When half your church is unchurched and 70% are under 30, you know something interesting is going on. That’s what’s happening at Substance Church in Minneapolis. Pastor Peter Haas shares with us some of the insights that have guided Substance. Peter is also releasing a new book, Pharisectomy: How to Joyfully Remove Your Inner Pharisee and Other Religiously Transmitted Diseases.
You’ve said that more than anything churches do, it’s friends that keep people in church. How does that work?
Peter Haas: Over the years I’ve read a lot of research as to what makes a church “happy.” When most people critique a church, they seem to talk about church services; yet, ironically, people seem to be willing to stay in dying churches as long as their best friends still go. For example, a 2004 Gallup/Group Study found that if a person has “many intimate friendships in a church,” they have a 98% chance of being “very satisfied” with a church. Studies have long revealed that, more than any other church program, church small groups are one of the greatest statistical predictors of church growth. Thus, it’s important that church leaders don’t get lost in all the hype and forget the relational ingredients that make church fun and fulfilling.
How have you seen this manifest itself at Substance?
Peter: We regularly outgrow megachurches with massive budgets and amazing facilities. We were running over 1,700 members before we even got church offices. I’m not saying that facilities and budgets are evil; rather, it’s easy for churches to get their priorities messed up. But we’ve been able to build a fellowship culture into our church from the very outset. It creates a church that’s better at “pastoring itself.”
What can churches do to develop these kinds of friendships?
Peter: At Substance, we have a small group for every imaginable age and interest. Even more, as a regular part of our membership process, we sit people down with a “small group guidance counselor” who helps people find their tribe in the shortest period of time. In fact, we design every ministry of Substance to be a “slippery creek bank” into small groups. Even our ushering teams regularly get together outside of church services to have fun.
Also, we love online technology like the Table software [editor's note: Peter is on the board for the Table Project]. It’s one-part small group magazine, one-part prayer-wall, plus one-part church Facebook. But it’s more because it creates a virtual “church foyer.” It’s common for our church members to come up to each other on Sunday morning saying: “I’ve never met you but, I’ve been praying for your son.” The Table software connects people before they’ve ever gone to a single small group. That makes it easier for our people to network with one another, 24-7.
You’ve also said that today’s generation is more socially isolated than any previous generation. What do you mean by that and what does it mean for churches?
Peter: Americans are more likely to live alone than any other nationality on earth. Studies are starting to show that we are some of the most socially isolated people on planet earth. We’re also more likely to move away from our families than any people group in the world, and move further distances, and with greater frequency than any other people group. And even when we “plant ourselves,” we commute longer distances than just about any other nation. Then we work longer hours and participate in more socially isolating entertainment experiences than almost any other nation on earth.
And maybe you’re thinking: “But who cares if we’re isolated?…What difference does it make?”
Well, studies show four jaw dropping ramifications of isolation:
- Life expectancy for isolated people is dramatically less.
- Your statistical odds of happiness will virtually wither up and die.
- Both crime rates and violence tend to increase in direct proportion to a societies’ relational isolation.
- Individualism necessitates materialism. Because you’re isolated, you have to buy your own chain saw rather than borrowing one. This requires more debt, which requires more work hours, which compounds your isolation.
In other words, people have less community than ever before. This must change the way churches need to think. The most valuable commodity the church can peddle isn’t Bible information or even church services, but community.
I’m getting the sense that community is vital for churches. You recently claimed a 116% attendance rate for small groups at Substance (meaning more people attend small groups than your worship services). Clearly Substance is using small groups to meet this community need. What are you doing different with small groups that’s creating this kind of appeal?
Peter: Many churches have small groups. But our church is small groups. Everything at our church is designed to be a slippery creek bank into intimacy and small groups. Suddenly the chief goal of your ushering ministry isn’t to pass offering plates but to create family.
So how do you market community?
Peter: We’ve created many catch phrases like: “Church doesn’t start until the service is over.” Or, “Church is what happens in between church services.” Churches also need to have a clear and simple assimilation and involvement process. But, to be truthful, you really don’t have to “market” it. If you create good community, it markets itself.