e-mail us
Church grows when pastor helps people find God’s love

New York

They came. They saw. They heard. They left too soon.

That has been the pattern in many churches and synagogues since the Sept. 11 terror attacks dropped people to their knees and sent them scrambling to houses of worship nationwide.

Research by the Gallup Organization indicates that the crowded churches and synagogues of early autumn had by early November returned to their pre-Sept. 11 attendance levels.

Paul Baard, a motivational psychologist who teaches at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business, thinks churches have blown an opportunity.

After Sept. 11, it was “extrinsic motivation” that drove people to churches, Baard told NCR Nov. 29, during the week that Gallup released its study. They came to have their fears quelled or to have profound questions answered, he said.

But many found the church was the “same old, same old,” he said. “There was the same lack of relevance to their needs as that which they left years before.” He called that sense of futility “amotivational.” Baard, who teaches communications and management at Fordham, is not surprised that this group didn’t return.

Still other non-churched people came and discovered that the church’s ministers and its services offered them an opportunity to connect with God and his people. So they stayed.

The reason some congregations -- largely mega-churches with more than 2,000 members -- retained their post-Sept. 11 visitors is due to motivation, said Baard, who has done empirical research on motivation and who co-authored Motivating Your Church (Crossroad Publishing, 2001).

Baard calls motivation “the energy behind our doing.” It is intrinsic or self-motivation -- the “I-really-want-to-be-here-doing-this” kind -- that stimulates higher levels of attendance, of giving and volunteering, he said.

The reason mega-churches such as Willow Creek in Illinois and Saddlebrook in California, both evangelical Protestant congregations, became “mega” is because they met certain psychological needs in people, the researcher-psychologist said.

The need for autonomy -- to have influence, and to be free of pressure from a member of the clergy or a church worker -- is a key factor in building intrinsic motivation, Baard said.

People want to learn new things about God. Their attitude is, “I’m either growing or I’m going,” he said.

Overall the need for feeling related is what keeps people coming back. Without a sense of mutual caring among parishioners, few will stay. “It’s like in ‘Cheers,’ ” Baard said. “I want to go where everybody knows my name.”

Baard, who was raised Catholic, is an evangelical lay leader of a Protestant church in Manhasset, N.Y. The church has 300 registered members, 49 percent of them reared as Catholics. The church counts 500 to 600 weekly attendees.

Baard’s research has shown that to the degree that churches meet basic motivational needs, people attend more frequently, give at higher levels, offer their services more often and even in some cases go on to fulltime ministries. His studies have also shown that church size, denomination and the personality of a congregation are not significant factors. Across the Christian spectrum, he has found growing, thriving churches from storefronts to great cathedrals.

One of these churches is St. Margaret of Scotland, a Catholic parish in Selden, N.Y. Baard read about the parish when its pastor, Fr. Chris Aridas, wrote about the church in The Long Island Catholic a few years ago.

Here was a church that was doing what Baard’s research had shown would produce a growing congregation. Baard telephoned Aridas to learn more. The two have since co-written articles, run a workshop and co-authored Motivating Your Church.

Aridas pointed to a connection between Baard’s theory of motivation and the recent Catholic Stewardship Campaign, which has asked Catholics to give of their time, talent and treasure. “Stewardship is not going to succeed without motivation,” the priest told NCR. It’s too easy to lose sight of the time and talent elements and to fall into looking only at treasure, he added.

As St. Margaret’s pastor for nine years, Aridas has witnessed not only a phenomenal growth in numbers of parishioners, now at 5,000 families, but also in levels of participation in parish life. “People are getting involved, they’re shouldering responsibilities,” Aridas said.

When that happens, church income also increases, Baard said. “People give because they buy into the system.”

Christmas will be the first occasion since Sept. 11 when church attendance is likely to swell. Whether these Christmas and Easter Christians ever show up on another Sunday or holy day depends greatly on whether churches meet their motivational needs. “You only have them for an hour,” Aridas said.

Both men agreed that a clear, well-prepared and well-delivered homily is essential. Baard pointed to research by Fr. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist, who observed that the strength of sermons has become a major factor in whether a church was growing or declining in membership, attendance and donations.

Baard’s advice to preachers: “Recognize you have a sophisticated audience. Don’t ‘should’ on them, don’t pressure them, don’t shame them, don’t scold them. Invite them.”

Both Baard and Aridas noted the importance of music. Ushers, too, have a significant role and should not be talking to each other or going over the ball scores during the service, Baard said. If it is raining or snowing, they need to be in the parking lot with golf umbrellas, he said. At the end of Mass, pastors and other church ministers should be at the door greeting each person, asking their names and inviting them to return.

Not only the major church holy days such as Christmas and Easter, but weddings, baptisms and funerals -- events that draw the occasional attendee -- can be an opportunity if church leaders will remember that the primary reason for the church’s existence is to help others discover God’s love for them.

With that, the job becomes less daunting and more joyous, Baard said.

Patricia Lefevere is a special report writer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2001