Not Like Us

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Elaine Vaden

In the 1980s, the “church growth movement” emphasized the need for churches to focus on their own homogenous group in order to minimize the barriers between the church community and those outside. If the initial church community was composed of Anglo, middle class parishioners, it was believed that keeping the focus on the same kind of people would ensure greater growth. This principle came to be known as the “HUP,” or homogenous unit principle. I bought into this theory — and even taught it as a church growth consultant.

While the social theory of “like attracts like” may have some results, sadly, the theological implication of the HUP is devoid of the gospel of the kingdom. The gospel of the kingdom breaks down the walls that divide, brings together people who eat meat and those who don’t, unites Gentiles and Jews, male and female, marginalized and privileged, and on and on. The local expression of the Church should reflect the kingdom makeup as much as possible. Only then can the observation made of the early church, “behold how they loved one another” be true.

But how in the world can this happen in this era of polarization, claiming sides on the political fence, keeping out those who are not like us? Can it happen? I have lived much of my working life either in another country or in a city of 12 million with over 80 spoken languages. And I can attest to the richness of life that comes from encountering those who look, eat, dress, worship, and speak differently than I do. And while most of us cannot relocate to a different city or town, none of us are restricted from crossing the cultural divides around us, if we want to demonstrate the liberating nature of Christ’s kingdom in a world that would say “find people like yourself” and grow your church with the same kind of people.

Lest you say “we are good at giving to the poor” or “our church marches for the marginalized,” have you entered into the world of those who are different and allowed them to wash your feet or serve you their unusual food? Have you made yourself vulnerable to those of a different faith or social structure so that you might have the blessing of receiving and learning?

Some years ago, while working in southern Zambia, I complained a bit when for several months, potatoes disappeared from the roadside markets and small stores. The ministerial students in my classes listened and laughed but then one Christmas Eve, three of the students appeared at my door with a 50 lb. sack of potatoes they had carried from their village more than 100 miles away. I was overwhelmed by their love and generosity for their “complaining” professor. As I boiled and roasted and fried potatoes in the months ahead, I realized they had shown me a side of love I had not experienced when I just hung around with folks like me.

Going to the other side, encountering those who look, speak, eat, and maybe even smell different has a way of demonstrating the many shades of love and revealing the kaleidoscope of the kingdom.

Elaine Vaden serves with The Antioch Partners as a theological educator. She joyfully teaches missiology (and sometimes church history) in places like Nepal, India, Mexico and Zambia. The picture was taken with a Nepalese friend after Elaine preached in Kathmandu.

When Numbers Become Our Identity

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Becca Messman

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

This phrase, attributed to management consultant Peter Drucker, captivated the heart of the business world just as torrents of new data became available. The frenzy to make sense of the entrails of their own corporate data gave rise to an army of analysts and consultants, modern-day sooth-sayers, who help leaders make decisions based on metrics.

The metrics for churches have long been the ABCs: attendance, building, and cash. Pastor Jones will tell Pastor Smith, “We are a church of 500, and we worship about 250 on a Sunday.” And Pastor Smith responds, “Oh, we have 1,200 in membership, and we worship about 700.” In that common exchange, we learn three things: First, most churches have a large gap between the number of people on their rolls and the number who show up on a Sunday. Second, most churches use these numbers to negotiate power, effectiveness, and even worth, in comparison to one other, and to some degree, in comparison to the past. Finally, in the way we structure that sentence, we might just worship some of our numbers.

When we worship a set of numbers, they become our identity. We are rewarded or punished by what we believe these numbers say about us. We are a big church, a mid-sized church, or a small church. We are a wealthy church or a struggling church. We are growing, stagnating, or dying. But that’s misleading. A wealthy church can be flabby and stuck, just as a tiny church can be lean and powerful, and churches change over the years, even over a few months, just like people do.

Numbers are important. Some churches have become so discouraged with the numbers that they ignore them altogether and say, “Who cares if only 6 people came, it was faithful. Who cares if the place was mostly empty, the people who came were happy.”

We can’t disregard the numbers. Imagine if I pulled into the church parking lot after a great youth mission trip, and 20 exhausted, happy youth returned to their parents. Some parents begin to yell and scream at me: “Why only 20? Why not 25?” I grow frustrated and say to them, as pleasantly as I can, “Well, churches in our day in age are experiencing decline, culture is against us, and we shouldn’t focus on the numbers so much. The 20 who are here had a fantastic experience!” Then they’d say, “Yes, but you left here last Sunday with 25 kids! Where are our children?” Yes, that would be a different story.

