It pays to listen

The first step in growing a church

Research photo

Anyone who leads at a church knows that we primarily only hear how things are going when people have a complaint…. well, call it a “concern.” Which usually happens every week when it comes to discussing the work of sound guy or the musical choices.

Like most populations, we tend to hear from the “ends” – those who are either really happy or those who are … concerned. And most of a congregation will sit silently by and are quite content.

And they’ll leave silently if they aren’t.

I once had a pastor a larger church come to town for a clandestine meeting with me to get perspective on some questions he was facing. He wanted to know what we (Arbor) were seeing across the country when it came to congregations and their ministries. He felt stuck at his church in getting it to grow and some of their programmatic initiatives were experiencing a decline. The church was hovering around 800 in attendance on weekends but hadn’t seen much growth for four years, especially in their ministries to young people. He had begun to wonder what it would take to get his church to grow again like it once had … if at all. And it was causing him to have some sleepless nights.

I just quickly said to him, “People will come to what’s meaningful in their lives.” It was kind of an introductory statement, a heading for what I wanted to talk about, didn’t mean it to be flippant, but it’s true: People vote with their feet. We see some churches thrive a few doors down from those that struggle.

Well, I don’t know what happened at that moment with the pastor, but as I said those words he loudly slapped both hands to the table and said, no he shouted, “That’s what I think!”  And, yes, everyone turned to look. But, at that moment it was like a weight had lifted from his mind and heart and every hope/dream he once had as a younger pastor was confirmed and renewed.

That took place some time ago and every day since I’ve thought of that “meaningful” comment I made and found it has proven to be so over and over. And his church is thriving again in their ministries to young people.

People will come to what’s meaningful … to them.

So, what’s meaningful to them?

You can see the problem now in the sub-heading. It’s not what WE think will be meaningful to them, but rather it’s what THEY consider meaningful. The problem then is that we don’t know what’s meaningful to most people. We don’t. Until we listen – and listen well. We hear the negative stuff and the vocal supporters, but over 60% of our congregations sit silently and we don’t really know what matters to them. Until we ask. And I guarantee that when you ask, you’ll be surprised… and encouraged.

You too will have a weight lifted from your shoulders and that original vision/call for ministry will be rekindled. It’s what we call “know the story.” Because when you gain perspective by learning what its meaningful and valuable, what you do connects to a larger story and everyone’s individual story.

The meaningful church survey

To help you, we’ve put together a short survey you can pass out to people on paper or share via an online survey like Survey Monkey or TypeForm. You’ll have to do analysis (or get us to help you with the project), but this simple and non-threatening survey will help you learn more of the stories and values of those who attend your church.

The survey does NOT mention numbers, growth or decline, or anything about staff members (or even the sound guy). It’s a series of questions that will help you discover what’s important to those who are most important – your people.

Now, the problem area you’ll have to figure out before you do this is: who does the analysis and what do you do with the findings? Having an external person from Arbor can help with this because it provides a layer of experienced assistance with the “so what now?” questions that will follow. And you know that you’ll get a variety of conflicting opinions about that when you look over the responses from the survey.  However, the reality is that this simple non-threatening survey will help you discover what’s meaningful and that will be an encouragement to you and your leadership team.

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The Meaningful Church Survey

Your age range:  0-12     13-18    19-25    26-35   36-45    46-55   56-65   66-75  76-85    86+  Prefer not to answer

Your gender:         Female     Male   Prefer not to answer

Please answer each question with up to 3-6 sentences.

In 2-4 sentences, describe the moment that you know that [your church name] was your church and you wanted to be a part of it?
When [your church name] is at its best, what are we doing?
What are two things [your church name] should never change to stay true to its mission and why?
What are two things [your church name] could change to be better at accomplishing our mission and why?
What is one thing we need to really hear about what makes [your church name] meaningful to you?
How has God worked through [your church name] to help you grow in your faith?
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If you want to talk more about this on the phone before you do it, I’m happy to do so (at no charge) or you can speak to one of our senior consultants. We at Arbor Research Group love the church and think that churches are instrumental to the work of God in the world. We want to see them thrive; we want to see YOUR church thrive. Send me an email and I will respond within 24 hours to set up a call. Again, there’s no cost and no sales pitch. We’ll just talk about your church and your dreams and concerns.

Photo by Simon Ray on Unsplash

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