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Your Next 100 New Members?
By: Lyle E. Schaller

When invited to come and help a congregation design their own customized ministry plan for the next several years, I do not come empty-handed. One piece of the baggage I bring consists of their responses to the advance preparation I requested. That package begins with a couple of dozen standard questions. When was this congregation organized? What has been the average worship attendance for each of the past 20 years? Provide the name, title or role, year joined staff, etc. for every person on the payroll and whether each is full-time or part-time.

After arrival, I ask them to describe the people you expect will be the majority of your next 100 new members. Why will they come here for the first time? Why will they return a second time? Why will they decide to join? That provides a useful reference point as I interview individuals who are new constituents. I ask them the same three questions.

What Is Your Story?
In the late 1940s and 1950s, thousands of new Protestant congregations were launched in America to "reach and serve the members of our denomination who are moving into the new homes being constructed in these new subdivisions." That was a reasonably effective tactic in a larger strategy to reach and serve American adults born in the 1890-1930 era.

A new tactic in the strategy to reach Americans born after 1940 arrived in the 1960s called the "Seeker-Driven Church." The focus was to reach, attract, serve, and nurture Americans on a self-identified search for meaning in life. Most of the success stories with this approach were built on a foundation of excellence in communication, an evangelical doctrinal stance, long-tenured leadership (since the points of continuity tended not to include local traditions, national ancestry, language, inherited denominational loyalty, or real estate), and an effective teaching ministry.
In recent years, the most frequently stated response to my question about anticipated or desired new constituents can be summarized in five words, "married couples with young children."

Frequently, this wish is widely shared in the numerically shrinking congregation with an aging membership. One influential lay volunteer in a church with an aging constituency added, "Between 1965 and 1999, the number of babies born in the United States exceeded 4 million only five times (in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993), but in every year since, beginning with 2000, the number of births has exceeded 4 million, and in 2006 the total was 4.3 million." That trend supported his contention that the congregation could and should attract couples with young children.

What Else Did the Census Report?
A more comprehensive reference to that increasing number of births could have added that, in recent years, the number of births in America to Hispanic parents had increased from nearly 600,000 in 1990 to a million in 2006, while the number of black babies has been on a plateau of nearly 600,000 since 2000. That database could have been expanded to note the annual birth rate has hovered around 23 per 1,000 population for the Hispanic population, 16 per 1,000 population for black Americans, and 11.5 per 1,000 for whites.

In February 2009, the United States Bureau of the Census reported that in 2008 (1) the total number of married couples with children at home was 25,173,000, a decrease of one million from 2007 and the lowest number since 1999, (2) 46 percent of the family households included at least one child under age 18 at home, down from 50 percent in 1985 and 57 percent in the early 1960s, (3) slightly over one-half of all Americans over age 18 were married and living with their spouse, as were 82 percent of the men making $100,000 a year or more, (4) by contrast, only one-third of black men and black women over age 18 were living with a spouse, (5) among women age 45 to 49, 79 percent of the Asians were married, as were 69 percent of the non-Hispanic whites, 62 percent of the Hispanic women, and 43 percent the black women in that age bracket, (6) about 9 percent of all children under age18 lived in a household that included at least one grandparent (down sharply from the 1930s) and nearly one-fourth of that 9 percent had neither parent living in that home, (7) the vast majority (85 percent) of Asian children lived in a home with two parents as did 78 percent of the non-Hispanic white children, 70 percent of Hispanic children, and 38 percent of black children, (8) out of the nearly 67 million opposite sex couples living together, nine out of ten were married, and (9) the median age at first marriage in 2008 was 27.4 years for men and 25.5 years for women. (In 1946, the median age for the first marriage was 24.3 years for men (the low was 22.5 years in 1950 and 1959) and 21.5 years for women - the all time low since 1890 for women was 20.1 years in 1956).

Two Ends of a Spectrum
The responses to the request to "Describe the characteristics of the majority of your next 100 new members" include a huge variety of hopes, wishes, dreams, strategies, goals, tactics, and plans.

One example is the congregation that launches a new adult group every July. It meets for 11 months in the same room for 90 minutes every Sunday morning beginning at 9:00. The invitation is extended to all "newlyweds and engaged couples who want to create a healthy, happy, and enduring marriage." Every year, close to a majority of the three dozen participants (that is the ceiling on the enrollment) are adults who were reared in a home that either (a) endured an unhappy marriage or (b) experienced a divorce of the parents. The class vacates that room on the first Sunday in June, and those who volunteer to pioneer a new class for recently married couples move to a different room for the next stage of their faith journey.

A parallel example of a niche is that mutual support group that meets for two hours every Saturday morning for newlyweds in which (a) both parties are past 50 years of age, (b) this is the second or third marriage for each, and (c) both are convinced a new start in a new marriage will be undergirded by finding a new church home.

Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and parish consultant.

Copyright 2009 by Lyle E. Schaller

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