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Connect, June 27, 2023: The Plan for Worship at ARC – It’s bigger than music

Connect, June 27, 2023: The Plan for Worship at ARC - It's bigger than music

It’s bigger than music.

By Pastor Rick Henderson

This article is part two of an announcement that was made last week. If you missed the first article, you can read it here.

In November of 2022, with the pastor of traditional worship following God’s call to another church, we knew that we’d be turning the page into a new chapter of worship at Autumn Ridge.

After months of prayer, study, and careful deliberation, the Worship Advisory Team (WAT) made a recommendation to “begin a strategic and measured process that will eventually lead us to a unified worship service (only one service type).” The elder board affirmed their recommendation, and a plan was developed:

We are beginning a slow and careful process that will eventually lead to unified worship at Autumn Ridge. By unified worship, we mean that the expression of worship will be identical at all three services. This is not going to happen immediately.  Slow is not our goal.  Unity is our goal. We believe the axiom below is a helpful guide.

 Everybody moves or nobody moves.

 Unified worship does NOT mean simply replacing traditional worship elements with modern expressions of worship.  Unified worship does NOT mean a blended service.  We believe there is rich, beautiful, and indispensable music that is both old and new.  Jesus is honored and congregations can benefit when that is embraced.  We believe that we have the opportunity and ability to unify and express a diversity of worship with excellence and beauty.

In this article will delve into the background information that led to this decision. There will be other communication that addresses what the experience of a unified service will be like. Beginning this weekend, we will host unified worship once a month. I will share an important sermon that addresses questions and clarifies our direction. I hope you can attend.

This article will address more than music styles and song preferences. We’re going to zoom out so that we can take in a wide range of important factors. It will be a lengthy read. Brevity is often the enemy of clarity. Both clarity and transparency are my goals.

How Do We Make Decisions?

First, it might be helpful to address how our church makes decisions. How a church is structured and governed is called polity. There are many different polity configurations across churches and denominations. Two of the more popular are the congregational and pastor/elder-led models. At the extreme end of the congregational model, members of the congregation vote on all matters for the church. At the extreme end of the pastor/elder-led model, pastors and elders decide all matters for the church.

Autumn Ridge is a mixture of the two, leaning more toward pastor/elder-led than being congregationally-led. Is that a new development? No. This has been our church’s polity for more than 30 years. Pastors and elders manage and make decisions on matters regarding doctrine, mission, values, strategy, operations, staffing, and stewardship of resources.

The following is a list of items that the congregation is responsible for deciding:

  • Affirm or disaffirm candidates for the Elder Board (also includes removing members from the Elder Board)
  • Affirm or disaffirm the annual budget
  • Affirm or disaffirm the hiring of a Lead Pastor
  • Affirm or disaffirm the purchase of property and/or the sale of property (as defined by the bylaws)
  • Affirm or disaffirm candidates for church membership
  • Affirm or disaffirm changes to our church’s bylaws

Members of the congregation vote on a combination of the above items each February at our Annual Meeting. If you are not a member of Autumn Ridge, I’d love for you to become one. Click here to find out more.

Some Good News

Our church remains on a trajectory of steady growth. In fact, our attendance is 9% higher than it was this time last year! We are thankful that God allows us to be a growing church of all cultures, where curious, skeptical, and hurting people love to attend. This is what our growth trend looks like from the end of the COVID lockdowns through today.

Connect, June 27, 2023: The Plan for Worship at ARC - It's bigger than music

The reason we keep track of this information isn’t because we are crazy about numbers. Every number represents a person. All of us count what we care about. And we care about people. We live in a city of 115,000+ people. On any given weekend, more than 100,000 are not engaged with a church. It is the thrill of a lifetime to share the gospel and invite people into Jesus’ kingdom. That’s why we exist, to lead people to be fully devoted followers of Jesus. That includes people who are coming to faith in Jesus and people who are growing in faith!

Our Attendance History

While we continue to celebrate growth in our church, we haven’t yet returned to the peak of 2017. That year was the high water mark for attendance, baptisms, and giving. Shortly after that time, however, Autumn Ridge’s attendance trend turned downward. It continued through the lockdowns of 2020.

Connect, June 27, 2023: The Plan for Worship at ARC - It's bigger than music

Again, there is good news. The trend of decline has stopped, and we are slowly but surely progressing in the direction of 2017. Growth looks different now than it did in the buildup to 2017. In those years, the greatest engine for attendance growth was the Saturday night service. This is seen in the chart below, which tracks attendance trends from 2005 to 2020.

Connect, June 27, 2023: The Plan for Worship at ARC - It's bigger than music

Instead of looking at the dots, focus on the trend lines.

  • Blue is the Saturday night service.
  • Orange is the Sunday morning traditional service.
  • Green is the Sunday morning contemporary service.

Here are some observations from the attendance trends of 2005 - 2020.

