Do Our Assumptions Still Fit?

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Peter Drucker maintains that organizational problems are not the result of groups doing things poorly or even doing the wrong things. Organizations fail, he contends, because the assumptions on which the organization was built, and on which it is being run, no longer fit reality. Could our congregations be taking for granted some things that were safe assumptions in the past, but no longer fit? Consider the following:

  • People in our communities are religious. The only religious preference that grew in every U.S. state since 2001 was “no religion.”
  • There are lots of “young families with children. Married couples with children under 18 living at home represented 50 percent of households in the 1950s; today, only 25 percent.
  • Most adults are married. Married couples now make up just under 50 percent of adult households in the U.S.

Could our congregations be taking for granted some things that were safe assumptions in the past, but no longer fit?

  • Young adults get married in their twenties and early thirties and return to church. Married people are more likely to attend church; but of young adults between 25 and 35, just over half are single.
  • Making our budget is a sign of vitality. Perhaps. But some churches have more money because a higher proportion of their membership is over age 50, the group with 70 percent of the wealth in the country.
  • People find us through the newspaper or Yellow Book.Increasingly, the first place a person learns about your church is the Internet.
  • Most people in our community already attend a church. The percentage of unchurched people has increased in virtually every part of the U.S. in recent years. And do not be misled by the polls showing that over 40 percent of people worship each week. The actual attendance numbers do not back that up.
  • Many people have moved away. This is true in some areas, but churches can be too quick to jump to conclusions. Often the children of church members have moved away; but there are new residents, often less well off, who have moved in. How else does a new church succeed in a building once used by a congregation that died because “all the people have moved away”?
  • There is one right way to worship. A church member told a pastor, “I don’t like guitars in worship.” The pastor replied, “That’s exactly what people said when the organ was introduced.” Many worship practices considered normative today emerged out of a particular era and context that may have changed.
  • If new people are really interested, they will join the church. Many people today participate actively in church without joining. Some may never join.
  • New people will attend worship first, some will then join a class, and eventually some will participate in mission. The sequence today may be just the opposite, especially for the young.  Serving may be their entry followed by a small group and then worship.
  • Visitors will check out our doctrines and then decide to stay or go. Beliefs and values are important and should be clear, but decisions about choosing a church are based far more on relationship and belonging. People are more interested in what you believe once they feel they belong.
  • Most new members will come from our denomination. There was a time when newcomers would find the nearest church of their denomination to attend. Denomination matters much less today while a church’s vision, ministries, and relationships count for far more.
  • Guests will want to be recognized. Some may, but many do not. There are multiple ways to show hospitality without public recognition.
  • People will attend a church near their home. The distance people travel to church is getting greater.  One example is that 25 percent of Roman Catholics who attend church go to a church outside their geographical parish.
  • Changing worship and study schedules for the summer helps change the pace. Usually the change is primarily the presence of fewer people.  As people attend church less often, schedule changes are more problematic, especially those that signal low expectations.
  • Lots of people are moving away. Perhaps. But check your local figures to make sure. People moving from one state to another is at a 60-year low.
  • We know our community well. Make sure you do because the longer a church is in existence, the less connected it tends to be to community changes. A new congregation, however, is likely to know the pulse of the community well.
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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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