By William Willimon
This book came to me just when I needed it. This past June, the bishop appointed me to a church. The congregation had previously suffered decline but had recently experienced some modest growth. A congregational long range plan dictated that they would be at 400 attendance in four years but they had been stuck at 230 for months. As a new pastor, what could I do to help lead this church move in a direction it wanted to go, but wasn’t quite sure of how to get there?
Then I read Overflow: Increase Worship Attendance & Bear More Fruit (Abingdon, 2013). I was fairly sure that any book by Lovett Weems – veteran church observer, founder of the Lewis Center at Wesley Seminary – and Tom Berlin – large church pastor with proven experience in growing churches – would be a good book. I wasn’t disappointed. The last Weems/Berlin book, Bearing Fruit, was a great success, prodding a church that has a studied resistance to noticing and responding to results. Weems and Berlin are sure that we count only that which is important and that whatever we count becomes important. A major reason why many in my church resist counting and accountability to results is that they are unhopeful that we have any means of getting better results. Overflow takes the thought of Weems and Berlin a next step and even more sharply focuses upon the issue of worship attendance as the most important indicator of congregational vitality.
“Nowhere is the challenge of fruitfulness more important than in helping increasing numbers of people experience God through worship,” say the authors. They then set out to succinctly, effectively bolster that claim through some wonderful chapters on the centrality of worship, the need for attentiveness to those whom the church draws to worship and to those whom the church excludes from worship. I first heard the phrase “attendance recession” from Lovett Weems in his description of the alarming drop in attendance that has been experienced by most mainline churches in the past decade. From my experience as a bishop, I was convinced that Sunday worship attendance is crucial, but I also was intimidated by the difficulties in impacting worship attendance.
Overflow attempts to “give people hope that they can improve their attendance” by offering encouragement and practical steps for “planning, implementing, and evaluating worship that can produce greater fruitfulness.” The book exudes encouragement and hope and is packed with practical advice. I immediately purloined the Visitors Questionnaire. Every visitor to Duke Memorial’s Sunday service now receives that questionnaire and most of them complete it. We go over the results of those visitor responses every week and that device is single handedly changing the life of our congregation.
By the way, in three months we have increased our Sunday worship attendance by twenty percent. I’m not saying that Overflow alone caused this dramatic increase. Most of the credit goes to the Holy Spirit. But I am saying that the Holy Spirit used a fine book by Weems and Berlin to teach a new pastor how to be more faithful to the promptings of the Holy Spirit!
The Reverend Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at the Divinity School, Duke University. He is recently retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, where he led the 157,000 Methodists and 792 pastors in North Alabama. For twenty years prior to the episcopacy, he was Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.