ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In this age of declining membership in mainline churches, the key to filling the pews may lie in making life more challenging, not more comfortable, for the congregation, according to an expert in the field.
Churches with high expectations -- those that "challenge people beyond what they believe they can do" -- pull in more newcomers than those with low expectations, said the Rev. Lyle E. Schaller during a recent lecture at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary here.
Mr. Schaller visits about 150 congregations a year as a consultant on the quality of church life.
Churches that have high expectations of members also tend to have more people at worship on a Sunday morning than they have members. And the members contribute comparatively more of their charity to their churches and are involved in more church activities, he said.
There are a number of reasons why such churches get more members, Mr. Schaller said in a later interview. "In the first place, high-commitment churches tend to put more emphasis on a bigger package of ministries that meet a wider range of peoples' needs."
And, he said, these churches tend to meet more specifically religious needs of people.
The best illustration of how churches are doing that, said Mr. Schaller, is self-help groups.
Mr. Schaller, 68, has been on the staff of the Yokefellow Institute, a nondenominational retreat and conference center in Richmond, Ind., for the past 30 years.
When he was a pastor in the 1950s, "very, very little thought" was given to the idea of inviting newcomers to the church, he said. "We assumed they would automatically come, partly because of denominational heritage, partly because of family ties, partly because of convenience and partly for reasons of doctrine and polity," he said.
Mr. Schaller estimates that 70 percent to 85 percent of mainline Protestant congregations are either going nowhere or declining.
There is a tendency for smaller churches with a lot of second- and third-generation members to slip into a comfortable but exclusive posture, he said. "They tend to treat newcomers like outsiders," he said.
High-commitment churches have more members because they go after them with more evangelical gusto and a modern advertising touch, he said.
For instance, he said, most advertising by churches consists of little more than announcements.
Better than these "tombstone ads," as Mr. Schaller calls them, are modern marketing-savvy ads which focus on the needs of the reader-consumer. "They begin with a point you can identify with," he said.
"Are you new in town? Are your children still angry that you moved them away?" goes a typical ad, he said. "
"If that's the case," Mr. Schaller said the ad concludes, "then enroll your children in our Vacation Bible School, make new friends and learn about Jesus."