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It’s time to set a ‘souls goal’ for 2023

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Church leaders may be surprised how few people need to join your chuch in order to be a missional "success" this year.

Director of Communications

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon last fall, I was asked to speak at the Michigan Assistants in Ministry (Mi-AIM) annual conference. This hardworking and faithful group of church admins enthusiastically took notes on improving their church’s social media, e-marketing, and online worship. However, one attendee raised her hand as I neared the end of my talk. She stood hesitantly and said, “Mark, this is all great stuff, but we are all exhausted at my church. We have been working hard for so long, and only a small group of us are willing to do this. I don’t know how we can get more of this done.” The room nodded sadly in agreement.

Many of us working in ministry right now feel burned out. Our Michigan Conference staff regularly encounters ministry leaders exhausted. With clergy and lay leaders seemingly beating their heads against a wall with little or no increase in membership to show for it, it’s easy to understand why the latest programs in ministry are met with limited enthusiasm. It’s just one more thing to do, and will it make a difference?

For years we have been reading headlines like “U.S. Christians to become a minority by 2050.” Congregations wonder how and if they can ever change that trajectory. All mainline Protestant denominations have declined for more than half a century. In 2010, I attended my first Religion Communication Congress. A sociologist told our group, “The church has been in decline for more than 400 years, so don’t lie awake at night wondering how you’re going to change that.” It took the wind out of the sails for many of us in the room.

Experiencing this burnout in many areas of the church has caused me to reflect on how I would have approached this challenge in the days I owned a regional advertising and marketing firm. If I learned anything from 25 years as a marketing professional, it was that if you create the right message, carefully focus it on the defined audience, and then repeat the message enough to saturate the target group, you could consistently achieve the results you sought. However, you often had to find creative ways to reach new audiences.

Take the example of one of my former advertising clients, Joleen. Her family had operated a well-respected, locally owned shoe store for over 20 years. Joleen took great pride in the beauty of her store, the large inventory of quality products, and her superb customer service. But at that time, the world of shoe retail was changing.

Discount stores were popping up everywhere. Retail outlets that had never carried shoes were adding them to inventory. Joleen’s business struggled to compete against these low-priced, low-service chain stores. Her shoes were more expensive, and her declining sales indicated that people no longer valued the personal service as much as the cost.

After some research, my marketing firm determined there was no way to outspend the large discount chains, so we took a different approach. Knowing that foot healthcare was critical to the overall wellness of older adults, we found two newly minted podiatrists trying to build a practice. We recommended that Jolene start running free, once-a-month foot screenings for older adults. Instead of advertising, we focused on public relations and event calendars to get the word out. The result was overwhelming! Her store filled up with people seeking free foot health screenings. While they waited their turn, customers browsed and ultimately bought new shoes. The doctors soon had a full practice of new patients, and Joleen’s sales skyrocketed.

At the Mi-AIM conference last fall, I shared that, just like Jolene’s shoe store, the world has changed for local churches, and how we approach finding new disciples must change. Many congregations still expect Sunday to be set aside for in-person church services when the world no longer considers it a day for worship. In our 24-7 culture, Sunday is now held for sports, household chores, and family time. Exhausted families struggle to corral their children in time to get to church on Sunday morning. The half-century decline of our mainline denominations seems overwhelming and unsolvable. Still, amidst this decline, research shows that the percentage of Americans who define themselves as people of faith continues to grow. It is religious worship attendance, not faith, that is in decline. This indicates that most local churches need to meet people where they are. More importantly, it’s time for congregations to reframe their goals in creating disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. You may be surprised to learn that the secular world has something to offer that effort.

In 2021, the highest-earning Fortune 500 company in America was Amazon, with a growth of 22.5%. According to career company Indeed, growth rates over 15% are considered rapid and require further investment to deal with the expansion. Ask any corporate board if they’d be happy with a 10% annual growth over time. You’ll always see enthusiastic heads nodding. Now consider these figures in your effort to attract new disciples. Does your church have a souls goal? The global church decline feels overwhelming. By reframing your objective, you can set realistic goals for your local church and celebrate your congregation’s growth each year.

The average worshiping congregation in The United Methodist Church has 77 people. If your local church attracted just eight more new disciples, you would have achieved a successful 10% growth rate. Now consider offering your faith community some grace and look at setting a 5% souls goal. This is a “net number” of just four more people in an average-sized congregation. This a reminder that you need to account for the loss of members to deaths, departures, etc., to make this goal. Do you need to launch a significant initiative to find one more family to join your church? Or could your congregation seek out one or two families in your community to shower with God’s love, so they feel a part of your church family?

That same afternoon at the Mi-AIM conference, Beth Ann, another administrator, spoke up, “What you are explaining to us is exactly why I’m a United Methodist.” Beth Ann and her husband were making ends meet until they felt called to take in three other children from an abusive home. Then her husband was laid off, and they struggled. In what can only be described as a “God moment,” Beth Ann and her children were at the grocery store when a woman they did not know asked if she knew where the corn dogs were. Beth Ann sent her kids to retrieve the item for the stranger, and as they waited, the woman invited her to bring the kids to the Trunk-or-Treat event at her local United Methodist church. Beth Ann and her family did so if only to have one less meal to put on the table that week. As the kids joyfully enjoyed the Halloween event, Beth Ann found the courage to share her struggles with this newfound friend. The church soon adopted the entire family, providing everything they needed to care for her children. They helped her husband find a job, and soon she, too, was hired to work at the church. Out of gratitude for this act of love, Beth Ann and her family joined the church and began inviting other family and friends to join them. To date, that number is 21 new members, out of caring for one family in need. That church met its souls goal for many years.

You do not need to solve the decline of the global church. You only need to solve your local church’s problem. Better social media, a solid website, e-blasts, and improved signage can help bring in new faces to your church. However, you may only need to look for someone at your local supermarket who would benefit from seeing evidence of God’s love in their lives. Do the math and set a discipleship goal for 2023. It will be achievable, and next fall, you will start your church conference reporting with joy and celebration of meeting this goal.

Last Updated on July 10, 2023

The Michigan Conference