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Four tips on deepening engagement


It’s a long step from having one’s name on a church roster to being deeply engaged in that faith community.

An engagement rate of 100% is unreachable. But the current engagement rate of maybe 25% isn’t working out well – for constituents or for churches. Many people want more, but they find engagement elusive, especially when Sunday worship is the only avenue offered. They want significant relationships, or direct mission duty, or small group activity. Getting “fannies in the pew,” as one pastor put it, doesn’t accomplish such objectives, even over time.

When deep needs go unmet, people drift away. They look elsewhere, or they stop looking and try to get along without faith or a faith community.

Congregations, meanwhile, pour ever-increasing resources into Sunday morning and are mystified when attendance remains static, pledging edges slowly down, and the prevailing atmosphere is one of ebbing interest.

Here are four tips for helping people take the long step from name on a roster to deep engagement.

First, look beyond Sunday worship. In planning, time-allocation and budgeting, put your eggs in other baskets. Study your people: their struggles, their triumphs, their needs, their energies, their personalities – and work on doing what Jesus did, namely, going into their homes, villages and families and responding. Get out into the world.

Second, look beyond church. Most people don’t care about the institution. They are eager to know God and can be shown how to know Jesus. But the markers that matter so much to you — denomination, local traditions, and “church talk” – mean little to them. So serve a different meal to them. If you don’t know what that meal is, let them tell you.

Third, work at bringing people together. This is the missing element I see in most churches. Clergy spend too much time in their offices and in large-group activities like worship. They should be visiting with people and discerning their interests, then linking them together with people who have similar interests. Call it being “cruise director” or “matchmaker.”

When my pastor, for example, heard me express interest in a men’s group, she hosted a conversation in her office in which four men met each other and agreed to take first steps. She is doing something similar now in forming a team to work on Habitat housing. Not every initiative will bear lasting fruit. But over time, as people find each other, congregational life will get appreciably deeper.

Fourth, look for under-served constituencies. Recent retirees, for example, have abundant energy and a deep need for work and purpose. Develop ways for them to serve other than Sunday ushering and flower arranging. After decades of focus on serving women more effectively, men have become the under-served constituency. Young families need more than pleas for them to re-invent Sunday School. Teenagers need mission work, not Sunday acolyte duty.

None of this is complicated. It’s work we know how to do. Yes, there are obstacles. Longtime members devoted to Sunday worship will resist any diversion of attention or resources away from Sunday. Clergy who enjoy Sunday worship and feel competent when doing it will resist venturing into the unknown. Many frustrated constituents won’t trust fresh initiatives. Why get more deeply engaged in an institution that seems so unrewarding?

My response: The church that fails to engage constituents deeply will also fail to survive.

About the Author

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of A Fresh Day online magazine, author of On a Journey and two national newspaper columns.


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