Last week I wrote about declining worship attendance in many congregations. Statistics cannot tell the whole story and many congregations can point to sanctuaries that are pleasantly, comfortably filled regularly.
No single solution, no simple prescription, will solve the phenomenon of emptier church buildings. Many leaders, seeking a quick fix, decide they need a praise band, video screens, good coffee and pastors without ties. While such approaches, when carefully thought through and wisely implemented, have made a difference in some churches, careless implementation usually contributes to further church decline.
I could spend the next six months suggesting remedies for empty pews, including a column devoted to getting rid of pews themselves. Every congregation must find its own path forward.
I will, however, point to one key factor in church growth. The pastor must have high expectations of the congregation and deep faith that God can make anything happen. If the key leader in the church — and that is the pastor — is of weak resolve, has low expectations and is of low confidence, little or nothing will happen in that church. Strong and committed laypersons can work wonders, but without the right leader their efforts will eventually come to naught.
I was fortunate to have Dr. William Hinson, who once served Albany First UMC so well, as my mentor when he served the Wynnton United Methodist Church in Columbus. Bill, who had more confidence and deeper faith than almost any pastor I’ve ever known, helped me clarify my call to ordained ministry and taught me most of what I know about leadership.
Bill Hinson was unwilling to settle for second-best, and he called that kind of faith and devotion out of the people in his church. He refused to fail and constantly called the church to greatness.
Lots of pastors know the right words to say. Fewer pastors are willing to devote and sacrifice themselves to making their vision come to fruition. Bill was the rare clergyperson who knew how to recruit, train and challenge leaders. He was unafraid to set lofty goals for his church and by faith, hard work and dint of personal example, lead the congregation forward. You couldn’t outwork him no matter how hard you tried.
The pastor must believe — and help the congregation to believe — that the church is of God and through the church can the world be transformed. Church isn’t a game. The church is the one institution created by God to convey the saving word of Jesus Christ. The pastor cannot compromise on this. The church is not just another club on equal footing with country clubs, sports teams, service organizations, etc. Pastors — in an effort to be congenial — are far too understanding about why people fail to love, support, serve and attend church.
Look at the organizational structure of a sports team or franchise. The players can stay exactly the same, and yet the performance level can be startling different thanks to the coach and/or general manager. It’s the same with the church.
What can the layperson do? Call the best out of your pastor. Empower him or her. Exhort the pastor to lead boldly.