Some numbers are heavier or louder than others. When we lose someone who attended for many years, it may feel heavier than when we gain someone whom we don’t know very well, at least for awhile. When we lose youth who grew up in our church, there is often grief attached to our numbers, more so than we bid farewell to the beloved family who was transferred to Iowa because of work. These numbers ask us to seek phone numbers, to make contact, to hear the longer story, to stay in touch, to follow up. They challenge us to think of the shepherd in Jesus’ parable who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one.

Focusing only on some numbers can blind us to others. According to our Presbyterian annual statistical report, our church has lost about (well, exactly) 123 members over the last 10 years, from 850 to 727. Worship attendance has slipped from 290 to 215. That hurts. People feel that, and we miss the great saints who have moved, passed away, or gone somewhere else. And, by the way we cleaned our rolls in 2007, it looks like most of them stormed out at once.

Nowhere in our official numbers, however, are the 60 men and women who worship in Spanish on Wednesdays, nor the 50 Presbyterians who worship in Urdu on Sunday afternoons, nor the 80+ Ghanaian Presbyterians who worship downstairs on Sunday, with a jubilant drum beat that usually kicks in right after I have invited people upstairs to a moment of silent meditation. Our metrics say we have lost 123 members. Our building says we have gained 190 people per week. Who is right?

Even though these other worshippers have been historically “counted” differently, since they don’t pledge or are titled an “immigrant fellowship,” we have begun to pay attention to them. And slowly, we are becoming more of a “we,” rather than “us” and “them.” We started worshipping together on Easter, World Communion Sunday, and Rally Day. There was Fufu and RedRed from Ghana in the Fellowship Hall right next to deviled eggs and breakfast casserole. We have begun to share childcare and Sunday School. And with a new sense of who “we” are, there is a new spirit about us, and, as it says in Acts, “the Lord is adding to our number.”

Some people are with us but won’t join. Some people who join are rarely with us. Nowhere in our official statistics are the visitors who have attended for years, who have won the chili cook-off, who make food for funeral receptions, but have not joined. Nowhere in our membership are the former Catholics or Mormons who have been part of our church their entire adult lives, but fear “breaking their mom’s heart” if they join our church officially.

What about the 145 people who listen to the sermon every week from somewhere else? Who are they? I know one is my mom, but the rest? Are they truly “with us in Spirit?” Are they our extended campus? Are they our “online community?”

We need some new numbers. Jesus asks repeatedly if people had “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” We need new ways of seeing and hearing, and assessing what “counts” in our churches and what does not.

Consider the Biblical account of the feeding of the 5,000. The number did not include women and children, though it mentions specifically that they were there. With eyes to see what was really going on there, the miracle itself is even greater than it sounds by the numbers.

What if we paid more attention to:

  • Small group membership, including small groups like choirs and committees. Christian education enrollment numbers used to reflect our strongest connections, but it is no longer the only vessel for deeper affiliation.
  • Community action participation, hospital and jail visitation, mission projects, and mission giving. We understand ourselves as Christians as a “sent” people, sent to serve God in the world, rather than a people gathered in a building.
  • Non-member giving, loose offering, and attendance vs membership percentages. This would tell us more about how well we are connecting with people in our building than placing ever-upward pressure on giving units and membership rolls.

Paying attention to new numbers is hard. It gives clerks of session heart palpitations. The funding of much of our denominational structures is tied to membership numbers. But it is liberating and illuminating to see the bigger picture, and perhaps, we will behold a greater miracle in what we thought before were dry, stale, or even sad numbers.

“Information without action is overhead,” as Ron Griffin, the former Chief Information Officer of Home Depot used to say. The numbers should not just make us feel good, become a project in and of themselves, or sit on a shelf. They should make us better stewards of our time and efforts. They should hold us accountable and equip us to serve.

Take heart. Peter Drucker also knew that not everything could be held to the “if you can measure it, you can manage it” standard. “Your first role…is the personal one,” Drucker told Bob Buford, a consulting client then running a cable TV business, in 1990. “It is the relationship with people, the development of mutual confidence, the identification of people, the creation of a community. This is something only you can do.” Drucker went on: “It cannot be measured or easily defined. But it is not only a key function. It is one only you can perform.”

May it be so with us, dear church.

Becca Messman is co-pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia.  She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers.  Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting.  She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.

2017 National Gathering Keynote: Soong-Chan Rah

Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL, presents a keynote at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering entitled: “The Changing Face of the Church.”

