How To Grow Your Church

By Rev. Nicky Jenkins, minister of Chorlton Unitarians (edited from a talk given at the closing proceedings of Unitarian College Manchester, 10th June 2014). Reprinted with permission


Congregations are still central But they must be shared ministry. Invite people.

Have collaborative partners


Need lots of different models and ways of being together

We need to build collaborations because we cannot do it alone. Look at how the protests around the occupy campaign grew. See how petitions are affecting government policies. We have room to build on others passions.

How can we be clear on what we are doing?

We need to understand our deepest reasons. Too often we jump straight to “what we are going to do?” And that is where you might find this talk disappointing. Unfortunately there is no recipe for church growth. If there were you would all be following it and bursting at the seams. And that is why it’s not really that useful to tell you what we did. I led a workshop at FUSE on how we did our café church but there was a strong caveat. I don’t think that simply applying an activity or getting a better website is the answer. These are technical fixes to a challenge which is much bigger. It is an adaptive challenge. If we want to serve our communities we need to adapt and change, and not only how we do things; we need to be in a constant state of change.

Is your congregation composed entirely of people in their over-seventies? Then no doubt you are happy to continue doing things the way they ‘always have been’. Except they haven’t always been done that way. They suit that generation, but they will be unlikely to attract any but the most errant of the younger age groups. Our church services have changed over time to suit different generations, but the pace of change seems to be accelerating and people are living longer, so a natural progression and change isn’t happening.

Activity: How has the world changed?

The world is changing:

  • From Passivity to Interactivity
  • From Institution to grassroots
  • From Face-to face to virtual

Our congregations are changing:

  • From pews to circles
  • From anonymous to intimate
  • From attraction to mobilization
  • From academy to family
  • From Ordained Ministry to ordinary ministry

We’ve tried to ape marketing techniques as a denomination, pinning our hopes on strap lines and elevator speeches, but the world and we are weary and cynical. They can spot a slick advertising slogan from a mile away. What people do believe is personal recommendation. Look at all the online shopping sites or trip advisor. How do you choose which hotel or restaurant to go to? You ask friends where is good. Or you look online and read the recommendations there.

Chorlton doesn’t have a slick tag line. What we are trying to achieve is that A) people have heard of us and B) they have a clear idea of our values.

So we need to be telling people what we believe. Our members are inspired by the worship services to spread the word about Unitarianism. They are inspired to share that ours is a church that welcomes people whatever their sexual orientation; that welcomes people who are ashamed of themselves and their past behaviours; that ours is a church that says “I see you, and you are a wonderful, worthwhile human being”.

So they tell their friends “Yes, I go and I’m gay” or “Yes, I go and I’m an atheist” or “Yes, I go and I’m a Buddhist”. They tell their friends “When I started going I was in a mess and I’ve changed so much and I’m learning about myself and about my spirituality.”. They tell them “Even though they are not like me they have really cared about me when I’ve been struggling.”

We welcome people by listening to them. We give them the freedom of our pulpit. We encourage our members to put together services, we include candles of Joys and Concern on a regular basis. And we receive the gifts that our new attenders bring.

Sometimes this is scary. Will a service on silence, with three different kinds of meditation go down OK?  Will anyone go to the after service lunch in the teashop? How should we run our church? Where is the authority? Will our church be taken over by someone with a limited understanding of Unitarianism who thinks that anything goes?

But I have always held that our core purpose was the provision of a home for the spiritual seeker. That is our purpose is as a religious group, where we hope to grow spiritually and learn from each other and the world.

When I was called to be the Lay Pastor at Chorlton, I was elated and terrified at the same time. I knew that the funding for the stipend was coming from the very generous District for a period of three years, so I felt under some pressure to deliver. To deliver growth. Although I had read a lot of books during my time as Community Celebrant with the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand, I was not at all sure that any of that theorising would work.

I went into a trendy little boutique, Homewares in Chorlton, and bought myself this mug. It’s a Rob Ryan one. He does lovely delicate cut outs. I like the words on it: “Listen to the world.” So every time I have a cup of Earl Grey in that mug, I am reassured that I don’t need all the answers, but I must listen to what I am being told, by the world and by the people around me.

We are a community

One of our very first strategies was to start including other groups that used our building and treat them as a community. We invited them to contribute articles to our newsletter. We asked a woman from the Community of Interbeing to share some of their teachings with us one Sunday. She continues to attend as a regular as has another woman from that group. We have in the last few years attempted to let our space to users who, we feel, are in accordance with our ethos.

