You've considered starting a new worship service to grow your church. It’s easy to see why you might want to, especially if you’re a mainliner. Here’s three reasons why you should.
In an article called "Just How Bad is Denominational Decline," researcher Ryan Burge calls the decline in the mainline church “a bloodbath.” Burge cites splits over social issues as a cause, the disaffiliation in the United Methodist (UM) Church being the most recent (2023-2024). Burge expects further decline in the UM to come.
Starting a new service can help you reverse decline… except, if that’s all you’re trying to do, you won’t grow. You might even decline more if you try startup for the wrong reason. Most new services fail, which causes harm to a church. So prayerfully discern your motivation before you take the step forward. Starting a new worship service is very demanding. It always, repeat, always causes conflict—even when you have the right reasons for it. But it’s a compelling motivation that will carry you through the ups and downs of startup. The right motivation helps you succeed (Growing your church is not it!).
There are three powerful values to consider for starting a new service. In fact, you should start a new service to accomplish these things in your church.
Reason 1: Start a new service to make new disciples
Starting a new service is like starting a church. All new faith communities grow from reaching a particular mission field. The mission field is far from God and the church. They’ve never heard about how Jesus transforms us. They might be looking for a new church because they’re not growing in theirs. Maybe they knew Jesus once but have slipped away. You probably already know most of the people you’d reach out to, although you might not know them very well. Yet!
Your purpose in getting to know them better is to tell them about Jesus. Your purpose in telling them about Jesus is to live out your own call to follow Jesus. It isn’t fast. You’ll have to learn how to listen to people in ways you haven’t before. You’ll have to be ready to talk about your own faith journey when God opens the door.
This process is not about the worship service. It’s about the relationship between church people and those outside the church. When a person new to Christianity hears and absorbs the gospel, they’ll pursue the gospel in relationship with the one who is telling it to them. Worship is the result of that relationship because that’s what disciples do: we gather to worship.
Most church people don’t get how much people far from God mistrust the church. If they think you’re trying to attract them by being more modern, they’ll trust you less… that is, if they even are paying attention to what you’re doing. Your church is probably not even on their radar, and a new service won’t change that. One thing a person new or returning to Christianity does care about? Is Jesus real, and if so, will Jesus be real to me? It’s your relationship with them that will allow you to tell them yes.
The decline drama in the mainline church has been going on for a long time… long before COVID, long before disaffiliations. You have to wonder who has been telling people about Jesus during all those years. Because when church people make new disciples, they have a church. Worship follows.
Reason 2: Start a new service to grow your people (not your church)
A new worship service is a response to outreach efforts. Make new disciples, and you’ll have to start a new service!
That's a concept that represents a steep learning curve for church people. A declining church is ingrown. It sometimes seems like ingrown church members would rather decline than reach out. Decline is at least familiar.
Church people talk about three things when talking about growth:
1. The glory days, when there were younger families (and younger pastors)
2. The need for more people to populate dying committees.
3. The financial downturn of the church and getting more giving units.
None of those things matter to those far from God and the church. To focus there is a sign of spiritual immaturity. Spiritual immaturity equals death. But whose death?
You have to wonder–is the decline of the mainline church a legitimate concern? If you believe in the power of the gospel and God’s eternity, you know Church will endure. It might not look like it has, but it will still be the way God stays connected with humanity. For sure, talking about the bloodbath of decline catches our attention. But then we often miss the point. The spark has gone from members’ eyes because they’re not fulfilling their purpose. That’s the death we should be talking about and travail over.
Telling others about Jesus is God’s plan for how to continue church life. We’re supposed to do that all the time, regardless of life’s dramas. The process is filled with resistance: in the mission field and in us who are doing the outreach. Dealing with that resistance matures us as disciples. As we mature, we grow more grateful because we are living out our faith profoundly. Our gratitude for being who we are is a reason to celebrate! That’s what connects with the people we’re reaching out to.
Reason 3: Start a new service to create community
It's our gratitude for following Jesus that transforms worship in the church. When we’re grateful that Jesus has changed our lives, we want to express it — openly!
When public worship is a gathering of grateful people who don’t all know each other, and who might not even agree with one another about any number of things, and yet who are gathered for the same purpose (to celebrate following Jesus), then the worship environment is real, and authentic. It’s engaging, and engagement drives attendance in your church building.
I have to tell you about P!nk!
My spouse and our out-of-town friends went to her concert in Minneapolis, where we live. I wasn’t exactly a super-fan before then. But now I’m like her warm-up act! It was So. Much. Fun.
P!nk totally endeared me to her, along with 44,000 other complete strangers. I might not even like all those new people if I actually met them! But we were a great big community because of one artist, who drew us all in.
On the other hand, I am, and have been for a long time, a Steven Tyler fan! I’ve watched a few Aerosmith concerts on TV. Loved them. But I never felt like I was part of the gathering, like I did at P!nk.
This conversation is not intended to lead us into a debate over digital worship. Your church needs that too, and that’s enough said on that topic for now! Instead, my response to Steven Tyler underscores my response to P!nk. And it’s the same in your church.
Your mission field needs a compelling reason to attend worship in your building. The reputation of your church will help people consider you. Your personal relationship with them will give them a reason to join you. When they see people openly praising God together, it can immediately transform them.
God's power in the public gathering is like nowhere else. God uses our worship in spirit and truth to endorse God’s reality to those who are considering Christianity. We worship in spirit and truth when we’re grateful. Gratitude is not currently at the center of why we gather in most mainline churches. We need to change that. Gratitude is catching. Burgeoning faith communities are built around grateful people. That’s why you should start a new service!
By Cathy Townley, UM Pastor, Coach, Speaker, Author, Church Planter, Former Worship Leader