Soong-Chan Rah is Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL and the author of The Next EvangelicalismMany ColorsProphetic Lament; co-author of Forgive Us; and Return to Justice.

Soong-Chan is formerly the founding Senior Pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church (CCFC), a multi-ethnic church living out the values of racial reconciliation and social justice in the urban context. He currently serves on the board of World Vision and Evangelicals 4 Justice. He has previously served on the board of Sojourners and the Christian Community Development Association.

Soong-Chan received his B.A. from Columbia University; his M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; his Th.M. from Harvard University; his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and his Th.D. from Duke University.

Soong-Chan and his wife Sue and their two children, Annah and Elijah live in Chicago.

Greatest Hit: Challenges of Membership

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on the challenges of membership is one of our most popular posts on the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource for you.

By Leslie King

membership smallAfter enjoying discussion in August’s Church Leaders Roundtable (2013) regarding church growth, I was asked to expand on experience I had implementing a response to the challenges of membership within a particular Presbyterian church. The particular challenge that we faced was a stagnant demographic (little to no growth), a declining membership base and a desire to grow. The first two realities seemed to make the third impossible.

It was 1994 and the congregation had called me right out of seminary to partner with them in this adaptive challenge. The most pressing concern among the congregation was membership. And as the congregation and I got to know one another, it became apparent and when we imagined membership, we were primarily understanding it as a way to “keep the doors open.” In other words, Christian membership, which may be best understood as the organic and emergent response to Christ, was imagined to be something that elders, deacons, clergy and the existing congregation could orchestrate or “control” in order to get a solvent budget and a full sanctuary. Of course, this best guess sounds obviously faulty to the reader of this blog. But perhaps, our best guess in early 1994 is not too far from underlying assumptions of many congregational redevelopment and new church development models.

Without fully understanding why, I remember feeling a need to be freed from our desperate desire for new members. Our desperation was keeping us anxious. Our desperation was keeping our esteem sub par among our Presbyterian peers and colleagues – not to mention other churches in town. In order to calm our system, I experimented with a new response to the congregation’s lament. When, in the Sunday morning receiving line they would declare,  “We wish more people were here on Sunday mornings,” I would respond by saying, “The crowd that gathers is the perfect crowd, I want no more.” This took us back at first. I was not even sure I believed it. But the phrase was the beginning of our healing. Though the congregation was surprised by the phrase it began to allow freedom from desperation and anxiety. It provided care to our esteem which allowed us the energy to gently build an imperfect but genuine program. (We learned that many church seekers were not looking for perfection, as much as they were looking for a genuine faith community.) Perhaps, most importantly, the phrase helped me, as pastor, to get off the dime and begin the dance of ministry with those gathered. I did not wait for a better circumstance in which to invest my skills and talents.

In the wake of our new response, we enjoyed a surge in energy. The session was a pulse point within that energy surge.  They were in sync with their congregation. In the midst of the energy surge, the session made two important decisions.

They first decided to invest their mission money in their stagnant community. We were not the only ones struggling. We met with our presbytery and asked for the blessing to keep our mission money local to our community. These were hard conversations for us to have with the presbytery, but important. In the end, we decided that we could best serve our presbytery and national church by serving those in our community. If our community did not know the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a reliable and invested group, it seemed unlikely that we would be practicing faithfulness to the itinerant Christ.

Secondly, the session decided to stop examinations for membership. It was an ironic decision since we weren’t hosting more than one a year anyway. This decision was a break with the Book of Order. The break with the Book of Order kept us from pretending that the problem was that “people just didn’t want to come to church.” We began to live the question “Who is it that want to come to this church and what can they teach us?” This allowed a break from the pressure of pretending to know more about the church than our visitors. We participated in the energy of the gospel which remembers people reaching toward and claiming a faith in Christ of their own initiative. We stopped asking people to prove themselves up front. We put our efforts into educating and nurturing them in the Presbyterian way AFTER they joined. The session effectively said to one another “let’s see who claims us,” then we will love and educate those people. We did not publicly display them and demand questions of them in a worship service because it seemed “showy” to them and to us.

The membership model became:

  1. Meet with the pastor to discuss faith and life in the church.
  2. Dine over pie with the session and be received into membership.
  3. Find leadership positions/involvement positions for those individuals right away.
  4. The pulpit and Christian education environments were encouraged as ways to learn more about faith and denomination.

The results were mixed. Some became people who could talk the Presbyterian talk and others were more connected with the local congregation than the denomination. (Though these results seem to be prominent in every church, even those with rigorous membership requirements.)

