This time of the year often seems to throw up some fascinating studies relating to church ministry. I’ve written about a couple of them here and here. This week’s edition of The Irish Journal for Practical Theology and Church Leadership has turned up a fascinating report on some of Belfast’s fastest growing churches and what they have in common.
The title of the article is somewhat prosaic – ‘Factors in Church Growth in some Belfast Churches’ – but it’s worth a read. The research was carried out by Professor Pat Mason from Limerick Institute of Practical Theology and Dr Siegfried Schmidt from Hannover University.
They began by attempting to identify the 10 fastest growing churches in the greater Belfast area. They found that these straddled denominational backgrounds and included several newer, non-denominational churches. They conducted a series of interviews and focus groups among leaders and regular attenders at these churches to explore the factors behind these churches’ growth.
Some of the factors were particular to individual congregations. In one, it’s a popular preaching ministry; another is noted for its music; a slightly more offbeat attraction in one of the (Presbyterian) churches was the use of a smoke machine at the monthly family services.
But the one thing all ten had in common was the fact that they all serve some kind of cake either before or after the service (one Church of Ireland Church serves it both before and after). In most cases it was muffins or donuts, but one or two served freshly made scones: cake washed down, it should be said, by freshly brewed coffee (not instant).
John Ervine, an elder at one of the two Presbyterian churches in the survey described how he and the other elders had been sceptical when their minister suggested they try muffins and coffee after the morning service. They assumed it was ‘another American idea’ but agreed to allow him to try it for a month. ‘The results were amazing. We have tried modern music, we’ve even given out balloons to the children, but nothing worked like this: our numbers doubled in a month!’
The pastor of one of the Baptist churches in the survey (who wanted to remain anonymous) described how they had also encountered a bit of resistance at first, but after a couple of church business meetings they were able to get a 2/3 majority to agree to try muffins and coffee on the first Sunday morning of the month. They have not looked back.
‘We saw how popular all these coffee shops are with people nowadays,’ said Lucy Morris, part of the leadership team at a Church of Ireland church plant. ‘People are after the kind of experience that you only really get around a muffin and a decent cup of coffee. Why can we not give them that at church? The church should be leading the way in this kind of thing.’
A few people expressed concern about the sugar content of the donuts and muffins, and thought the Church should be setting a good example in proper eating. And there were a few other naysayers (‘they didn’t need gimmicks like that when WP Nicholson was preaching’). But it’s hard, say Mason and Schmidt, to argue with the figures. If it can all help make church the most fun time of the week, is that not what it’s all about?
If you would like to read the whole article, here is the link.