And we have included Candles of Joys and Concerns in our services. This gives the community a chance to get to know each other’s deepest feelings and grow their understanding. I see it as a form of intercessionary prayer. Café Church allows time for discussion and more community building. We now have a social secretary who organises lunches that family and friends can attend and outings.

Our idea of community extends to the wider denomination, and we are not jealous of our members, but let them know about other events in the District that might appeal.  Several members attend Rev Danny Crosby’s Singing Meditation sessions as well as Living the Questions. We could not offer such groups due to our space being let. And it was risky. Our members may have decided to start going to Danny’s church.

We have changed our governance to allow all people who come to our services a chance to comment and keep up to date. We now have committee meetings on alternate months with after church community meetings. Through this we have had people volunteering to help with some of the jobs needing to be done to keep the ship afloat.

This goes back to our ethos of hospitality. Welcoming the people who come to us and accepting the gifts and the suggestions they make. And listening to the world. Our new members are in a slightly younger demographic. They are working age and several have families and partners. We don’t necessarily know what will suit them best. As to age groups I have heard it say that a minister will attract an age demographic ten years on either side of their own age but I think we are doing better with ages ranging from18 to 89 with the majority in their forties and fifties.

My 2011 contact list had thirteen people who attended regularly. My 2014 list has twenty-three, and our communications secretary sends e-mails out to a much larger number who have been coming regularly but sometimes weeks or months apart. Probably another twelve to fifteen. Of all these, only eleven people are actual Members.

The place looks OK

We have re-invested the receipts from rental for the space into redecoration and a new kitchen which is lighter and brighter and less damp than the old one. This is turn brings in more potential renters. And it means that our space looks more loved and hospitable than before.

We have a simple hall space with no religious symbols apart from the chalice on the lectern which is closeted behind folding doors during the week. We pay attention to our notice boards, refreshing them regularly and displaying info about activities at other local Unitarian Churches. We want people to understand who we are from our passive presence when they use the building for their groups. So we have a Pride LGBT friendly poster . We have copies of our quarterly newsletter on display and The Inquirer. Inside the Hall we have posters from the GA website, Wordles from two sermons, Rumi quotes and a copy of the UUA principle “We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people” together with a copy of the front cover of the Inquirer “I will seek my God.” (In fact a member mentioned this poster as something that caught her eye and spoke to her the first time she came to our church). We also have a movable calendar made by a member with the Pagan festivals in the Wheel of the Year.

We have discovered that our third-hand chairs and inherited embroidered tablecloths are no longer dated but ‘vintage’ and fit in with the ethos of our new attenders, who are resistant to consumer culture and want us to behave sustainably.


There is a website called Six Word Stories This is a collection of short short stories consisting of just six words. It was inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s famous challenge and first six word story, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” There have been many imitators, and now I’m going to ask you to do your own six word story:

  • Now think of a most meaningful experience you have had as a Unitarian
  • See if you can condense it into six words

What are the really powerful words?

You need to use feeling words to connect with people.

We really need to connect to the visceral, to the lizard brain if we are to break through and generate that sense of loyalty and belonging.


“Ah but” you say “That’s all very well for you. That wouldn’t work where we are.  Our building is different.  Our people are different. Our neighbourhood is different.”

You are right!

It is very important that you understand the area your church is located in and the sort of people who live round about. You should carry out a sort of mental survey of the area.

  • What age and stage of life are they?
  • What are their politics and concerns?
  • How well educated are they?
  • How do they spend their time?
  • What is their ethnicity?
  • What is their class?

We were very lucky in that Unitarian values fit very well into the culture around us in Chorlton. What you need to find are the points where your values converge with other groups in your area.

See if you can form alliances. How can you meet their emerging needs? It depends where you are too. If you are the only Unitarian presence for miles around then you can widen your net. Look at concentric lines around your church. half an hour away, one mile away and ten miles away. How can you provide a focus within these areas?

In our newsletter we have an occasional column Where can I find a Unitarian?  This shows our readers that our members are human, involved in things they are interested in and local. People still crave community although they don’t like institutions.

We have attempted several events to welcome in non-members. An open day as part of a spiritual trail was a complete disaster, as the leader failed to bring the trail to us. A Coffin Morning brought thirteen people, eleven of whom were outsiders. They expressed interest in Unitarianism but have not attended any services. Neither do our much acclaimed Café Churches result in any visitors. Though they may have a part to play in welcoming friends and families.

It is important to think positively about what you do have to offer rather than focus on what you cannot do.

