“If your church closed its doors tomorrow, would anyone in the community notice?”
By Tim & Linda Sitterley, Regional Director and Pastor.
Tim: As a regional director, I’ve asked many of the pastors in my region the question listed above. It’s an unpopular question, known to pastors throughout the Christian world.
It’s a relevant question on a couple of levels. A 2021 study from Lifeway Research (based on data from three dozen denominations) found that 4,500 churches closed in 2019, while only 3,000 were started. GCI is not immune to that trend. Nor are we immune to the decline in attendance that began long before the recent pandemic. The 2021 Faith Communities Today study found that the median worship attendance for churches in the U.S. dropped from 137 people to 65 people over the past two decades.
But let’s bring the question even closer:
“Does anyone in your immediate community know your congregation even exists?”
When GCI congregations meet (hide, is often what it looks like) in non-GCI churches, schools, Masonic halls, etc., or meet on a day other than the traditional day of worship, the real question deals with exposure. Does the community know you exist?
This question of exposure was one I asked the leadership of the GCI River Road congregation my wife pastors. I asked it often when they replanted the congregation in a new (to them) building in a new community with a new name.
Linda: Tim often brought up the subject of visibility and exposure as we went through the process of relocating. I suspect he asked the question, in part, because he was never satisfied with the answer when he previously pastored this congregation. The River Road congregation was originally the Eugene, Oregon church, the founding congregation of our denomination. And yet, after almost seven decades in Eugene, I doubt more than a handful of individuals knew we even existed. And if they did know, it was likely for the wrong reasons.
Tim fought for signage at the Methodist church building we previously rented on Saturday. We had streetside signage at the Church of God Seventh Day (COG7) church we moved to when we made the jump to Sunday. But only once that I’m aware of in all the years Tim was the pastor, did someone walk through the doors of a worship service because they saw our sign. So, his question was valid.
When we made the move to Junction City, a small community a few miles north of Eugene, I knew we needed much more than a sign. Yes, we were now located on one of the two major routes between the two communities. And yes, people noticed we were renovating a historic church and paving the parking lot. Neighbors would stop by often to inquire about our plans and who we were. But for the most part, people flew by at 65 miles per hour (or worse) with little more than a glance at the fancy new sign we installed.
We clearly needed to pray for more than a sign.
Tim: Linda hit the nail on the head. As the pastor’s wife, she had a front row seat to watch attempt after attempt fail to gain a clear visible presence for our congregation. We did events well. Our haunted church at Halloween was epic. (We still have a collection of life-sized skeletons in our storage.) Our Easter egg hunt drew neighborhood children by the dozens. But as successful as they were, each event was a one-and-done and did nothing to encourage church awareness—and certainly not church growth.Read More
Linda: We didn’t just crash and burn on Tim’s watch. Shortly after I replaced Tim as lead pastor, our leadership team agreed to try and replicate the “Outside the Walls” events Tim shared with us. If these could work in other GCI congregations, with a little guidance from Tim, we should be able to finally engage the community surrounding where we met. The fact that the COG7 church building we rented on Sunday morning was surrounded on three sides by other large church buildings with substantial membership, never set off the warning bells we should have heard. But hey, we did events well, so naturally if we put out a couple of A-frame signs on weekends and sent a mailing out to the surrounding residences, we thought it could be one of our best events ever.
On the day of the event our members all pitched in to set up tents, inflate bounce houses and cook hotdogs. We were ready. And nobody came—literally, nobody.
Looking back, I can clearly see that this epic failure was exactly what we needed at the time. I’m convinced angels blinded drivers as they passed by to prevent anyone from turning into the parking lot. We learned that this wasn’t our target community, and it would take a lot more than a mailing and an A-frame sign to achieve the exposure we were seeking. We had to eat a lot of leftover hotdogs to come to that realization, but it did set us on a path to where we are today.
Tim: I like hotdogs. But I could see as well that the Eugene congregation was not home in a COG7 building. They were comfortable, but they needed to be where they could join Jesus in mission and ministry. It was about that time that a miraculous set of circumstances aligned that allowed the denomination to purchase a historic church building in Junction City. For the first time in my history with the congregation, they would be meeting at a location in a community shared by a sizable number of members. They were no longer solely a commuter church.
