Skating aimlessly through Budapest I glide by a storefront replete with the typical indications of a community space – worn down aesthetic, obscure logo, a calendar of events and an open door. I enter and find a small, white-painted community space with a sitting area, kitchen, and two meeting rooms. There are 6 young adults under 30, both male and female, watching a video in English with Hungarian subtitles of an American preacher explaining how to build and sustain church community and cultivate growth of membership. Ok so this is a baby church.
I sneak in and settle in towards the back. They dont notice me at first so I take some pictures and watch the film. At one point the preacher discusses the importance of making everyone feel welcome and invites us to look around at the room. They suddenly notice my presence and what appears to be the head of the Parish walks over to me, seems a bit confused and asks me something in Hungarian. I respond in English and he says oh he was asking if I spoke English. There’s an awkward laugh and he says – in theme with the film – that I am welcome and then returns to his seat.
For the duration of the film (~45 minutes) they are completely silent and still.
The white man on screen offers advice, suggestions and theory behind how to build and sustain church community. The film is intended to help churches just starting out hit the ground running in recruitment of active membership. The pastor explains that size of a congregation does not matter, it is the connectedness of the members that promotes long lasting retention and community building. He uses a church in Seoul, Korea as an example of a giant, multi-million member church that maintains the personal one-on-one feeling of intimate membership. If you are a member of that church and you get sick, there will be someone from the community at your hospital bedside throughout your treatment.
I am blown away and a bit freaked out by the detailed membership attraction and retention strategies the church has devised, and how they are being presented as a lesson for new churches to follow.
The pastor/preacher/expert community manipulator explains that everyone is looking to belong. Now more than ever, as our devices and technology divide us, people are seeking meaningful connections. I cannot dispute this statement. However, he continues to explain that because of this searching, people are prime candidates for committed members. That’s not creepy or predatory at all… 😑
Although people are seeking community, churches are having difficulty with membership. He says that he has noticed that more and more people don’t think they need to attend church services to be a good Christian. He asserts that the United States is full of a new phenomenon he calls “floating believers” that believe in the teachings of God but have no local church that they belong to. This apparently means they are not true believers. He asserts that the benefits of membership, which include providing a space to discover and use your talents, a step to spirituality and a commitment to fellow members – are all necessary to be a true believer. It is on the onus of each church to explain and demonstrate these benefits of membership to members and visitors.
He continues – in addition to clarifying the benefits of joining a congregation to potential members, each church needs to develop a plan to assimilate new members to increase retention. This plan should include an explaination of how the community will add value to the new members’ life and what is expected by the community from new members. The pastor advocates for a new membership class about 4 hours long held on one day where the church will impart the vision, philosophy and meaning of membership to all new members. He also reccomends that there be a covenant of either vocal or written acceptance of membership administered to all new members.
New members should be able to answer the questions – 1. Do I fit? 2. Have I made any friends – does anyone here want to know me? 3. Am I needed here? Members must see the church as a creative place where everyone can serve 4. What is the advantage to joining the church? 5. What is expected of me as a new member?
These are great insights into how to get and keep people involved but his theories prey upon people’s need for community and psychological bias to stay somewhere if they’ve had to commit to either signing something or attending a new member class.
Perhaps the most disturbing is what he says next. He stresses the importance of small groups to keep people in the community. Small groups get people more actively involved and allow the church to, “have hooks in the water on all days, not just Sunday.” Small groups are interest focused that allow people to connect through shared interests. However, he stresses the importance of “replicating the dna of the church” in each small group or observing the teachings, practices and beliefs of the greater church in each small group. This terminology immediately has me thinking cancer, metastasis. But maybe I’m overly critical. Although each church is to have the same dna, he acknowledges that each church has a unique history to embrace.
The film ends. The man I spoke with gets up and begins speaking in Hungarian. I slip out and skate on.
What we learned
- Ok. So again there is a demonstrable need for community spaces.
- People have a lot of experience and advice about creating communities.
- Eating together as a means to establish community.
- Get members to preach to eachother – ask why did you come back?
- The church is preying upon this need for a community inherent in people.
- They are replicating spaces, even spoke about how each small group and each small church maintains the “dna of the church.” Part of me feels this is exemplary of the fact that they are cancer. They are not allowing each space to build their own identity independant of the church and yet, the church is providing support and guidance. Very mixed feelings, mostly put-off yet I learned a lot.
- I am particularly put off by the strategic use of small groups to maintain church membership. Perhaps because this is precisely what I have been seeking but in politics, small groups within a nation that are able to support and maintain community involvement. Has me second guessing if what I am doing is just a less experienced, non-religious version of this.
- This group was very young, all under 30, and are taking on the formidable task of creating a new community space and attracting new members. That is inspiring.
- An established institution can help fledgling spaces. Although i was a bit put off, he did provide incredibly useful information if we are seeking to build strong community in a space. Had some great advice such as the 3 minute rule – in the 3 minutes after a service you can’t talk to someone you know. This facilitates new member inclusion and binds strangers, making them feel welcomed and included. Everyone should always feel welcomed.
- The benefits of membership – providing a space to discover and use your talents, a step to spirituality and a commitment to fellow members. This is what I have found in almost all spaces i have explored.