CLEVELAND -- After a steady drop in membership over the years, leaders of seven predominantly white Protestant denominations -- from liberal to conservative -- have joined forces to try to reverse the trend.
They commissioned a survey on the kind of leaders they should recruit to start new churches, and found that hiring innovative ministers and reaching out to minorities will be critical to rebuilding.
''The demographics are shifting,'' said the Rev. Robert Scudieri, head of church development in North America for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. ''If local churches continue to only see white, English-speaking people as their market, that market is drying up.''
The denominations participating in the research are the Christian Reformed Church, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Presby-terian Church (U.S.A.), Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ.
Together, they represent about 15 million American Protestants. All have seen their memberships decline, in some cases by dramatically, in the past 20 years.
''We've had this Western dominance and this Eurocentric approach,'' said the Rev. Allen Likkel, a church development specialist with the Christian Reformed Church. ''We are moving away from that, and are looking at some very different styles and models of leadership.''
Scudieri said the Missouri Synod has come to recognize that ''we are not starting churches for Lutherans anymore.'' Instead, his denomination views North America as an ''unchurched'' culture, where basic structures of Christianity and church life are unfamiliar to many people.
The study, funded by the denominations and the Lilly Endowment, has used surveys and focus groups to identify key characteristics of successful ''church planters,'' or people who build new congregations. Additional findings will be released within several months.
Study director H. Stanley Wood of the Presbyterian Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., revealed the preliminary results at a recent gathering at the United Church of Christ headquarters in Cleveland.
According to Wood, successful church developers have been willing to take risks, and have tenaciously pursued their goals. They also tend to be charismatic leaders who clearly communicate their vision, delegate tasks and recruit good assistants.
The findings suggest that church leaders should be teaching specific skills to people establishing new congregations, instead of relying on seminary education alone, said Robert Hoyt, director of new congregations for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
''We have always assumed that any ordained person could start a church,'' Hoyt said. The survey has changed that way of thinking, he said.
The Christian Reformed and Presbyterian churches are among those developing interview strategies to find church builders with those crucial characteristics of leadership.
''We are looking at designing some screening tools that will help identify potential candidates early in the process, rather than after they are out there and find out 'Hey, I wasn't really cut out to do this,''' said the Rev. Douglas Wilson, evangelism associate for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
New church development will also require a deeper understanding of immigrant and minority communities, according to the research.
Wood's center is conducting studies of successful churches in Hispanic, Asian, Korean, black and American Indian communities to ''tell us what nuances may exist'' about successful leadership in those cultures.
June's General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Columbus, Ohio, approved a five-year, $40 million fund-raising campaign to build new churches in the United States and abroad. The domestic portion of the project will fund ''particularly racial, ethnic and new immigrant congregations,'' Wilson said.
That effort will add to new strategies the Presbyterians have already been trying. For example, to keep up with a rise in Brazilian immigration, several Presbyterian congregations in Brazil are sending pastors to the United States to serve as missionaries here.
However, not everyone is embracing this new approach.
The innovations have raised some uncomfortable questions about how to maintain the culture of Protestant denominations and, specifically for Lutherans, what the essential elements of worship are, Scudieri said.
Still, the churches believe they must change in order to survive.
''Lutherans in the old days thought it was necessary to teach the Indians German before they evangelized them,'' Scudieri said. Now the church has realized ''we need to reach people in their own language and culture.''
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