Common barriers to congregational growth: Shifting from welcome to invitation

September 03, 2013

While providing strategy and resources for launching new faith communities and revitalizing existing congregations, I have the opportunity to connect with United Methodist churches all across Minnesota. Despite significant diversity, we share a common mission and are collectively challenged by many of the same issues that thwart this mission. In this series, I address five of the most common barriers to congregational growth in spirituality, number, and community impact. Previously, I addressed unclear values/vision and waning worship vitality as barriers to growth. This month, I turn our attention to the critical discipleshift from welcome to invitation.

As a stimulus for outreach, our denomination has developed a “Welcoming Congregation Certification Program.” Details can be found at It provides helpful information, including training for hospitality volunteers, tips for welcoming visitors, and an inventory and instructions for volunteer mystery guest evaluations of your weekly worship gathering.

Yes, it’s important to have people and processes in place to respond to those who enter the front door of the church. However, the real shift today in the process of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is what happens between the front door of people’s homes and the front door of our churches. We live in a post-welcome era.

At our Minnesota Annual Conference church planter training in August, one of our speakers was Tom Bandy, prolific author, demographer, and church strategist. He observed, “The days of church shopping have come and gone. Hardly anyone is seeking out a church because they want something more to join. Nowadays, people tend only to walk through the doors of the church if invited or driven by a deep heartfelt crisis.”

His newest book, See, Know & Serve the People Within Your Reach (Abingdon Press, 2013), convincingly turns our attention from the programs we have in the church to the needs people have in our neighborhood. You might have the warmest, most welcoming congregation, but if people aren’t motivated to visit, they’ll never have the opportunity to find out. We must move beyond welcoming to inviting!

The word “evangelism” is often dreaded because it carries connotations of bad news. But “Euangelos,” the Greek word from which it is derived, really means “bringing good news.” It is active, not passive. It offers hope, not judgment. It gives, not receives. Evangelism is inviting people into life-giving relationships, first with people who genuinely care and, through these people, with God, who is the very source of good news. 

Lots of congregations are learning to be invitational. Spirit of Hope United Methodist Church in Golden Valley hosted a picnic at a park down the block one evening in August. Hot dogs were grilled, side dishes were prepared, a few signs were posted, but most importantly, church members not only stepped out of the church building, they stepped out of the park pavilion and their circle of church folk to greet the families enjoying a warm summer evening in the park. They offered their neighbors a free meal, mingled with their families, learned about their children, provided flyers for vacation Bible school (VBS), and recorded contact information. About seventy-five people were served, and six new neighbor children attended VBS the following week. This wasn’t about boosting VBS attendance, it was about developing relationships rooted in good news.

Do the neighbors around your church know that you exist? Take some time to find out, and in the process, they’ll be blessed to know that you care that they exist. Your office of congregational development provides resources to help churches in this ministry of opening hearts, minds, and doors!

Dan Johnson is now the Twin Cities District superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He used to be director of congregational development and Reach • Renew • Rejoice.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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(612) 870-0058