By Christina Ryan Claypool
For the Troy Daily News
Editor’s Note: This two-part series is an excerpt from a 25 page research report for Leadership Troy 2016 by Christina Ryan Claypool. As a LT class member, she spent the past year visiting a different church weekly, with the vast majority being located in Miami County.
Statistics reveal that the largest population of religious attendance in Miami County is in the category of those who do not attend church at all. In a county of approximately 104,224 people estimated by July 2015 data from the United States Census Bureau, currently about 64,347 individuals are not attending or claiming affiliation with a religious group.
This is not a phenomenon peculiar to Miami County. Nationwide, especially mainline denominational churches have seen a tremendous decline in attendance in recent years, which is often attributed to the large proportion of the young adult (millennial) population who are not church-goers. “The term millennials is usually considered to apply to individuals who reached adulthood around the turn of the 21st century. The precise delineation varies from one source to another, however. Neil Howe and William Strauss…define the millennial cohort as consisting of individuals born between 1982 and 2004.”
What is it that folks who do not attend church are looking for in a fellowship, and why does the millennial demographic seem to find little relevance in being a member of a church? More importantly, what could local churches do better to attract more folks?
As I began the journey of attending 52 churches in 52 weeks concentrating on Miami County houses of worship, those are questions I asked myself. Over a decade ago, while completing my masters in ministry at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, I had studied churches that had grown from only double digit membership, to that of thousands.
But whether a church is large or small, it has a profound purpose within a community to fulfill the Biblical mandate of the Great Commission. The heart of this command is found in Jesus’ words to, “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you …” (Matthew 28:16-20) Having a community full of healthy growing churches supports the belief that the power of the Gospel can change the lives of broken hurting people.
There was no systemic scientific formula for selecting which churches should be part of the year-long study. The goal was to include as many varying denominations, different-sized churches, geographic locations within the county, and worship styles as possible.
Acquaintances invited me to their fellowships, I read about area church happenings in the newspaper or online, and attended many churches that I had driven by for the past several years since I moved to the area. This past August, midway into the study, I also wrote a newspaper column for both the Piqua Daily Call and the Troy Daily News explaining the project, and requesting that if any churches wanted me to visit, to please contact me.
Due to that column, I received invitations from: Piqua Baptist Church, Laura Christian Church, Piqua Apostolic Church, Center Friends Church, and Covington Christian Church. I attended each of these fellowships. In addition, the column solicited an invitation from Upper Valley Community Church in Piqua, and Grace Baptist Church in Troy, but I had already attended these congregations.
It is impossible to be sure of the exact number of churches that currently exist within Miami County, since there are home fellowships, possible unregistered churches, and also some churches that are in a state of flux. For example, when one fellowship closes or disbands, another unrelated denomination or congregation might be “planted” or take up residence in that same vacated church building.
Troy Local History Library Archivist Patrick Kennedy pointed me to the website from www.arda.com, the Association of Religion Data archives, which was helpful in identifying 132 churches within Miami County. Statistics from this website report that Mainline Protestant membership accounts for 15,247 individuals, while Evangelical Protestants are comprised of 11,232 residents. The Catholic denomination would come in third recording 10,860 folks, Black Protestant would be 264 people, 556 other, accounting for the just over 38,000 county residents who claim a religious affiliation.
Many who are believers regardless of denomination or church size find acceptance, security, and camaraderie in the local church. Information from a March 11, 2016, article, “Majority of American Churches Fall below 100 in Worship Attendance,” by Aaron Earls on www.lifeway.com points to the growing statistic of smaller fellowships. “Almost 58 percent of U.S. churches don’t reach triple digits on the weekend … In 2005, the median attendance was 129. That fell to 105 in 2010 and down to 80 this past year. This means half of all American churches have a weekend attendance of 80 or less.”
Even though these are national statistics, in Miami County, numerous churches I visited seem to fit into this same category. It’s imperative to note, that just because a church is small, this does not mean that a profound faith movement is not occurring there. A fellowship does not have to have thousands of members to be doing great things.
We live in a church-growth obsessed culture, and we can overlook the fact that a small church can be a healthy church as Karl Vaters has expressed in various articles for Christianity Today. Sadly, “one of the unintended consequences of the church growth movement is that it leaves a lot of people feeling that small equals broken,” writes Vaters in a July 7, 2016, CT blog, “The Essential First Step to Having a Healthy Small Church.”