Over the years, worship attendance expanded from 30 or so worshippers to as many as 120 on an average Sunday. In all that time, we completed our year-end statistical reports. And every year, we wondered if we had been faithful in our understanding of membership and the adjustments we had made in order to be a congregation who might expand. Years later, I would read the book The Unfinished Church by Bernard Prusak. The book provided me a comfort that I have received no place else but the gospel regarding an expanding community. In it, Prusak notes,

The emerging Church did not stress unchangeability or a fixity of structures . . . To the contrary, it was still open-ended, and had to be.  Jesus had chosen the Twelve and had left an emphasis on service or “pro-existence” but did not otherwise predetermine the development of his community.  (56)

After serving in her first call at First Presbyterian Church of Osawatomie, Kansas, Leslie King is currently pastor of First Presbyterian of Waco Texas.  She is happily a wife and mother. Leslie is on the NEXT Church Advisory Team.


Looking for more? Check out these resources on church growth and new members:

NEXT U: Beyond Church Boards and Butts in Seats


Welcome to NEXT University! During the month of August, we are highlighting our most popular posts and videos on the NEXT blog from the past few years, with suggestions for how to use this content with church sessions, committees, staff and other leaders. 

Today we pair two previous posts that each addressed the issue of stagnating and declining numbers in different ways. You may wish to discuss these posts separately or combine them into one larger study.

Challenges of Membership by Leslie King describes a congregation’s process of moving beyond “needing to grow” for institutional survival.

  • Leslie would tell her congregation as they fretted about membership loss: “The crowd that gathers is the perfect crowd, I want no more.” The words were healing and took the pressure off so that true change could take place. How do you react to Leslie’s statement?
  • Christianity is an evangelistic religion. How does this emphasis spur us on, and how does it set us up to feel shame and failure if we do not grow?
  • Reflect on the membership process described in the article and the fruits of that process. What questions do you have about it? What might we learn or explore more fully in the process described?
  • Evaluate your own process of membership. Does the formation occur before or after, or both? What are the positives and negatives of each approach?
  • More broadly: does the concept of “membership” have a place in the church that is becoming? Why or why not?


Why Church Boards Need to Die by Bill Habicht explores the current makeup of many of our church boards—in our case, sessions and ministry teams—and how they may not be the right folks for the transformational work that needs to occur. Bill offers a provocative challenge. Proceed with this article only if your group has the trust, self-awareness and good humor to be open to where the conversation goes.

  • Reflect on Bill’s five bullet points about current church boards. Which of these are reflected in your church’s governance.
  • How do you react to Bill’s suggestion of a “bicameral” system?
  • Who are the people in your congregation who might be well suited for a “future church” board?
  • Bill concludes with this question: What structural changes could you imagine that would truly break open the church when it comes to the church board? What do you think?

photo credit: DaveLawler via photopin cc

Peer Learning Makes the Church Better

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around leadership cohort groups that sustain people in ministryHave ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. To see all that has been written on this topic, go to the blog main page.

Peer Learning Makes Better Pastors

The US Congregational Life Leader Survey found that pastoral leaders who participate in peer learning are more engaged in their own self-care and development.[1] Ministers who take a day off regularly are twice as likely to be involved in a peer group. Those who participate in continuing education are more than five times as likely to be involved in peer learning. Pastoral leaders in peer groups are also twice as likely to say that maintaining a private life separate from their work is “no problem.” What’s more, the relationship is two-way.

Peer learning makes better pastors and better pastors participate in peer learning!

Peer Learning Makes Better Congregations

peer learning

A pastor’s involvement in a peer group makes a difference for their congregations.

The Faith Communities Today Survey found that pastors in peer groups lead congregations that are highly participatory. Three-quarters of ministers in a peer group report that leadership roles are shared among laity in their churches. And we see how this works in chapter 3, where we hear the story of a Church of God minister who learned to share leadership in his peer group. When he used a more facilitative style of leadership in his own church, he was amazed at the positive results. But the story is quite different for pastors who aren’t in peer groups. In close to half of their congregations, leadership isn’t shared very much—the same people tend to serve in the same roles.[2]

A culture of involvement extends to youth and new members. Nearly twice as many pastors in peer groups report that youth serve on church committees and boards.[3] Their congregations are also more likely to involve new members in worship and in service to the church and the community.[4]

Pastors who participate in a peer group are more active in their communities.[5] So are the congregations they lead. Their churches are more likely to see themselves as change agents and strongly emphasize community service.

