willingly follows
them to the letter, carefully reviews financial reports, and encourages the church board to set responsible policies and guidelines.
The Bottom Line
Churches whose leaders have known their secretary or treasurer for decades begin to trust them totally. Then, a trusted person faces a big personal or
family financial crisis and can’t resist the temptation. Many of these people say that they planned to
“borrow it” and put it back later, but later never
came. No one wants to put the congregation or an
individual in such a compromising situation.5
We all see no-brainer signs such as the sign posted in a valley prone to deep water: “In case of
flooding, go to higher ground!” Or the sign posted
on the edge of a high cliff: “Do not go beyond this
point!” Governing board officers in congregations
that experienced the painful results of theft by a
trusted church member or employee needed similar
signs. Contact your regional or national denomination for organizational instructions that prevent
these easy-to-defend-against tragedies.
1. These are actual church fraud incidents but details were
altered to protect the church and employee identities.
2. The National Association of Church Business Administration (www.nacba.net) offers additional prevention guidelines; see also Verne Hargrave, Weeds in the Garden: The
Growing Danger of Fraud Taking Root in the Church
(Richardson, TX: NACBA Press, 2009).
3. A secure location means a fireproof safe that is difficult to
move or a locking file cabinet chained to a permanent fixture. Keep only receipts and counting sheets in the safe
and allow access to only a few trusted individuals.
4. Leaders should know how much the church could withdraw
each year from an investment account without depleting the
funds in the portfolio. Year-to-date gains and losses provide
information about the potential income from the portfolio in
the future.
5. Fraud examiners refer to the “fraud triangle” of pressure,
opportunity, and rationalization (see Hargrave, 172).
Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Woolever
Coeditors: Herb Miller, Lyle E. Schaller, Cynthia Woolever - www.TheParishPaper.com
November 2012 - Volume 20, Number 11
Copyright © 2012 by Herb Miller
How to Maintain Church Health in a Declining Population County
World War II’s financial transfusion healed the
Great Depression of the 1930s. But World War II
also ended rural America’s Norman Rockwell era.
When 15 million people took off military uniforms
in 1945, many of them put on wedding rings and
began revising America’s population distribution.
Halos of suburbs filled with young families and
small children began ringing U.S. cities. Simultaneously, during the next three decades, more than 75
percent of America’s agricultural population began
“moving to town.”
School districts in the newborn suburbs grew rapidly. Small businesses grew. Churches grew. Thousands
of new congregations scrambled to build Sunday
school space for history’s largest crop of children,
soon called the baby boomers.
The financial income of those thousands of suburban congregations also grew. Multiple staffs became
more common. And those multiple staffs grew larger
as some suburban congregations—born at exactly
the right time and place—moved toward megachurch status.
Meanwhile, the rural and small-town churches in
population-vacated counties changed radically. The
median age of their members rose as their attendance declined. They grew older and smaller.
Today’s Picture of Small-Town
and Open-Country Churches
1. Countless Sunday school classrooms for children
now stand empty—silent, musty tombstones of a
noisier time.
2. Diminished financial resources make the heating/
air-conditioning bills increasingly difficult to pay.
3. Shrinking offerings amputate many of the
community-service and missions ministries.
4. Many elementary Sunday school classes are consolidated—grouping together eight grades into three
classes that had once been eight individual classes.
Joining junior and senior high youth groups leads to
mostly negative results, according to the kids.
5. Elementary Sunday school teachers are harder to
recruit. “I’ve already done my part—when my kids
were young!” people say.
6. Many of the committee chairpersons hold office
for several consecutive years. They defend this
practice by saying, “Nobody else will take it.”
7. Creative programing has decreased. “We’ve
always done it this way” becomes the sound of
inflexible concrete.
8. The church treasurer has served for twenty consecutive years. The governing board increasingly
bows to his wishes regarding “how we should
spend the church’s money.”
9. The median age of governing board members is
in the stratosphere; the youngest one is now age 65.
New ways of thinking regarding challenges are less
and less respected.
10. Saving money has become the church’s highest
goal, leaving mission and ministry opportunities
blowing in the wind. Restroom signs say, “Please turn
out the lights,” while governing board meetings discuss at length how to better achieve this goal. Important ministry issues are seldom discussed.
11. As the staff size shrinks the former professionals
are replaced by volunteers who lack experience and
12. A long-term church secretary now makes many
decisions that were previously handled by the pastor
and the program staff.
Counteracting This Fading-Effectiveness Pattern
1. Find a genuine human need in the community and
develop ways to address that need. Example: One
small-town congregation filled a large, unused classroom with exercise equipment and opened it for use
by citizens of the community.
