Spiritual growth

Some small churches in Columbia defy a study’s
given odds and increase attendance
Sunday, October 5, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:17 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Through the double doors of Forum Boulevard Christian Church, there is a sign-up center for visitors on the right and a brightly colored map of the world on the left — on the one hand welcoming newcomers and on the other displaying the church’s mission outreach beyond Columbia.

Sixteen flags from around the world decorate the walls of the church’s eight-sided sanctuary, where every Sunday an average of 800 congregants over three services listen to the Rev. Max Jennings.

As Jennings preaches his message — feeling, he said later, a spirit of anticipation and a total sense of humility — he invites his congregation to be “God’s secret agents.” By working on “assignment” from Jesus Christ, he tells them, they can reach out to others by sharing their faith.

Jennings said his church’s commitment to faith-sharing, declaring personal beliefs, evangelism, getting others to accept personal beliefs, and love — within families, between friends and at the workplace — has helped its congregation almost triple since he became the pastor there 17 years ago. The church began in 1954 with six people who met at a fine arts building on what is now the Boone County Fairgrounds. Now, two moves later, membership is at 1,200.

A new report from the Barna Research Group, a marketing research company in California, says that churches with strong leadership and significant commitment from members can grow as Forum has. In a survey of about 4,500 adults nationwide, Barna found that growth is difficult for small churches and much easier for bigger churches.

Barna defined small churches as having 100 or fewer attendants, mid-sized churches as having between 301 and 999 attendants and large churches as having 1,000 or more. The survey — which examined church attendance, demographics and spiritual beliefs and practices — was conducted from January 2002 to May 2003. Depending on the sample, the margin of error ranged from plus or minus 1.8 percent to 6.7 percent.

The survey found a number of reasons that small churches struggle to grow. For example, they tend to attract people with lower household incomes, making it difficult to expand.

The survey also found that small churches are less “spiritually active” — meaning that members “attend church, read the Bible and pray to God during a typical week” — and that congregants are less likely to claim that their faith is “very important” to them.

Adults younger than 35 are more likely to attend a smaller church because they might not have children. Families usually attend larger churches because of quality ministry programs available for the children, Barna found.

By contrast, larger churches generally have deeper pockets to draw from, because the people they attract tend to come from higher-income households. That means the churches can takes more risks to expand, including aggressive marketing. “Barna noted that upscale individuals are more often comfortable with leadership requirements and decision-making and tend to be more excited about organizational growth,” a report on the survey said.

Bill Hampton, coordinator of leadership and congregational development for the United Methodist Church in Missouri, said that a small church might want to expand but is limited by its facilities. He also acknowledged a “small church mentality” — that some people prefer a small church because they know everyone and have no desire to expand and risk becoming lost in a large congregation.

But Hampton said large churches create communities where everyone knows each other through small-group development. Jennings said his church has between 200 and 300 people meeting in homes throughout Columbia.

Barna’s research shows that on an average weekend, 60 percent of Protestant churches in the United States have 100 or fewer adults in the pews. Out of about 110 Protestant churches in Columbia, at least 17 are small by the standard Barna used in the survey. Some of these churches are perfectly content with their size and have no plans to expand.

For example, St. Francis and Clare Church is unique in its denomination, and information from its Web site defines the International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church, started in 1992, as a “convergence of streams” — unifying liturgical, charismatic and evangelical tributaries of the Christian Church.

“We put all that together in one place,” the Rev. John Prenger said. “We have a liturgy like the Catholics, but take time for praise like Charismatics, and take time to evangelize like the Baptists.”

Begun in 1998 with four members, St. Francis and Clare has grown to a membership of 25, with an average attendance of 10 each Sunday.

“We have no desire for anyone to join us unless they want to bring the church back together,” Prenger said. “It’s as old as the church from the beginning and as new as 1992.”

The International Community Church, which describes itself as a “church plant” of the Evangelical Free Church, expects to grow slowly because of its emphasis of reaching out to “non-Americans,” who make up two-thirds of its 42 members. In addition to providing a place of worship for people of “every culture and every country,” some attendants come just to learn English or because they are interested in American culture, the Rev. Paul Fox said.

When the church began four years ago, attendance was about 100, but after a few months when congregants noticed the international emphasis, attendance dwindled and official membership became 42. Now the International Community Church is slowly growing again, with an average of 90 each Sunday, Fox said.

The Barna Research Group says there is hope for small churches that want to grow, if they develop “significant internal leadership and overcome their resource limitations.”

“Columbia is growing in population, so the opportunity is there,” Hampton said. “My personal feeling is that we are called to reach out and make disciples — it would be my hope that all churches would do that.”

The Unity in Christ AME-Zion Family Worship Center has seen first-hand how a small church can plant a seed and grow. In January, the church had two families — for a total of nine people. Now, the attendance at a Sunday worship service has reached a high of 70.

The Rev. William Spencer attributes the rapid growth to talking to people, running commercials on television, providing programs for youth and holding contemporary, upbeat services on Sunday.

“I found there are a lot of people who don’t go to church in Columbia,” Spencer said. “If you just invite them, they come. We have a goal in mind and that is to fill the sanctuary, and we are doing that.”

Unity in Christ AME-Zion Family Worship Center is part of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. Spencer says that for most small churches it is difficult starting out because they don’t have a “covering,” meaning they are not part of any denomination.

“When the bills get heavy with a small church, you have to push people hard,” Spencer said. “We don’t have to push as hard because we are an arm of AME-Zion church.”

When a church is interested in expanding, especially if its facility does not provide sufficient space, a majority of members must be willing to add onto the building or to relocate, Hampton said. He stressed the importance of a building committee that will explore cost and construction options and that can present this information to the congregation.

Global growth is on the minds of congregants at Forum Boulevard Christian Church. Their branches of evangelism extend far beyond the city limits to Haiti, Africa and Taiwan.

Said Jennings, “We want to make it very hard for everyone to go to Hell.”

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