This week I learned an old friend of mine was recently called as pastor to a nearby church It had been a while since I had seen her, much less heard her preach so this morning I decided to visit her church. As I was going to and from the church I passed several other places of worship, some seemed filled to the rafters, others not so much.
So, it made me wonder, what makes a church successful? I don't mean what theology makes it successful because regardless of the denomination there are churches which flourish and those that are dying a slow death. Outside of the religious doctrine, what is it about a particular congregation that draws new members and keeps existing members coming back? What is it about another congregation that causes it to fail?
Several years ago a small church opened it's doors around the corner from us. Over the years I've watch the church grow from a few cars on Sunday to a full parking lot and eventually to a bigger venue. During the same time period I witnessed another church struggle, make some advances but after a few years despite the dedication of some members, a talented musician and singing group finally give up the ghost.
One obvious difference between these two congregations was the presence of children and young people. The church that flourished always had children outside before and after services. The other rarely had children present. Now surely, children are not the only reason why some churches succeed while other do not because there are successful churches in retirement and/or predominantly adult communities.
Some churches discourage socialization with people outside their denomination. One of my friends lives in a neighborhood where about 50% of the families belong to one particular church. All the kids go to the local elementary school where they play together and everyone gets along. Yet after school and in the summer, parents of the children who belong to this church do not allow their children to play with the children whose families are not members of the church. Is it the pressure to conform, the cliques, or the desire to be part of a community that draws people together? In a society there more and more often we don't know who our neighbors are, where violence is more common, is there a misguided belief that churches are "safe"?
Some congregations grow from habit. Parents, even grandparents, having been raised in a particular congregation have grown up and raised their own children in the same congregation even if it means bypassing a congregation of the same denomination closer to home.
I definitely don't have the answer. Perhaps a sociologist will one day figure it out.