At the denominational level, we were just beginning to roll out our healthy church initiatives. I helped the (now) River Road congregation start to establish Avenue champions, and we sent the pastor and Love Avenue champion to Ohio for training. And then COVID hit the week after.
Linda: In hindsight, COVID was a blessing to our congregation. It hit at a time when we could continue to meet outside under a big tree. It gave us time to complete much of the renovation necessary at the new building. But more importantly, it gave us time to address the cautionary warning Tim shared with us. “Make sure you are not just moving your disfunction to a new zip code.”
If Junction City was going to be our new home, we had to begin to act like residents, not renters. We were going to have to find ways for our members to become woven into the fabric of the life of the community. But we also had to make sure the relational atmosphere of our existing members was strong, particularly at a time of masks and quarantine. Through social media and our online presence, we did everything we could to help maintain and strengthen existing relationships. And I’m blessed to say that at the end of the pandemic, we had not lost a single member.
Tim: Linda has every right to boast. The efforts of her and her leadership team clearly kept the relational heart of the congregation beating strongly during a time when many congregations have succumbed to the temptation to stay home in their pajamas and “do church” on Zoom.
But the thing that I’m most excited about is watching the members of this congregation begin to establish relationships outside the immediate fellowship. For some, it’s still baby steps. But many have jumped into the community with both feet. Connections are being made through events, community organizations, the local pastors association, community aid groups, and even through local law enforcement.
GCI River Road’s Trunk or Treat event was a great way to connect with the community. But it was also a great way to follow up on relationships that developed during the city’s Sesquicentennial celebration, a couple of connections of which were made during a Chamber of Commerce event.
Linda: The events and connections Tim is talking about are important. They give us exposure in the community that goes in two directions. Through these, as well as our official “Outside the Walls” event (Christmas in July), and our float entry in the community Christmas Light Parade, the question of who corporately meets in the church on River Road just south of town is quickly being answered.
But just as important—maybe even more important—are the one-on-one relationships that are being built. The Beer Station, an old rail depot surrounded by food trucks, has hosted a trivia night every Thursday for some time. But now the evening event is facilitated by our assistant pastor, Tammy Tkach. GCI River Road has a team entered each week, but we often have more members than one team can enter. So, it’s quite common for some of our members to participate with other teams, just as other individuals have been welcome to join our team. A couple of our teens have decided to invite their friends and form their own team.
Trivia night is not a religious activity (although I suspect prayers for the right answer are often offered up). But relational activities like trivia night, and garden club, and Chamber of Commerce, and school activities help answer the question of who “individually” attends that church on River Road. And they also open the door to a greatly expanded list of potential invitees to chili night, or book club, or mens’ whiskey night—or whatever relational activity our Faith and Love Avenue champions dream up.
Tim: Linda mentioned the float they entered in the Christmas Light Parade. The theme of that float was “The Island of Misfit Toys” from the old Rudolf movie. A place where toys were accepted that just didn’t fit in anywhere else. I had the chance to walk beside the float handing out candy and small gifts.
From the comradery with fellow entrants at the staging area, to the chance to interact with so many Junction City residents along the parade route, it was an exhilarating experience for me. Two of the young people on the float attend Junction City schools, and all along the route I heard other children yelling out their names. And I lost track of how many times I heard people yell out the name of our church as they read it on the side of the float. Unlike the failed event at our previous location, this felt a lot more like home.
At the end of the parade route, as we prepared to take the back streets to return to the staging area, a participant from one of the other floats ran up and said “I’m a misfit too. Can I ride with you guys?” The conversation she held with a couple of our members lasted long after we had the float stripped down and loaded in the truck.
Linda: The title of this article is Building Relationships vs Building Exposure. My experience over the past couple of years tells me building exposure is so much more than erecting a sign. And relationships are built by so much more than just events. Rather, they come from a sincere desire to participate, collectively and one-on-one, in the life of your community. They can never be about putting butts in seats. Instead, they are about place-sharing with those God has brought into your sphere of influence.
As I like to tell my regional director, if we love on the community we’ve been called into, openly and intentionally, we won’t have to worry about closing our doors in the first place.