A couple of visiting American practical theologians – Drs Timothy Williams and David O’Brien, have recently completed some interesting research into church life in Northern Ireland. Their study involved a series of surveys and interviews with church members and leaders across a number of local denominations. Their aim was to discover what makes for an effective church in the particular context of Northern Ireland (we should not assume that whatever works Texas or London works here!).
Obviously what constitutes ‘effectiveness’ can be open to interpretation, and – in my view – the authors of this report never quite nailed it down. It seems to mean churches that are attracting new people and generally growing.
The full title of their report is ‘Significant Factors in Congregational Engagement in Northern Irish Churches’. I’ve summarised it under what I think is a much more catchy title: Four Cs of Effective Churches.
Some of you will likely find some of these findings disappointingly superficial, but we are where we are.
1 – Carparking
The report found that this was particularly important for people who were new to a church. Several people reported being put off by having to park on the street and walk to the church building. Carparks that were badly arranged also drew a negative reaction. One family reported that they had left a church where they had been attending for several years because of the ‘absolute chaos’ in the carpark at the end of the service which often meant they had to sit in their car for more than 5 minutes as they waited for other cars to move.
The churches that report most satisfaction are those that have ample spaces (80 spaces per 100 people attending is what they reckon as a rule of thumb), the surface of their carpark is smooth and free from stones (one BMW driver sued a suburban Presbyterian church when he discovered that loose stones from the carpark had chipped his paintwork), and the spaces are big enough to accommodate a decent SUV. Carpark attendants are also valued.
2 – Comfort
Some of the more traditional denominations came in for considerable criticism in this regard. Several people had left churches, complaining about the unforgiving nature of the pews which ‘were probably put there about 300 years ago when people were smaller and weren’t used to any better’.
In contrast, Jim Erwin, pastor of ‘Four Corners’, a hip rural congregation that has recently replaced its pews with discarded cinema seats, reported a 10% growth in attendance since the new seating had been installed.
Bathroom facilities are also important. ‘It’s the 21st century,’ claimed one unhappy Baptist, ‘and there is no excuse for outside lavatories.’
3 – Charisma
This had to do with the preacher. I’ve previously written about some of the ways a preacher’s style of dressing can affect the response of the congregation, but this goes further – to the issue of charisma.
Whether it’s the smile, the ready anecdote, the warm handshake, or the glowing tan that suggests ample time on the golf courses of southern Europe, charisma is one of those things that are hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
Jimmy Carlton, pastor of a vibrant Reformed Charismatic fellowship reported a significant upturn in his pastoral and preaching effectiveness after a new year’s resolution that saw him take out a subscription to the local gym, and begin regularly listening to the podcasts of a well known inspirational speaker.
On the other hand, it’s worth quoting one of the comments from a disaffected Methodist:
Our old minister was a somewhat stumpy, bald man who never seemed to get terribly excited about anything. I’ve no doubt he is a faithful man who loves God and, to be fair, when I was in hospital for 4 weeks with complications after appendicitis, he visited me every other day. But my family need something a bit more exciting. I have two teenagers and they need to see Christian leaders who as cool as the celebrities in all the magazines.’
You feel for their old minister and hope that whoever leads the church they settle in manages to stay well toned and keep his teeth flashy white!
4 – Coffee
No real surprises here, in the light of research I’ve mentioned before. What’s interesting, if somewhat narcissistic, is the number of church attenders who appear to be determining their levels of satisfaction with church based, to an increasing degree, on the quality of the coffee.
Luke Parker, leader of Cityside Church in Belfast commented on the transition his church had made from serving instant coffee to the use of aeropresses. ‘Sure, it takes a lot longer to get the coffee ready, but it’s worth it – people enjoy a good coffee and we find that they tend to engage in significant conversations.’ Cityside has even noticed that the best attended home fellowship groups in their community are those with ‘proper’ coffee.
‘God deserves our best’ added a regular barista at the church;’after all, we don’t expect Luke to preach instant sermons.’
Those were the four main themes. Obviously there were others – as you might imagine you can have as many opinions of what makes church effective as you have people expressing those opinions.
The full report is available here.