By Christina Ryan Claypool
For the Troy Daily News
Editor’s Note: This two-part series is a brief excerpt from a research report for Leadership Troy 2016 by Christina Ryan Claypool. She spent an entire year visiting a different church each week, with the majority being located in Miami County.
In Part One of this series, we learned that about two-thirds of the residents in Miami County are not affiliated with a church. The importance of friendliness was mentioned as a key component in attracting these folks to return to a fellowship after an initial visit, and that finding a way to reconnect with visitors is crucial.
But whether an individual is invited by a friend or family member, receives a mailer about a special event, or sees an advertisement, somehow they have to decide to visit in the first place. Sometimes, it’s the exterior sign that causes people to originally attend.
The outside sign is a valuable asset, because it can alert passers-by as to what’s happening inside. Maybe you’ve been amused or convicted by a church sign with a humorous or profound saying. For example, you might have seen, “Honk if you love Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet Him.”
A sign’s message can make us laugh, or pique our curiosity and cause us to visit. It’s imperative that the outside sign is visible, in good condition, and always bears pertinent information like service times. Updating the sign’s message is vital, because it can also be used as a tool to publicize upcoming special events, sermon series, or community programs. When a church’s exterior sign doesn’t change for weeks, one might wonder if the inside message is stagnant, too.
The Internet and Social Media
Another informative tool, but one of the greatest needs in our county’s ministries, is to create an active presence on the Internet. Not only a functional church website, but with the advent of social media, it has become necessary to maintain a visible presence on sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. Facebook is especially paramount, because “The total Facebook audience in the United States amounted to 156.5 million users…. [making it] the most popular social network worldwide,” reports www.statistica.com. Individuals of all ages, use this social media giant for news, to obtain information, and to stay connected with others.
In a Sept. 27, 2016 article on www.lifeway.com, Todd Wright shares, 7 Reasons to Cultivate an Online Presence. “For many people the front door of the church is not the front door of the church, the online presence is…Many internet-savvy people are looking for a website or even a Facebook page that lets them know what is in store for them when they arrive,” according to Wright, who has been a Georgia pastor for three decades.
For small churches with limited budgets, there are a variety of avenues to create a website with little investment. Word of caution though, this should not be the responsibility of an already busy pastor. Perhaps, someone within the church, with Internet technology and social media skills would be willing to volunteer their services. Sadly, quite a few small Miami County churches neglected developing their Facebook page. Still, it’s crucial that anything created or posted by a ministry appears professional and offers visitors the information they are looking for.
Part of the problem with a lack of information might be familiarity. Insiders can become so familiar with the inner workings of their organization, they forget that outsiders do not possess this knowledge. It might be beneficial to have someone not affiliated look over the content provided online, because it’s difficult to visualize what it’s like to visit a church for the very first time. For instance, something as simple as service times was sometimes overlooked, especially on church Facebook pages.
Also, because countless individuals are using cellphones to search the Internet for data about everything from driving directions to current news, a religious organization has to make sure their website is mobile-friendly. Not only that, but online giving has become increasingly popular, as have text-to-give opportunities, so updating to include these features might be wise.
Church Signage and Bulletins
When a visitor does visit a church, is it easy for them to navigate their way around? Pastor Dale Christian of First Baptist Church in Troy, made me aware of the importance of church signage. Besides being one of the churches I visited, Pastor Christian’s church was the site for several of the Miami County Hope over Heroin pre-event meetings last summer, and has hosted the Troy Mayor’s Breakfast for the past two years.
As a visitor, the first thing you often look for is which outside door to enter. The restrooms, children’s church, and directions to the sanctuary should also be clearly marked. I spent a lot of Sundays wandering church hallways searching for all of these vital locations. Greeters and ushers are paramount in directing visitors and in making them feel welcome, too.
Out of all the churches I visited, only a couple didn’t have a Sunday bulletin to share news. Depending on the size and budget of the church, some bulletins were professionally printed with color graphics, and several pages of inserts. Others were simple black print on white paper. However, a bulletin is printed and whatever the format, this is a resourceful way to transmit information to a first time visitor. Most astute churches include service times, contact numbers for the church office, staff emails, website information, and the address of the fellowship.
Music, Music, and the Message
Music is a primary part of any worship service following the mandate to, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music…” (Psalm 98:4 NIV) Miami County residents are blessed with a vast resource of musical talent and variety of worship styles.
