Reclaiming congregants

In a recent article in The Christian Century, Phyllis Tickle recounted what many of us have believed over the years:  “The old saw is that after they married and had children, people would come back to organized faith. It is not true now. People under 40 are not returning to their inherited church.”  Tickle believes that many of these individuals are moving from traditional churches to new forms of faith community.   In the same article, Diana Butler Bass says, “I suspect that many nominals will move toward none [no formal religious affiliation], while a smaller percentage will embrace their inherited faiths in more personal, experiential ways.”

Both of these women are more aware of the broader religious landscape than I am, but I still have hope that the churches in which the disconnected grew up may be able to make a re-connection.  There are several ways that we might do this.

First, churches can continue to provide worship experiences that embrace both the best of our tradition and more contemporary expressions.  We can be grounded in the past but be open to a fresh wind of the Spirit in our worship.  I am not just talking about music here.  One of the elements of worship that has been missing from many Baptist churches in recent years is the personal testimony.  There are lay people in our churches who have something to say about their experiences with God and others can be blessed by their testimonies.

Second, our approach to Christian formation must be less didactic and more application-driven.  Too many of our Sunday school lessons and Bible studies stop before asking the question, “So what?  What difference does this make in your life?”  Christian formation is an ongoing process, and we invite people into that process where they are in their individual faith journeys.

Third, we can focus more on ministry and less on maintenance.  Rather than seeking to reclaim church members or reach new people to fill the slots in our vast organizational structures, we must concentrate on helping people discover their gifts, skills, and passions and providing the opportunities for them to invest them in meaningful ministry.  This may mean finding new forms of ministry both within and without the walls of the church.

Most of all, we can create an environment that communicates grace rather than judgment.  Instead of pointing out that an individual has been away from the church for a long time or left under difficult circumstances, let us adopt the model of the Loving Father who throws open his arms and says, “Welcome home!

Ircel Harrison

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Ircel Harrison is Coaching Coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is Associate Professor of Ministry Praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. He blogs at His Twitter feed is @ircel.

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  • Tom LeGrand

    Good stuff. There is significant research to back this up. The issue, however, is that we can’t assume these are long-term answers. The cultural shifts are so fast these days that we have to be prepared for the pendulum to swing in another direction before we realize it. But for now, these are very relevant approaches.