by: Rev. Dr. Anna Hall
In this time of Advent, we are called to prepare the way for the inbreaking of God. We are also reminded to stay ready for that inbreaking because we don’t know when it will come.
As you are preparing for the inbreaking of God and for new people that may discover your congregation this season, it is worth asking: Are you truly ready to greet the new with enthusiastic welcome? Are you prepared to joyfully embrace all the changes it will bring?
As we work with churches around the country, of all sizes and demographic makeups, in rural, urban, and suburban settings, we find that two factors make all the difference in whether or not a church can truly incorporate new people into the life of the church. Churches that are ready for the new energy of new people excel in both welcome and change.
In a 2023 study done by Lifeway Research on people who have switched churches in recent years, participants reported that when visiting churches, 56% felt personally welcomed by other congregants, and 48% felt personally welcomed by pastors or ministers. 79% said that their experience of welcome impacted their decision to continue attending.
Here at Convergence, we have seen that the vast majority (over 93%) of 2023 Convergence Vitality Assessment Participant survey respondents believe their congregation welcomes people of all races, sexualities, genders, and abilities.
However, things are not as overwhelmingly positive when asked about specific essentials to welcoming newcomers. Only 67% of survey respondents reported that when new people are present in worship, they make it a point to speak to them. There may need to be more universal engagement with new people for newcomers to feel welcome.
Additionally, 74% said their church loves the enthusiasm of people with new ideas. However, when we drill down a little further, we find that the ability of the church to welcome those new ideas is weaker in practice. Survey respondents who said new ideas are always welcome at their church increased between 2022 and 2023, from 58% to 63%.
Why might there be a difference between the desire to welcome and the way it works in practice? One of the biggest factors impacting congregational vitality is the ability to change. The Exploring Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) study found in 2023 that greater willingness to change is positively correlated with envisioning a positive future. We are also seeing that correlation. Among Convergence Vitality Assessment Participant survey takers in 2023 who agreed their church was always willing to try something new, 71% were excited about where their church was heading. This is a stark contrast to those who saw their congregations as less willing to try new things, where only 47% were excited about the future of their church.
Unfortunately, the EPIC study also found that congregational willingness to change, after an increase during the pandemic, is declining over time. Respondents who said their congregation was willing to change declined by almost a quarter from a high of 86% mid-pandemic to 66% in 2023. What happened? I think many of us will change when we must, but don’t particularly like it and will resist it when we can.
In 2023, we see lower enthusiasm for change among our Assessment congregations than is needed for congregational growth and vitality.
- 60% of Assessment survey respondents believe their church embraces change
- 66% believe their congregation regularly does new things in worship.
- 63% say their members are always willing to change.
- 60% reported their church frequently talks about change.
- Only 48% say their church is always willing to try something new.
- 71% said their church was more comfortable when things remained the same.
However, there is good news as well. In our Assessment churches, willingness to change has continued to rise over the past few years. This divergence from the EPIC study could be due to the particular churches that took our assessment in 2023, but maybe your church is one that continues to improve in your change skills.
Wherever your congregation is on its ability to welcome newcomers and embrace the change that comes with new people and new ideas, there is always room for improvement. If you struggle in these areas, we can help. We have helped hundreds of churches work on improving their welcome and change skills over the years.