Several of our peer group approaches are intentional about community involvement as a part of their experience, such as Lott Carey’s cross-cultural pastoral immersion model. Seattle’s School of Theology and Ministry showcases stories of peer groups whose members are different from one another in every conceivable way and who through deep listening and mutual discernment become true companions in leadership. Interpersonal change leads to congregational and community change. The Seattle project’s intent may not be to change communities, but in many cases that is indeed what happens.

Pastors in peer groups lead congregations that are committed to clergy continuing education.[6] Their churches are more likely to require it and help to fund it. Many of the pastoral leaders profiled in this book serve congregations that contribute financially to their peer group experience.

So a pastoral leader’s participation in a peer group leads to congregations that are highly participatory, supportive of the minister’s continuing education, and active in their communities.[7] These are important signals of health in congregations. Another indicator of health is numerical growth.

Is there a relationship between a pastoral leader’s peer group involvement and the growth of their congregation? Yes. However, simply being in a peer group is not enough. Two specific characteristics of a pastoral leader’s participation are strongly related to numerical growth in congregations: the length of time clergy have participated in a peer group and the peer group’s leadership and structure.

Pastors with a history of participation in a peer group lead congregations that grow. The relationship is quite strong.[8] The length of time a pastor has been involved in a peer group is one of the top predictors of numerical growth. Only the involvement of the congregation in recruitment, a congregation with a younger average age and an active youth ministry, and little to no congregational conflict are better predictors. It also helps if a pastor is involved in a peer group that is led by a trained facilitator and includes a curriculum or other intentional learning plan.


This article is an excerpt from the Introduction to So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013) by The Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) Peer Learning Project: Penny Long Marler, D. Bruce Roberts, Janet Maykus, James Bowers, Larry Dill, Brenda K. Harewood, Richard Hester, Sheila Kirton-Robbins, Marianne LaBarre, Lis Van Harten, and Kelli Walker-Jones. It is available at


[1] These are the results of logistic regressions that calculate the odds of being in a peer group as well as taking a day off, participating in continuing education, and maintaining a private life separate from their work.

[2]Only 27 percent of pastoral leaders in peer groups said that the same people tend to serve in the same leadership roles in their congregations, whereas 44 percent of pastoral leaders who were not in peer groups responded that the same people tended to serve in the same roles.

[3]Thirty–seven percent of pastoral leaders in a peer group said that their youth serve on congregational committees and boards as compared to 21 percent of pastoral leaders who are not in peer groups.

[4]Pastoral leaders in a peer group were more likely than pastoral leaders who were not in a peer group to say that new persons were assimilated into their congregations through participation in worship (53 percent versus 38 percent); participation in service to the church (42 percent versus 28 percent); and participation in community service (39 percent versus 23 percent).

[5]Pastoral leaders in a peer group were more likely than pastoral leaders who were not in a peer group to say that they spend a lot of time representing the congregation in the community (55 percent versus 43 percent); that their congregation strongly emphasizes community service (51 percent versus 42 percent); and that their congregation is a change agent in the community (73 percent versus 60 percent).

[6]Pastoral leaders in a peer group were more likely than pastoral leaders who were not in a peer group to say that their congregation provides financial support for the minister’s continuing education (76 percent versus 55 percent) and requires the minister to participate in continuing education annually (50 percent versus 28 percent).

[7] We know that “correlation is not causation.” So we created and tested models (logistic regression) for predicting participation in congregations, community involvement, and support for clergy continuing education. We found that a pastoral leader’s participation in a peer group predicted congregations where laity rotate in leadership roles; small groups are emphasized; new members are assimilated through service to the church and the community; the congregation supports and requires continuing education; and the pastoral leader spends more time in administration, supervision, and representing the church in the community.

[8]Since its first administration in 2000, the FACT Survey included a question about average worship attendance in the last six years, in this case, from 2003 to 2008. Respondents are asked to record these numeric averages by year. A “growth” variable is created by calculating a percentage change in attendance over the five–year period of measurement and then collapsing the measure into categories. The data in the chart reflect three categories: “congregation declined” is a five–year percentage decline in attendance of 5 percent or more; “congregation experienced growth” is a five–year decline or increase of less than 5 percent; and “congregation experienced growth” is a five–year percentage increase in attendance of 5 percent or more. When the growth variable is correlated with the survey item about the length of time the pastoral leader participated in a peer group, the results are definitive. Again, in order to determine whether a pastoral leader’s participation in a peer group predicts congregational growth, we created and tested a logistic regression model that included factors known to be related to church growth.