Turning the Tanker (Part One) – Decline Doesn’t Have to Be Inevitable

Church Membership Fellowship Isleworth Congregational Church Outreach Phil Andrews

by Phil Andrews

Turning the Tanker

Our January Church Meeting attracted the grand total of four people. Three of them were deacons. Even if my tentative suggestion that we reduce the quorum at Church Meetings from eight to six had been put to a vote and carried, we would still have been inquorate in January.

February’s showing was a little better, with seven reporting present. Had I not been away on holiday we would have been quorate and able to carry out Church business. Just, and in any case only for the latter half of the meeting once the last attendee had arrived.

There is, in my view, a good case for lowering the quorum. Notwithstanding the fact that regular attendance at Church Meetings is a requirement of membership, in the real world there are sometimes valid reasons for absence (and often not so valid ones). Back in the 1920s, when we had in excess of 100 members, average attendance was a little over 20.

But reducing the quorum in the face of declining membership does not address the problem of declining membership. It simply makes it easier to carry on Church business. It doesn’t solve the issue at hand, it merely helps us to mitigate it a little. It’s a tweak, not a fix. If we are to survive as a Church it is the core problem of declining membership, and declining congregations, which needs to be addressed.

Catch 22

Unfortunately we now find ourselves in a “Catch 22” situation. When we do attract newcomers to our services, as we do from time to time, the lack of numbers present must inevitably make those people feel awkward and conspicuous. That is not to say that we are necessarily unsociable or intimidating people (at least I would hope we are not), but how would you feel if you had turned up to a new Church for an evening service and found just four or five other people spread out around the pews, all of whom clearly knew each other but none of whom knew you?

The evidence of this may be circumstantial, but is nevertheless overwhelming. How many people who attend our services for the first time ever come back?

And so we find ourselves stuck in a downward spiral, with our own attendances diminishing with every regular who passes away, moves away or becomes too ill to come to Church any longer. Replacing each departing friend with a new one is not a viable option when newcomers find themselves frightened away by our sparsity. If we are to arrest the resulting decline, something has to give.

Managing services


The only possible route out of this dilemma is not only to consciously go out and recruit new people, but to target that recruitment in such a way as to give us half a chance of actually keeping them when they do come. That means not just making the effort to persuade people in numbers to come to a service, but to manage the services to which the targeted individuals are invited. Not just any service, but a service at which we know there will be a respectable number present who will meet them and greet them afterwards with coffee and goodwill as well as a strong welcoming vibe during the business part of the day.

As I see it this can only mean either generating interest in existing services which might be a little “special” or out of the ordinary, such as Carols by Candlelight in December, or else by actually holding “extraordinary” services in addition to our usual ones specifically with the process of recruitment in mind (one suggestion has been a dedicated service to celebrate the King’s Coronation). In either instance it will be incumbent upon us to promote them vigorously beforehand in such a way as we have not done for a very long time, exploiting all the tools available to us such as promotional leaflets, social media and, of course, word of mouth.

Merely an observation

I should stress that what I have offered here is merely an observation. It is not a plan, far less a blueprint for success. To achieve that we as a Church need to gather our best brains together and thrash out a strategy for reversing the ongoing decline in our numbers, be it in our congregations or in our membership. It is not enough to leave it to any one person in the expectation or even the hope that they will fail. Turning the tanker and building a thriving Church once again is in all our interests, that is presuming that that is what we all want to see. We need to do this together. If there is a case for not trying to improve things then it should be put, otherwise it is surely reasonable to assume that we each and all share this as an aspiration. At our last Deacons’ Meeting the idea was mooted that we should convene a “brainstorming” session in the near future to find a way forward. I would ask anyone with comments to make or ideas to offer to let their interest in taking part in such a meeting be known.

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