The primary thing most notable about the majority of these smaller churches that I visited in Troy, Piqua, Tipp City, West Milton, Casstown, Covington, Laura, and Bradford was the gracious hospitality of the church members. Especially, because friendliness is a key ingredient to sustaining the momentum of a fellowship.
The Importance of Friendliness
The reason that I visited some churches was due to the fact that an individual, who I encountered in an everyday situation, invited me. For example, while we were in a checkout line at a Troy grocery store, my husband, Larry Claypool, who was a great support on this year-long journey, struck up a conversation with another man. Before their brief exchange was over, that outgoing gentleman told us about his church.
When he gave us his card, we discovered that he was Pastor Charles Carnes of the Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ in Troy. We enjoyed visiting Pastor Carnes’ fellowship on May 1, 2016, due to that friendly conversation.
Hearing about the 52 weeks’ project, Tom and Joyce Jenkins of Troy invited us to worship with them at their home church, Christian Life Center in Piqua. Last July, we joined them to hear Pastor David Dyess deliver a Sunday message.
These are only two examples of the invitations to area churches from community folks. The point is friendliness can cause an individual to visit once, but how does it continue to play a vital role regarding the new fellowship?
Many experts believe that friendliness and growth are often interconnected. When searching for a church, a Barna Research survey reports that, “More that 90 percent stated that friendliness is either extremely or somewhat important.” This research does suggest that some churches believe they are friendly, when in reality they are only friendly from an internal standpoint. There is friendliness among the members, but no outreach to outsiders or those who might be visiting for the first time.
Other churches can error on the side of over-friendliness making visitors feel overwhelmed by zealous churchgoers. There is a balance of being friendly, without being invasive to guests by asking them to fill out too many forms, or pelting them with personal questions. The majority of churches in Miami County practice a great balance. Although some do have a little work to do, and might not even be aware of how crucial friendliness can be.
A Welcoming Gift and Reconnecting
At many Miami County churches, there is a free gift waiting for a first-time visitor. This past year, I received water bottles, a coffee mug, and a small thermos, all bearing the specific church’s name. Other gifts included: a paperback New Testament, a church cookbook, spiritual booklets, notepads, a loaf of homemade banana-nut bread, a coupon for a free coffee from the church’s coffee shop, a small box of chocolates, and quite a few pens, among other gifts.
The ballpoint pen was a very popular item for churches to give away. According to a random poll that I took of my Facebook friends, a “nice” pen is one of the most desirable promotional gifts that people like to receive. A note of caution as to the accuracy of this survey rests in the fact that the majority of my Facebook friends are other writers.
Still, here’s the disconnect, a couple of the pens that I was given were so inexpensive that they would barely write, or when they did, they produced globs of ink. I would look at the name of the church, get frustrated at the pen, and subconsciously identify the church with the pen. I threw these pens away pretty quickly.
On the other hand, I still have some of the dependable pens that were welcoming gifts that continue to be useful writing instruments. When I look at the name of the church engraved on the pen, it lends to the remembrance of a favorable experience there.
Understandably, most churches have very restrictive budgets that prohibit them from offering a welcoming gift of much monetary value to visitors. Perhaps, it might be better to give no gift than one that causes a visitor to remember your church with less than excellence.
As for reconnecting, sometimes a gift is given in exchange for a visitor filling out an information card. A fellowship should try to find out who’s visiting in order to reconnect with them, and many Miami County churches tactfully attempt to do this without being overly aggressive about obtaining this information.
Frequently, I filled out the connection card wanting to find out how visitor follow-up was handled. A few times, I received a snail mail letter from the pastor expressing his or her hope that our visit was pleasant, and encouraging us to return. At other times, it was an email with the same intent. There were a couple of cards from hospitable congregants, too. Once, there was an unsolicited home visitation following my Sunday worship at a local church. This might be a mode of reconnection that should be rethought in light of the sometimes dangerous world we live in today.
Next week in part two, we’ll examine the importance of the Internet and social networking, the differences in music/worship styles, along with several other topics. If you are a pastor of a Miami County Church and would like to receive a complimentary copy of the complete report, please email your name and church address to firstname.lastname@example.org requesting the report, “52 Miami County Churches in 52 Weeks.”
Christina Ryan Claypool is a graduate of the 2016 class of Leadership Troy. She is a national Amy award-winning journalist, who earned a Masters in Ministry from Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Her website is www.christinaryanclaypool.com.