Church Challenges Redux

As a kid, for some reason I thought that, like Christmas, Easter was always on the same Sunday in April each year. The Jewish calendar was different from the regular calendar. And that because we were the Chosen People, our calendar was unique and special.

And then at some point I realized that Good Friday and Easter always follow Passover. And that every 19 years, the First Seder is held on the evening of Good Friday. The confluence of these sacred holidays, and the focus on their celebration and observance, makes this a truly “holy week” for so many people throughout North America, and the world.

I have blogged about churches and their challenges a few times. Last week, I participated in a webinar for minsters titled “Creating God Space: Increasing the Quality and Quantity of our Spiritual Conversations”. There were more than 800 people on the call.

Here are some of the challenges churches in the United States are facing:

  • Attendance has been declining each year;
  • In 2014, 4000 churches in the United States – out of 320,000 – closed their doors (My blog in August 2012 cited a similar number for 2011);
  • The membership at 85% of the churches in the U.S. has plateaued or is in decline.

We know that declining membership is also challenging many synagogues. The ongoing conversations, blogs, and articles about new financial models, Relational Judaism, and Youth Engagement are all 21st Century responses to the current state of our synagogues. Recently, I was reviewing a 2012 update to a demographic survey completed in 2008 for the Greater MetroWest Jewish Federation. The update included a census of synagogue membership. While a handful of the non-orthodox synagogues experienced significant membership growth, the overall membership at Conservative and Reform synagogues within the Federation’s catchment area declined 5% and 6% respectively.

Dr. Ira Sheskin, the demographer who completed the update, stated that this is consistent with national trends. (Check out page 44).

Back to my church webinar. The main idea of the minister’s presentation to “Create God Space” was that people today were not that interested in attending church. In order to grow membership, church leaders must reach out in the community and have spiritual conversations with people outside of the church walls. He told a story of woman who was a church leader who enjoyed playing golf and was the club champion several years in a row at her country club. She was encouraged to have “spiritual conversations” on Sunday morning with her friends on the golf course as a way to connect them to God and to the church.

Synagogue congregants don’t have to be as evangelical as our golfing friend. We can all be ambassadors. Are we able to talk to our unaffiliated friends about our synagogue in positive ways that creates at least a little curiosity? People are looking for community and connection with others. They just might need some encouragement and cajoling along the way to get in the door.

The building is a psychological barrier to many people. And to some, so is the thought of worship. Looking to board members and other synagogue leaders to help meet their circle of friends “where they are at” is just another means of engagement.




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