Where’s the Church Growth?

the digital cathedralBy Trent Holden, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Networked, relational, incarnational: this is the message I got form Keith Anderson’s Digital Cathedral: networked Ministry In A Wireless World. The digital connectedness that exists in our lives today is something that churches should be paying attention to. Pastors and church leaders need to be online and reaching out to the community, drawing people into conversation. These conversations lead to new connections and the message begins to spread and draws people into Christian community—but not necessarily into the church.

While I think Digital Cathedral has a good message for church leaders to be present and connected online, I challenge the message’s effectiveness as it relates to reaching the unchurched. I had thought that by establishing a presence online and tending to these networks and relationships, that they would help bring people into our congregations and help rebuild the dwindling numbers that churches are experiencing. I’ve taken the time to look up several of the churches and ministries referenced in this book (and there were a lot) to see if they were growing churches. After all, I assumed that the connections that these churches were making on social media were driving church attendance, but what I found is that many of the ministries lifted up as great examples of churches who are connected online, and relational in the community, are not huge churches. In fact, a few of them are even listed as declining congregations by their denomination. Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church of Seattle, Washington, the church with the great theological adult catechumenate, is one of these churches listed as declining on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) reporting data from 2009-2014.[1] Another church held in high esteem the Humble Walk Church, also ELCA, is listed as only gaining 5 members within that same time frame and they are now a church of 30 people. In fact, Anderson’s own church, Upper Dublin Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Ambler PA, has listed for that same six year period, no increase (or decrease) in membership attendance holding steady at 300 for every year. This makes me wonder if they are even counting attendance and reporting correctly to their denomination. While this many not seem that important to a book written about social media in churches, it does point out that this push for more social media connectedness doesn’t increase membership in churches and it is not a ‘fix’ for dying and declining churches.

This isn’t exactly Anderson’s point in writing this book—I don’t think anyway. However, it is what I was hoping for personally as someone who is pursuing a call to become a pastor in a church tradition that is declining. It is hard for me to not see the church at the center. I think this is part of what Anderson is trying to communicate, the fact that we do see church as what we are calling people to. We measure effectiveness by counting how many show up on Sunday mornings. Anderson states that one of our problems is that “we propose institutional solutions, when the problem is the institution itself.”  A portion of what is being communicated in Digital Cathedral is that we need to begin to measure the churches presence in the community rather than the communities’ presence in church. This includes interactions online as that is an actual ‘space’ where people are—and they are there at all times. The digital space, all of social media included, is a great place to begin and build interactions that lead to relationships. These relationships sometimes lead to face-to-face interactions. The underlying hope here is that the relationships build even more and lead more connections.

In the future I think the church’s social media plan will be just as important as all other aspects of how a church operates. We will need to pay just as close attention to the content and interactions on our church’s Facebook page as we do to the church budget. We will need to talk about which staff member is blogging this week and what they are blogging about at our staff meetings. We will need new volunteers that just watch and interact with our social media profiles. If churches choose not to do this, they will be ignoring a special ‘third space’ in the lives of the people in the community and its own church members. These are the ways I see myself using the information I have gained from Anderson’s book.

Anderson ends with a great take on what is going on with our congregations and social media claiming that this is a time of transitions. The church will need to respond to those changes. Right now, these ‘digital spaces’ need to be looked at and paid attention to by our churches and church leaders, because they do bring value to our relationships and can be used to reach the unchurched with a relevant message even if those unchurched people never set foot through our doors.

[1] https://www.elca.org/resources/research-and-evaluation . Synod Statistics, then click to download the specific synod report.

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