An Interview with Frank Rose, Part 1
Friday, February 22, 2013
New Church Perspective in Frank Rose, church, growth

This is a lightly edited transcript of an interview with Frank Rose. In this, the first of two sections, they discuss systems that encourage church growth. Frank's experience provides evidence of what works and what doesn't. This culminates in a vision for the future success of the church, if it is willing to lead with its weakness. The second piece is here. -Editor


A: Welcome

F: Thank you.

A: So, your name is Frank Rose, and you have been a minister in the General Church for—how long? Sixty...

F: Sixty years, yeah.

A: Sixty years. So, before we begin our conversation, I think it would be helpful to make it clear that when we are speaking about ‘the church,’ we are referring to the General Church specifically, as opposed to a universal church within the minds and hearts of people worldwide.

F: Yes.

A: Alright. One thing that I remember speaking with you about on our most recent visit was that you were surprised and even shocked that no one seemed to notice or care that the church was dying...

Is this a fair statement? If so, then what information led you to acknowledge that this was happening?

F: Okay, Yeah, that’s a fair statement. Growing up I kept hearing people say, “The church is growing,” and, “As the church grows...” and they kept talking in those terms. I then asked myself the question, “Where is it growing and by how much?” So I actually did a survey of the reports from different societies, and I put all the figures together, and I created these graphs, and they showed that most of the congregations were in numerical decline and had been for a good twenty years. And I did this study thirty years ago.

A: Okay.

F: So now it’s fifty years of decline.

A: Okay.

F: And it’s not just a decline in numbers. What I see is also a decline in a feeling of ownership of the church, a feeling of energy and “this is our church” and so, less of a commitment [laughs].

A: Are there forms in the church that are not serving its growth? It seems that people and other living things naturally grow to succeed and thrive, unless there’s something that’s inhibiting them. And so I’m wondering if you can see specific forms within the church that are counterproductive to that thriving?

F: Yeah, yeah let’s start with the worship service.

A: Okay.

F: The worship I grew up with—very, very few people really love that anymore. A lot of people in my generation think it’s the right form, and so they’ll go, and if you ask them afterwards, you know, “What was that like for you?” they might say, “Well, it was okay.” And then you ask a younger person and they’d say, “Well, the music was terrible and the whole experience was kind of ‘blah,’” or something. So I think our worship services, for the most part, fail to excite and reach the younger generation. And I have to admit that when I was young, it was assumed you’d go to church because it was the thing to do. And if someone said, “Well, are you going because you enjoy it?” You’d say, “Well, I enjoy it because I have to go…but I enjoy it.” But less and less you get people wanting to go just because they’re supposed to go. So it doesn’t work anymore to say to a twenty-five year old, “You should go to church.” They might say, “Well, why should I go to church?” or, “Why do we have these forms?”

One experience I had when I was a young minister in England— In Theological School they said, “From time to time you should give a class on ritual so people understand why we do what we do when we do it.” So I tried that once, [laughs], you know, “We do this because…and we do this because,” and “This is the celebration part of the service, and this is the humiliation part of the service, and this is the instructional part of the service, and so on.” And later it occurred to me, instead of telling people what they should be experiencing during those parts of the service, I should ask them…

A: Yeah, “What are you experiencing?”

F: “What are you actually experiencing?” And does our imaginary model fit people’s experience?

A: Right, right.

F: And of course it didn’t. And way back, W.F. Pendleton produced his notes on ritual, and he developed a ritual, and he had all the reasons for doing what he did, and I noticed that the ritual that W.F. Pendleton was talking about, nobody does anymore. Even the Bryn Athyn Cathedral is very simplified to what W.F. Pendleton had in mind. And this whole idea that you can create something by having one minister go to the Writings, go to the Word, study it, and come up with something that will work with people, that idea I think is what is wrong. But I think it would have been very startling for people in the old days, to say we should ask the people what’s worshipful to them.

A: Yeah, “What?!?”