There are local church leaders who are quite musical. For instance, at Troy’s First United Church of Christ, Pastor Lauren Allen’s beautiful singing voice sometimes accompanies her sermons. At the Laura Christian Church, Pastor Curtis Duncan often uses his professional guitar skills and voice to add to the message. Co-pastor Nicole Simmons from Upper Room Worship Center in Tipp City passionately leads worship. Along with her husband, Pastor Aaron Simmons, they co-pastor and preach for their congregation.
It’s also a family affair at the Piqua Baptist Church where Pastor Charles Wilkins’s son-in-law and daughter, Dr. Bryan and Rebecca Harju, lend their voices to the praise and worship team. Then there’s the classically trained singer, Rabbinic Intern Sara Otero-Eiser, from Piqua’s Congregation Anshe Emeth, who was once a cantor.
At some local churches the music is more like a concert with guitars, keyboard, drums, and a worship leader or team of harmonic voices. This type of contemporary praise music can be found at churches like: Ginghamsburg UMC in Tipp City, Troy’s True Life Community Church, Troy Christian Church, Victory Church Assemblies of God in Tipp City, Grace Family Worship Center in Troy, and the list goes on.
There is the more traditional version of praising God with hymns accompanied by an organ or piano that happens at places like St. John’s United Church of Christ where Ginny Beamish is the organist or at Lifeway Baptist Church in Tipp City, among other similar fellowships. As for choirs, many churches do have choirs, and the size of the choir can vary from a few members to dozens of congregants.
There are some churches like Piqua Baptist Church and Covington Christian Church that have a form of blended worship where traditional hymns and contemporary music are both part of the service. Besides blended music, there are fellowships that offer both a traditional and contemporary service to meet the needs of members like the First United Methodist Church of Troy, Hoffman United Methodist Church in West Milton, St. Paul’s Evangelical & Reformed Church in Piqua, etc.
For example, at the Piqua Church of the Nazarene, the 9:15 a.m. traditional service has music led by the pastor’s son, 21-year-old Andrew Spoon, and is predominantly composed of hymns. Then the contemporary service incorporating current praise and worship takes place at 10:30 a.m. led by the pastor’s wife, Sonja Spoon.
Pastor Steve Spoon preaches for both services. “…although we have a good age group representation in both…, a majority of the attenders of our 9:15 service have been a part of church for many years, and have a higher Bible knowledge,” he said. “Our 10:30 service is filled with many more young people and new seekers who do not have a deep understanding/knowledge of the Bible….During the second service, if I refer to any major understood truth or particular Bible character I …spend …more time explaining it…[to] nurture their growth and full understanding. …I don’t intentionally change my sermon, but it does have a different feel and delivery,” said Pastor Spoon.
Another interesting point is that at the First United Methodist Church of Troy, the traditional services are held in the church sanctuary under the direction of senior pastor, Rev. David Leckrone, while the contemporary services meet across the street in First Place Christian Center with associate pastor, Rev. Ty Williams. Everything about these services is unique.
As for the preaching, there are ministers who utilize video to highlight a sermon point, while others employ the power of the verbal narrative. At Nashville United Church of Christ, Rev. Lynn Labs relies on her background in theater to make characters come to life. A good prop can be an effective visual, and at Piqua’s Westminster Presbyterian Church, Interim Pastor Kathleen Burslem, illustrated her children’s message with chocolate covered insects.
It is the music that uplifts us, and the message that challenges us or encourages us in our faith. There is no lack of quality preaching in Miami County, but there really is a shortage of younger folks hearing many of these great messages.
Initially, I expressed my desire to learn more about why millennials aren’t churchgoers as a general rule. This is a complicated problem, but experts say millennials seem to be searching for and craving authenticity and relationship. In this Internet world of social media, texting, cyberbullying, and online communication, today’s young people are seeking something real.
Maybe we can glean from the different churches of various sizes who are attracting young people. Although it is not by pushing everyone older out. It is about learning to do church as one body. It will be a balancing act, but by mixing the generations together, the church will find the greatest ability to do Kingdom work.
There are other significant topics addressed in the complete LT report including: the importance of the gatekeeper, communicable diseases, recovery issues, and the dilemma of dying churches. If you are a Miami County pastor and you would like to receive a complimentary copy of the booklet, “52 Churches in 52 Weeks,” email firstname.lastname@example.org, and include your church’s address.
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.