If not Sunday worship, then what?

As Sunday morning loses its hold on churchgoers and potential churchgoers, what comes next? How do faith communities nurture relationships? How do people draw closer to God? How can we engage the world outside our doors if opening the doors on Sunday isn’t enough?

Many church leaders are asking these questions. They have given up the notion that if they just did Sunday morning differently — better preaching, better music, more women at the altar, better welcoming — the years of growth would return.

By now, even diehard fans of Sunday worship are realizing that the carefully managed 70 minutes on Sunday aren’t enough. They are worth doing, but they won’t be the primary vehicle for gaining fresh momentum. Too much has changed in American culture — for all ages, not just for the ever-elusive young adults.

Here are seven ways to build community and to gain fresh momentum. They are well known among growing churches. It’s time for declining churches to give these ideas a try.

1. SMALL GROUPS. The best community is always face-to-face. Two minutes at a Sunday coffee hour don’t come close to 60 minutes in a small circle of friends. This is the way Jesus built his following. Multiple kinds of people gathering in places ranging from dinner groups to prayer circles to parenting support.

2. HOUSE CALLS. I know calls are labor intensive, but I don’t know a better way to engage with people on the fringes of a congregation. After a call, follow up with a lunch where three or four newcomers meet each other.

3. WORKPLACE GATHERINGS. Try a 30-minute prayer time or 45-minute study time with a nucleus of church friends who work nearby and could invite their work friends to participate. This may take the negative edge off perceptions of church.

4. HOUSE CHURCHES. Think about church as something broader than a Eucharistic table. Singing, praying, sharing stories — the things people want to do. For leadership, deploy people with a gift for building an enabling-style ministry.

5. CHURCH SUPPERS. Hosted midweek or Sunday evening, this is a time for fellowship, community announcements, fun, children discovering their
peers, grownups crossing age and demographic lines.

6. MISSION TEAMS. When people work together, they become friends. I still remember traveling to a Sioux reservation in South Dakota with a dozen church friends years ago.

At the pastor’s home or a member’s home — instead of running an institution, leaders can facilitate community formation over dinner.

Nothing radical here. Just people sharing their lives. Focus on participation, not passively watching worship leaders up front. Focus on spontaneous exchanges, not the formalized rituals of worship. Allow time for connecting, not crowding everything into an orchestrated 70 minutes trying to do it all.

In all of these opportunities, remember to keep the doors and circles open. Don’t let insiders get control and freeze strangers out. That is part of what is killing Sunday morning. We need fresh people, fresh ideas, fresh energy.

Tom Ehrich newTOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.