Spinach, Popeye, and strong Presbyterian congregations

Life was very different back in the 1950s, when I was a kid. Kids played outdoors, all day, all over the neighborhood. TV was new and only in black and white. Tall steeple churches were the lifeblood of the community. And in the midst of all this Americana, Popeye taught us about eating our vegetables; spinach in particular, if we wanted to be strong and healthy.

Today, kids may play outdoors — as long as they’re in their yard where Mom or Dad can see them — but they’re just as likely to be in their rooms with their Xboxes. “High definition” TV and home theater are no longer dreams. Today, spinach is more often served with a light vinaigrette, but is still a healthy choice.

But what about the church? It sometimes feels like denominations are out, and doing your own thing is in. Too often we lament dwindling numbers. Is there anything that can reverse that trend? What will make a congregation stronger — like spinach makes Popeye strong? According to researchers with the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations that are growing in numbers and ministry effectiveness share common strategies or approaches. These commonalities — a type of congregational spinach — including assessing the attitudes of long-time members toward new people; offering meaningful of worship, and being open to change, were recently reported by Deborah Bruce and Cynthia Woolever.

Strong churches welcome new people

How welcoming of strangers are the people in your congregation? Do your members smile and say hello when someone new visits your church, or are they shy and reticent? Making sure people feel welcome is a way of extending hospitality. Picture this: A single person visits a small congregation for the first time. He walks in to find fewer than 20 people in the sanctuary. Surely in a setting of this size the congregants would recognize a visitor, yet no one speaks to him. Think of your church as an extension of your home. Surely you wouldn’t invite people into your home and never speak to them.

Does your congregation have intentional ways to increase the visibility of the congregation in the community? If someone is new in the community, could they find out about your church through an ad in the phone book or newspaper? Does your congregation have a Web site where someone could look for service times and directions? And once new people come to your church, will they find good outdoor signage so they know they’re at the right place (and parking near the appropriate entrance)? What about when they come in the door? Signs pointing toward areas of importance like the sanctuary, restrooms, and nursery help newcomers find their way.

Strong congregations monitor their vital signs

Another strength found in growing congregations is meaningful worship experiences. But what makes worship meaningful? And if something was meaningful once does that mean it will be meaningful another time? Strong congregations regularly evaluate their current worship services for vitality and to be certain their services are connecting with all age groups and relevant local cultures, ethnic groups, and family types. It’s great to have services that are meaningful to your faithful flock, but strong congregations also work to ensure their services are meaningful to those they hope to bring into their midst.

Remember what happened when Popeye got into a fight? One of the most entertaining parts of the cartoons for me was the way he would mutter under his breath as he fought. He’d make comments like “so you don’t like this — well how about that?” And if it seemed that he was about to be bested by Bluto, he’d try another course of action.

It’s the same for strong and growing congregations. They are constantly evaluating what has worked in ministry and what hasn’t. They’re not afraid to solicit feedback from new members and to identify what types of new people the congregation attracts (for example, are they switchers from another denomination or transfers from within their own denomination?). Strong congregations ask new people what made the church attractive to them and are willing to create additional small group experiences, such as prayer or study groups, and other opportunities for new people to become involved in the church.

Are there unmet needs in your congregation? Is it time to consider offering more worship service options? More variety in worship and music styles? Different types of services? Just how does your congregation evaluate what makes worship meaningful?

Strong congregations commit to a positive future

As predictable as Popeye was, we always knew that he stood for something good. Strong congregations make a similar stand each week when they commit to a positive future. This is a commitment made to individuals — by focusing on the long-term development of disciples in the areas of spirituality or faith, financial stewardship, and ministry — and to the congregation corporately, using multiple ministry methods and strategies.

Every time a congregation agrees to stand up for the underprivileged in their community, members are making a commitment to a positive future. Remember how Popeye kept an eye on little Sweetpea? When members commit to an after school program or a day care, they show the larger community that they are committed to improving the future. And don’t forget Wimpy — “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” When members of a congregation come along side another member for Bible study and discipleship, simply for encouragement, or to help the sick, they are making a commitment to a positive future.

What are your congregation’s strengths? Do you have retired educators in your congregation who would love to tutor others? Have you seen your neighborhood change over time? Perhaps there is a new ethnic group in your neighborhood. Do these immigrants need assistance in understanding U.S. customs and culture? Can your congregation help care for the latchkey children in your area? Do you have a gift of ministry to the senior members of your community? By identifying congregational strengths, strong and growing congregations discover how to optimize and leverage these strengths to be more effective in the three key areas that encourage numerical growth: care for children, participation, and welcoming new people.

Strong congregations are not afraid of change

Just mentioning the word “change” in some congregations evokes those famous words: “Tha’s all I can stands; I can’t stands no more.” But strong and growing congregations are not afraid of change, even when it comes to organizational structure. They understand the importance of evaluating the church’s current organization and committee structure, making modifications as necessary. They also minimize the number of maintenance committees, instead creating ministry teams actively involved in service and outreach. These congregations are not afraid of risk. Instead of worrying about failure, these congregations willingly try new strategies and, when needed, learn from failed efforts.

How does your congregation view change? Are you “early adaptors,” welcoming change and anxious to try new things? Or would someone looking at your congregation’s committees see the same structure as in the 1950s, perhaps even with the same people serving? Most likely your congregation is somewhere in between. It’s important for congregations to take an honest look at how they view change.

Unfortunately, not all congregations have been eating their spinach and utilizing the techniques of strong and growing congregations. As a result, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) membership has declined 24% in the last 20 years. Your presbytery, synod, and national staffs would be happy to help your congregation evaluate its strengths and areas of growth. The U.S. Congregational Life Survey is just one of many tools the denomination offers to help your congregation identify its strengths. After all, everyone wants to be strong to the finish!