F: “What? What’s it got to do with them?” We’re supposed to lead in worship. And the idea was that ritual development belonged at headquarters, and that the bishop was in charge of ritual development. And then I discovered that real development of ritual occurs in a camp setting or some little congregation where they have twelve people, and they will evolve something that works for them. And headquarters could never have produced, from studies and things like that, the kind of worship that will work for this group. So, part of the reason why the organization deteriorates over time is because this top down management doesn’t work—the idea that these people are in charge, these people follow. I think the future will lie more in people working together as a team to find forms that really express their worship needs.

And the other thing I’ve discovered is that I used to think that my job as a minister was to create a service that would make people worshipful. And then I found that people are already worshipful, and in many cases more than I was—so, then the question is, “How can I as a leader facilitate what’s already there and have it be more meaningful to them?”

A: And so when you began thinking this way, did you begin asking the congregation what felt good —how they felt through various aspects of the service? Did you change the way the services were constructed based on real feedback? How did you implement that?

F: Yes, in England I didn’t do much of that, but by the time we got to Tucson, we instituted the weekly staff meeting every Monday—ten o’clock Monday morning. Staff was defined as anybody who was in that room at ten o’clock on Monday morning. And there were certain regular people there, like the church secretary and so on, but anybody could walk in and become part of that. And the agenda was, “Any thoughts from yesterday? Or last week?” So we’d have an immediate response. And then we’d look at, “Anybody have any other items that they want to raise?” So the idea was that it was a team effort. And we didn’t have a worship committee as such—I think that’s a good idea—but in effect, our staff was our worship committee. We could do a lot more of that, of constantly keeping in touch with people, “What’s working for you? What’s not working for you?” Instead of having people just fade away because it’s not working for them, and then we’re left with this question, “Why did they leave?” So, the organization has to be sensitive to the needs of the people.

And here’s another thing, when I grew up the church communities were very stable. They were the same people Sunday after Sunday, and the only changes were that they might marry someone, or they might have children, but, basically it was the same group. And so it developed its unique characteristics—this is what Glenview looks like, this is what Bryn Athyn looks like. When a church starts to grow, that all changes, and you have people coming in that have no tradition with this church, and they’re much more willing to tell you what works and what doesn’t work, and they usually vote with their feet. When we got to Tucson, people told us about this little tiny church. It only held 40-45 people and had a parking lot for six cars. We didn’t do any advertising, and we had something like an average of two visitors a week. But they never came back. There was a constant flow of people into that building, and all we needed to do was to find some kind of glue that would hold them there and the church would have grown enormously, and that helped me to realize that what we were doing was not working for the average person. The average person walking in would say, “This doesn’t work for me.”

A: And so it sounds like a working church would be one that had a very sensitive and evolving system of management—more fluid and elastic.

F: Yes, exactly, and one of the ways of cheating that is to put the new people into decision making as soon as you possibly can, because they’re the ones that tell you most about what the general public is looking for, because we forget!

A: Right. Tradition and everything that we’re used to and…

F: Yeah!

A: Yeah.

F: So. The other thing is that every new person is a contact for more new people. I once said, this was in Kitchener, ON, “Bring your friends to church next Sunday. We’re going to have a special visitors Sunday!” And they said, “Well, all my friends are in the church!” But then if you get one new person, that new person has more contacts than the whole rest of the congregation. So that’s why growth becomes very easy once you get going, because it’s organic. These contacts are constantly growing. But it only works as long as the people get what they need out of the worship service or whatever the event is.

A: And so that sort of lays out a good working structure for a small congregation, or for any congregation.

Right now, the General Church has a bunch of congregations and then a central leadership. [F: Yup.] And so do you think that the central leadership of the church could do better to support this kind of growth?

F: Yes, I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit. What can the centralized government of the church do to promote growth?

A: Right.

F: See, the unit of growth is the congregation. The church as a whole doesn’t grow, but this congregation, this congregation, this congregation—they can, they can grow. Now what the centralized church can do is to provide a way for these individual congregations to share with each other what’s working and what’s not working. Also, in training new ministers, they can get them exposed to what’s working and what’s not working, because the headquarters is the last to know what’s working, because they’re the most involved in what we’ve always done. The life is always out in the frontier, it’s not in the headquarters.

Frank Rose

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