2. Work with other community churches to meet
human needs. Examples: (a) Organize an annual
fund-raising event that addresses a particular human
hurt. (b) In one small town, several churches work
together to provide volunteer staff for a used clothing store in an empty building on Main Street. Members of all the churches contribute the used clothing,
which the store sells at extremely low prices.
3. Keep the church governing board small—five to
seven people—and restrict board-member tenure to
three consecutive years. This prevents a short list of
people from running everything and reduces the tendency of a few individuals to exert more and more
control over the church’s future.
4. Don’t allow committee chairpersons to hold office for
more than two consecutive years. Staying too long in a
chairperson role (a) feeds the desire for power and control in some personalities, and (b) reduces the committee’s creative thinking ability regarding activities that best
serve people in the congregation and the community.
Develop a rule by which the vice-chairperson of each
committee serves for two years and becomes the chairperson of that committee for the subsequent two years.
5. To address the building’s janitorial needs, develop
a rotating team system in which a different family
unit handles the vacuuming, dusting, and cleaning
each week.
6. Schedule an annual breakfast on a Saturday for volunteers, followed by an all-church cleaning day. Tip:
In order to increase attendance, assign specific aspects
of the building to specific committees, organizations,
and adult classes. Avoid saying, “everyone should
come and help out.” That type of invitation reduces
the number of people who show up and builds resentment among those dedicated people who begin to feel
like, “We do all the work around here!”
7. What if your congregation is a childless church in
which no regularly attending families have children in
elementary or high school? Develop an education
task force of two or three regular attendees who stand
ready to teach an impromptu class or classes in case
worship visitors with children unexpectedly appear.
8. If your congregation has only one or two high
school students and only a handful of elementary
students, don’t ask the high school students to serve
as teachers or nursery attendants. Teenagers are in a
time of life when Bible study with kids their age
facilitates character development. Don’t steal that
opportunity from them!
9. Long-term members who love their congregation
may have willed endowment monies to ensure that
their church continues its ministry with future generations. You may be tempted to use some of that permanent endowment to balance the annual operating
budget each year. Don’t do it! Diverting that money
to the operating budgets strangles the golden goose
and discourages generous financial stewardship
among members. Use the endowment accounts only
as directed in the endowment.
10. Create a separate endowment board or committee.
Do not make the church’s regular governing board
responsible for both its endowment monies and its
operating budgets. Otherwise, bad judgment often
drowns the appropriate use of endowment funds.
11. Limit the terms of church treasurers to three
consecutive years. The church’s treasurer should
present written reports at each meeting. Without
this kind of official oversight it is easy to slip into a
situation where the treasurer neglects to bring the
report and financial meetings become more like
conversations among friends.
12. Always require an annual audit of the church’s
finances. Inappropriate use of church funds can happen if the governing board fails in its due diligence
responsibilities. Contact the appropriate denominational office for a set of instructions regarding how to
conduct an annual audit.
The Bottom Line
Declining county population leads to declining
membership in its religious congregations—which
lead to rising median age levels in those counties
and congregations. That rising median age of a
church’s members often leads to bad habits, ill
health, and the congregation’s eventual death. To
build better congregational health, begin by building better habits.
Copyright © 2012 by Herb Miller
Coeditors: Herb Miller, Lyle E. Schaller, Cynthia Woolever - www.TheParishPaper.com
December 2012 - Volume 20, Number 12
Copyright © 2012 by J. Brent Bill
How to Use Our Five Senses to Experience the Wonder of Advent
Advent is a season of the senses. Scents of pine,
bayberry, and Christmas cookies ready to taste fill the
air. Everywhere you go, carols waft to your ears. The
feel of wrapping paper and sticky tape touch our fingers. We “ooh” at the sight of outdoor lighting displays or behold the beauty of a simply decorated tree.
This is also true in our church buildings and services—though many times we don’t recognize the
senses for the spiritually teachable moments that
they hold. Advent can be a time to help worshipers
be present to life and to God in new ways. We all
desire authentic spiritual experiences with God, but
the trouble is that most of our teaching comes by
way of sermons, books, Bible studies, and other
spiritual resources. These all instruct our thinking
but often miss our souls, the prime place of divine
vision through one or more of your senses. For instance, when you smell the scent of pine and think
“Hanging of the Greens,” you have just utilized
your right brain through your sense of smell. When
you listen to “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and it
brings to mind the image of heavenly choirs, you
have heard the sound and processed it using the
right side of your brain.
