Church Redevelopment: Bloom where you are planted!

By Steve Matthews, Senior Associate Consultant for FaithX

Isn’t that a beautiful picture?  Daffodils springing forth every year give me hope.  I love their reliability and consistency (not to mention that brilliant yellow color and sweet fragrance).  In these uncertain times reliability and consistency are things that matter to many of us.  The Episcopal Church in this photo is in my hometown.   Located in the mid-Atlantic/“Bible Belt,” it has provided reliable and consistent liturgy and outreach services for over 150 years.  Its church building and liturgy and music program are beautiful and uplifting to those who attend.  They have numerous outreach ministries.

Beautiful. Reliable. Consistent.  What could go wrong?  We used to think that redeveloping a congregation was something churches in decline or danger of closing engaged, or perhaps faith communities in the midst of rapid change saw the need to redevelop.  Anxiety often drove the response to the question, “What needs to change?”  As we think about redevelopment in 2022, perhaps we should re-evaluate our approach to the future of our faith communities.   The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” model is not exactly the best motivation for faithfulness as our communities around us rapidly change, and being motivated by love in our response is always better than an anxiety-based motivation.

The average Sunday attendance at this church is stable, but it is not growing despite the fact that the population in the town has increased by over 30% in the last 20 years.  It is a destination church. Many people drive 15 minutes or more to attend, and most are upper middle class. It is also far more white and affluent than its changing neighborhood.  In the data below, you see that within a five-minute drive time, 27% of the residents are people of color, yet many people drive 15 minutes or more to attend, and most are upper middle class and white. The members of this church are far more white and affluent than the changing neighborhood.  

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A 2019 Pew research study showed a steady 30-year decline in the numbers of people attending church.  In short, we cannot expect that people will continue to come to our church buildings just because our building is beautiful, and because we are consistent and reliable.  We have built systems and structures and programs based on a “y’all come” invitation to our neighbors, but Jesus told his pre-church followers to “Go.”   I think it is a good thing that our assumptions are being tested. New redevelopment models encourage “relationship with” not “ministry to” our neighbors.  We talk about moving at the speed of trust, not just moving fast based on our long-range goals. In new models we are invited to take our cues for change from our deepening relationship with our neighbors.  A great collection of stories about this approach can be found in Mike Mather’s book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places, and The FaithX Project has data and resources to help you explore your neighborhood, no matter what your budget.

We are all always called to redevelopment as faith communities because the world doesn’t stop changing.  The invitation is always new.  What will you do for the sake of love? How will you respond?