Mission is being out in the community

That’s what we were taught at Luther King House on the Mission and Ministry course. We have a new Member at church who is a whirlwind of community and social media action. She has set up several Facebook Meetup groups; A happiness group, a philosophy group, a breakfast group and has recently become the chair of the Civic Society. But that’s just her. When she shares a post from our Facebook page, over 200 people see it. A URC Minister asked if she was a Unitarian Secret Weapon, but of course she isn’t. It’s up to us to attend these groups and get involved with our local community. I must admit to feeling a bit guilty about sitting in a pub having a cooked breakfast and hot chocolate and chatting to people and thinking of it as work, but it is part of my Listen to the World mantra.

When I was a student in Dukinfield, I discovered that several members of the congregation did their shopping in Morrisons and went for lunch afterwards on a Friday, so I started to lurk in the café and achieved several pastoral visits in one go. Maybe there is a similar place in your community or if you are well resourced you could make that place your church by opening for tea and cake once a week.

What value can you bring to your community? I have started to share adverts for community events supporting good causes on our Facebook page and we hope to get more involved with a group who is helping the homeless in our area.

Inspirational Worship

Why do people keep coming?

They get a lot out of the services. They say they are inspirational. They know that we provide a space where you can come however you are feeling and we will not deny you that feeling. You will be held. We can cope with your sorrow or distress. We won’t make extravagant promises. But we will remind you of who you really are and that you are loved and a worthwhile human being. We will tell you it’s OK to make mistakes, everyone does (especially the minister) We will tell you it’s OK to have a laugh (especially at the minister) and we will allow you the space to simply be.

You will be reminded that you are a peace and justice loving person and that you must continue because everyone should be treated equally. You will be reminded that you are not alone, that you are part of a community who wants to support you and share your journey. You will find that your gifts are appreciated and that you learn valuable lessons in how to be together with others who do not necessarily share your spiritual outlook.

And they love the other people who come. I get immense joy and satisfaction from looking round at tea time and seeing different  combinations of people chatting animatedly each week. We have a young girl in sixth form. When she put her flower in the vase for the flower ceremony she said that hers was a common flower that could get on with everyone. Like her, happy with all sorts and all ages!

And they are reminded of their highest selves, the selves they aspire to be.

Let people know who you are

Our Facebook page started in November 2011. We now have 63 likes. Those people will automatically get our postings in their newsfeed. This is not a method for informing church members of events meetings etc. That is usually done by e-mail. It is outward facing. Very few church members are actually on Facebook (four). We started by posting about our services – not who was preaching but the subject. Every such posting includes start time and ‘Everybody welcome’. I try to make the subject sound interesting. Anyone interested in Unitarianism or us as a congregation can see the sorts of ideas we are thinking about over a period of time. We try to keep service titles relevant and timely (fitting in with seasonal and festival themes) Have a look at our page Chorlton Unitarian Church.

I then started to include uplifting quotes and relevant information about causes like same-sex marriage, IDAHO (International Day Against HOmophobia), Earth Day, Diwali, Pagan festivals and Unitarian personalities and history. I aim to get as many pictures in as possible because more people look at the picture posts and may well share them to their friends. Most recently I have started to share information about community events in line with our ethos such as the Bicycle Festival, with a little comment such as “Unitarians support the interdependent web of life”. Initially I was struggling to get enough to keep putting posts on to keep the page lively but now we have more events going on, they are included.

I also comment as myself in other local Facebook forums and link to our events. An example of that was a Coffee Festival in local cafes and I suggested you continue your coffee pilgrimage with coffee and spirituality at our Café Church. It is important to keep your presence in front of people so you gradually become known and eventually your name will reach a potential attender several times over and they will actually come to church.

We also have a website, designed using the UCCN template which was then adapted to include a blog which we use as a calendar.  It’s not as outward facing as we would want so one of our members is looking at redesigning it so we can have a Google calendar accessible by those who need to post events and details of the lettings groups and the availability of rooms for hire. We hope to include a podcast of sermons in the future too.

Our newsletter has been widely acclaimed. It only comes out quarterly. It has colour photographs and articles about conferences, events people have gone to; books they have read; upcoming events and causes we support as well as national stuff like the GA motions etc. This now goes out to 47 people, which includes regular attenders, by e-mail. We print a small number (say ten) for non-digital members and the public. It is expensive to print but we do so few that we think it worth it to have an attractive item that people might want to pick up and read. We also think this is important to keep us in touch with the more irregular pattern of attendance from many of our congregation as well as old friends who have moved away.


It doesn’t sound like rocket science and I’m sure that many of you are already doing many of these things and probably better than we do them. Attitude is important, constant alertness and keeping on top of publicity and relationships is important, and an ability to share the leadership and be an undefended leader is one of the biggest challenges. And ……….Listen to the World.