Using the Whole Brain to Experience God
The role of all five senses. Since our lives are led
mostly through the act of thinking, we often become
divorced from our souls and bodies. Using our senses helps us to live in the present. This is important
because the present is the only place that we can
fully experience God. Advent is a wonderful time to
Advent gives us an opportunity to engage both
sides of our brain, with all five senses and our bodies, to more fully experience God. When we’re fully
present—body, mind, and soul—we learn how to
cultivate an experiential faith that is attentive to a
self-disclosing God.
The role of the left brain. Words are the primary
form of communication that we use to nurture our
spiritual lives. Words are the language of the left
brain, which is the logical and concrete center of our
thinking that uses words to understand and interpret
experiences. However, the left brain cannot experience God or anything else. The right brain does the
experiencing. The left brain then takes meaning from
the experiences processed by our right brain. Planning Advent worship experiences that involve the
whole brain helps make faith more than an intellectual exercise for your congregants.
The role of the right brain. This creative and intuitive center of our brain communicates through
images, not words. Images are anything that you en-
Because the right brain does our experiencing,
sensory spiritual practices that involve the right
brain open us to a heightened perception and experience of God. Such exercises position our heart for
divine encounter. However, we need both sides of
our brain in order to live and grow as a person of
faith. In fact, neither side can do its job well without the other.
practice using our senses so that we can experience
God in the reality of the present moment.
Scripture is filled with dozens of references to the
physical senses. Many are familiar, such as Psalm
34:8: “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (KJV).
And there is Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in
heart: for they shall see God” (KJV). These passages
provide reminders about the importance of the oftenforgotten art of linking senses to spirituality.
It is not difficult for us to recognize the pure, Godgiven sensory experiences of seeing a dramatic waterfall or smelling the delicate scent of a newborn
child for the gifts that they are. Yet, we rarely think
about our sensory experiences as windows into the
life of the Spirit that can lead us to opportunities of
experiencing God in fresh ways.
The body. Some faith traditions model how to
involve the body in worship and prayer as a way to
express one’s heart. And undeniably, when we involve our bodies in kinesthetic response, we reinforce what we are feeling, thinking, and doing. The
actions involved in kneeling for prayer, lighting the
Advent candle, singing carols, or walking to the altar for Christmas Eve communion strengthen our
internal attitudes through outward expression.
Too often, however, we live mostly in our
thoughts—making lists and checking them twice—
and spend too little time listening to what our bodies
are saying. Yet Christians throughout history have
known that our bodies have much to teach us. During Advent, worshipers utilize not only their senses,
but also their bodies to form a closer relationship
with God.
Enhancing Worship through the Senses
Below are just a few ways that you can use sights,
sounds, smells, tastes, and touch to help your congregation go deeper into their lives with God.
Give every worshiper a piece of swaddling
cloth. During the service, read the passage containing Luke 2:7 and encourage them to feel,
smell, and listen to the cloth as they fold and
unfold it.
If you offer communion during Advent, before
inviting congregants to participate ask them to
prepare their bodies as well as their souls for the
experience. Encourage them to take time to no-
tice the tastes, textures, and scents involved in
the experience of receiving communion.
Set up a crèche at the entrance to your sanctuary. Place sticky-pads and pencils there. Invite
congregants to pause there before entering for
worship and imagine themselves in that scene.
What do they smell? Taste? Feel? See? Hear?
Have them take a sticky-note, write a word or
two about it, and stick it on the wall around the
Beyond these options, take some time to think of
the ways that your church traditionally celebrates
Advent: lighting an Advent candle, hanging an Advent wreath, performing a Christmas cantata, presenting a Christmas play, or having a candlelight
worship service. Which of them could you use to
involve the physical senses and help link the right
and left brain? Are there fresh ways to utilize your
congregation’s Advent celebration to engage your
members’ senses, bodies, and (entire) brains?
The Bottom Line
When we combine our whole brains and bodies in
attention and love, we move to a new level of noticing. We get a deep, clear look at God everywhere
around us. Encourage your congregation to slow
their breathing, quiet their minds, and calm their
hearts during this busy season. Then invite them to
take a fresh look with attention and love.
Ask them to involve themselves in self-reflection
as they consider:
What do I see?
What do I smell?
What do I hear?
What do I taste?
What do I feel?
When did I catch a glimpse, whiff, touch, taste,
or sound of the Divine?
By inviting them to engage their senses in ways
like this, you will help awaken them to the wonder
of God all around them—a joyous, sensuous, spiritual awakening at Advent!
This article was adapted from Awaken Your Senses: Exercises
for Exploring the Wonder of God (IVP, 2012) by J. Brent Bill
and Beth A. Booram.
Copyright © 2012 by J. Brent Bill