How Worship Brought Our Church Back from the Dead
Eight years ago the previous pastor of my church told the congregation, “Our church is dying.” And he was right. For four decades the church suffered slow but steady decline. Membership was down. The median age of the congregation was up. Finances were tight. And worship attendance had decreased from 450 to 300. Although some members of the congregation did not appreciate the previous pastor’s diagnosis, his comments were accurate—the church was slowly dying. Since that bleak diagnosis, our church has experienced significant revitalization. Membership is up. The median age of the congregation is down. Finances are strong. And worship attendance has increased from three hundred to more than six hundred, an all-time historic high. Today our church is anything but dead. Instead it’s very much alive. What made the difference? In a word—worship. The worship of God literally brought our church back from the dead. The following five strategies helped make it happen.
- We made worship our first priority. When I arrived at First Church in June 2001, many important things needed attention, including stewardship, staffing, programs, facilities, and evangelism. However, after a brief but careful evaluation, I made an intentional decision to prioritize worship. Why? Because worship, more than any other factor, has the power to revitalize a congregation, and revitalization was clearly our most pressing need. I convinced our staff, worship committee, and church council that this ship could be turned around and that it would be done primarily through worship. Our staff parish relations committee also had to sign on because it meant a major change in pastoral priorities. Since worship would take a major chunk of my time, it meant that I would not make every committee meeting, youth event, senior adult trip, or hospital visit. The tradeoff, however, was that the congregation would get far better sermons and worship services. Partly because I was new and they wanted this appointment to work and party because our leaders instinctively knew that we had to change or die, they went along with this new priority on worship.
- We expanded our music and worship team. Within a few months we upgraded from a part-time choir director to a full-time minister of music. Although painful for a few close friends of the part-time choir director, the church responded enthusiastically to this crucial change. A year later we added a part-time music assistant. The following year we hired a part-time sound and media technician. Along with paid staff, we also expanded our music and worship volunteers, including new choir members, worship greeters, and media assistants. These staff and volunteer expansions made a huge improvement in the quality of our worship services.
- We established a dependable yet flexible pattern of worship. I knew that in order to feel comfortable, my fairly traditional, county-seat, mainline United Methodist congregation needed a dependable rhythm of worship that did not abruptly change from week to week. However, I also knew that vibrant worship services need creativity and flexibility. Therefore, we established the following fivefold pattern of worship that the congregation could count on:
- We Gather to Worship God
- We Listen to the Word of God
- Respond to the Call of God
- We Celebrate at the Table of God
- We Depart to Serve God
However, within this basic flow of worship, we also built in flexibility and diversity. The end result was worship that attracted new people yet also met the needs of the current congregation. For details about this ancient yet modern worship model, see my book, Ancient-Modern Worship: A Practical Guide to Blending Worship Styles (Abingdon Press). The book is currently out of print but can probably be found on the Internet
- We updated our music and technology. When I arrived in 2001, our contemporary worship service was still singing 1980s praise choruses without drums, projection, or lighting and sound adjustments. Clearly we needed to enter the twenty-first century. We updated our song selections and instruments, especially at the contemporary service. We also made significant lighting and sound additions to the sanctuary, which improved both the contemporary and traditional services. After convincing our leaders that we live in a visual age and that worship must incorporate that reality, we installed a high-quality projection system, and nobody died or even got fired! Today we regularly project images, photographs, lyrics, Scripture texts, and occasional movie clips at both our contemporary and traditional service, which has dramatically improved our worship.
- We encouraged the congregation to invite people to worship. As we improved the quality of our worship services, we encouraged the congregation to invite and welcome people to our church. And invite and welcome they did! Large numbers of guests began attending our worship services, and many of them joined. We even had to knock out the wall at the back of the sanctuary to accommodate all the newcomers. Although we are located in a fairly small town, over the past seven years, we have added at least one hundred new members (adults and children) per year, plus additional friends who have not yet joined but still participate. Almost every one of these new members and friends first experienced our church through a worship service. Of course, we also lose plenty of people every year to moves, deaths, and inactivity, but our overall membership and attendance have significantly increased.
By God’s grace, and by following the above five strategies, our dying church became an alive and growing church, and it remains so today. The primary key in that transformation has been worship. However, as central as worship has been in revitalizing our church, that’s not the entire story. As already noted, we’ve invested a lot of energy into becoming an inviting and welcoming congregation—including guest parking, a welcome center, trained greeters and ushers, and a thorough system of visitor follow-up. We also work hard on connecting people to small groups and engaging them in ministry. And we have a clear understanding of our unique niche. Located in a Bible-belt town of mostly religious-right congregations, we offer a centrist, mainline, non fundamentalist church of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors” and boldly communicate that to our community. All of these factors have contributed to our renewal. But mostly our church has been revitalized through worship. Worship truly brought our church back from the dead, and it can do the same for yours.
(Originally published in Rev! Sept/Oct 2009.)