  • Saturday night was the only service that grew in attendance from 2005 - 2011.
  • The traditional service declined in attendance from 2005 - 2011. It experienced slight but steady increases from 2011 - 2016. The greatest increase, an additional 37 attendees per weekend, came during the tenure of Dr. Allen Hightower (2014 - 2016).
  • The contemporary service plateaued, declined, and then plateaued again from 2005 - 2013.
  • In 2014 the Saturday night attendance began to decline.
  • From 2015 - 2017 the contemporary service saw its greatest increase.
  • Before the end of 2017, all services were on the decline through 2020.

Current Attendance Trends and Seating Capacity

The Sunday 10:00am service is currently our strongest engine for growth. Both the Saturday night and Sunday 8:30am service lag behind its growth trend.

Connect, June 27, 2023: The Plan for Worship at ARC - It's bigger than music

The black is overall attendance. Green is the 10:00am service. Red is the Sunday 8:30am service, and blue is the Saturday night service.

We want all our services to be vibrant and to grow. And yet, we find ourselves in a dilemma that many other churches have had to navigate. During the seasons of high attendance (Fall, Winter, and Spring), the Sunday 10:00am service is at its seating capacity. Churches never fill 100% of their seats during weekend services. Prior to 2020, it was commonly understood that people experienced 80% capacity as being full. People tended to stop attending or would even leave.

Pastors and those who study churches agree that the number has changed due to COVID’s impact on people’s habits and tendencies. Seating capacity now ranges from 65% - 70%. That’s when people experience a church as being full. People will tend to stop attending or even leave. We have witnessed this at Autumn Ridge. If something doesn’t change, we will see it again this Fall. To be clear, if we don’t change, our overall church attendance will plateau and decline this year. With so many people in our community needing Jesus and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) being our highest priority, we find that intolerable. Our church will do anything short of sin to reach people with the good news.

Toward Increasing Our Seating Capacity

We explored other options before considering a pivot to unified worship.

    1. Reinvigorate Saturday night and Sunday 8:30am services.
    2. Launch a third Sunday morning service.

It was my expectation all along that we would attempt options 1 and 2 before pivoting to unified worship. In fact, this is why we moved our Sunday service times 8:30am and 10:00am. I fully anticipated that a third service was the best step to facilitate further growth.

Throughout this process, it became clear that options 1 and 2 were far more challenging than we anticipated. Reinvigorating Saturday night and launching a third Sunday service aren’t yet possible.

And it’s for the same reason: our Kids Ministry team will not be able to facilitate a third service or a return of Saturday evening Kids Ministry programming until the Fall of 2024 at the earliest. Additionally, we are keen to reinvigorate our Barnabas Ministry. Families who have kids with special needs are underserved, and we aim to get that back on track. The long and short is that increasing seating capacity via a third Sunday service is not currently workable.

Sadly, reinvigorating a traditional service as a means to reach our community has also proved illusory. I’m immensely grateful for Dan Mansfield’s interim leadership. We appreciate his willingness to step into this gap while also balancing a full-time career to serve our church in this way. What a gift he has been to us. Additionally, we have a team of outstanding volunteers. Our church is blessed! I’ve enjoyed that service.

However, achieving quality implementation of all the elements required for a traditional service requires a particular skill set that appears to be vanishing in the church world. During the process, we made more than 50 contacts with colleges, churches, and leaders in this field. We were unable to find anyone who is interested in being a traditional worship leader at Autumn Ridge. Most colleges and traditional worship pastors could not recommend a single person to us. This is consistent with what other churches are discovering around the country.

Recently, Pastor Caleb met with an Executive Pastor from a church in Waco, Texas. Like us, they hold traditional and contemporary services. Their traditional worship pastor retired. Also, like us, they could not find a single interested person to lead that service. They have a bevy of younger attendees who play in the orchestra. Interestingly, they only wanted to play their instruments in the contemporary service. That church is also pivoting to unified worship.

For these reasons, and more that I don’t have space to include in this article, we recognized that pivoting to unified worship is the only available option to increase seating capacity and maintain our efforts to reach this community with the gospel. Further, as we settled into this realization, a new joy began to take root.

We are finding joy in the prospect of being a church that is marked by mutual submission, being multi-generational and muti-cultural, who gather together to adore Jesus and encourage each other in worship.

Recently, a man from our church wrote this to me. “Singing is a product of worship. Worship isn’t the product of singing.” I think he’s right. Because we are people with hearts tuned to worship, we can also be a people who sing together, expressing joy, and experiencing unity.

The transition to unified worship isn’t happening immediately. We haven’t determined when it will happen. On September 10, we will return to Sunday services at 9:00am and 10:30am. This does NOT mark the beginning of full-time, unified worship. Our hope is that attendance will spread out more evenly, which would solve the issue of seating capacity. We would be thrilled if this move also extends the sustainability of a traditional service.

I know that some are curious about what will drive the shift to unified worship. The two factors are:

    1. Our ability to facilitate traditional worship with the quality it deserves by the people who are currently on our team.
    2. Our ability to take pressure off the seating demands of the second Sunday morning service.

We are grateful that more and more folks want to join what God is doing at Autumn Ridge. We are committed to the cause of Jesus. We will know that the time is right to pivot to unified worship full-time when that is what is required to welcome all who want to come.

Grace and Peace,
Pastor Rick