Bigger or Better?

At a recent gathering of brethren, the typical discussion topic for those engaged in professional church work came up – what to do about dwindling weekly worship attendance and churches that are small and struggling?

The participants in this discussion came from large churches, depending on your definition of large.  But they were seriously concerned about small churches.  Congregations barely able or not able to Call a pastor.  Weekly worship levels in the low double digits.  Or even single digits.  Groups of Christians sitting on property worth millions of dollars but unable to engage in outward-oriented ministry because of budget difficulties and a lack of manpower.

These are all valid concerns for a variety of reasons.  But what to do about it?  There was a consensus that we should encourage congregations to work together more, to share resources and ministry opportunities.  But how to get congregations to do this?  How to get pastors to do this?

One of the suggestions was to change the way we talk about our numbers and metrics.  Instead of focusing on worship attendance at just our congregation, we should instead report the aggregate number of people in our denomination in worship in any given week as though it were our own.  So instead of saying that we worshiped 20 last Sunday, or 100, or 200, we would report that we worshiped 22,000 or so.  Which might be the number who worshiped at all of the congregations in our region combined.  The idea was to give hope and encouragement while also fostering a greater sense of the larger Church, of a given congregation being not an island, but rather part of a larger body.

I commend that goal wholeheartedly, but I am somewhat uncertain about the continued emphasis on metrics and numbers.

In a culture where bigger is better, the idea of reporting a large number is an indicator of success, and people want to be successful and associate with other successful people, and this can buoy the spirit of a small congregation and create an environment that others want to be a part of.  Or something like that.  Because at the end of the day, all this talk about working together and collaboration and partnership is a matter of numbers.  If so many congregations weren’t struggling to keep the lights on our make payroll, we wouldn’t be needing to talk about collaboration (though I would argue we still should).

Numbers and economics were driving the conversation that took place in that boardroom.  And God-fearing, Jesus-loving, Holy Spirit-filled men and women were genuinely concerned that for many of their colleagues, numbers and economics were bad and continuing to get worse.  They wanted to help.  They still do.

But I don’t think reporting larger numbers is going to help.  The decline that is most prominent in small and vulnerable congregations is part of a larger-scale cultural decline in regularly Christian worship that even large churches are struggling with, though their struggle may be with plateaued worship attendance instead of declining attendance.  But if projections are correct, this cultural decline is going to continue.  Rapidly.  And even the big churches will be affected by it somewhat.  Aggregating our worship attendance won’t be a big psychological help if the number continues to shrink.  And I worry that changing the way we talk about worship numbers isn’t really going to build collegiality and a greater sense of unity amongst our various pastors and congregations.

Attendance isn’t the number that we need to look at.  Our economics are the numbers we need to look at.  Does it make sense to still define a successful or viable church by the fact that it owns a piece of property with a church building on it?  Particularly in our part of the world, where real-estate is so incredibly expensive, wouldn’t redefining how Church looks give a better opportunity for people to be excited about what Church does?  Not every congregation may need to ask this question.  Financially secure or large congregations may well reasonably decide it makes best sense to stay put in the facility they own.  But for many others, accessing the capital tied up in the ground under their feet could enable them to initiate additional outreach and ministry opportunities to reach more people.

How we have learned to do Church in America over the last 200 years or so may not work so well in the future.  Especially if some of the benefits the Church enjoys here are removed – tax exemptions in particularly.  A change of tactics is necessary but it goes deeper than just getting people to work together to the issue of how to work together, and what we’re working together for.

The New Testament doesn’t talk about numbers much.  There are a few mentions in Acts about the miraculous number of people who are led to faith in Jesus Christ.  Those numbers are descriptive – here is what happened by the grace of God the Holy Spirit.  They aren’t prescriptive, in terms of this is how big your church should be.  We have to stop listening to corporate marketing and sales models that are tweaked slightly for churches.  I had an e-mail the other day from someone with a program for fine-tuning our web and social media presence to generate a 32% increase in worship attendance within a year.

I don’t believe it.  But even if I did, I’d want to question why that’s an issue for me.  Is it to share the Gospel with that many more people, or is it to buoy the budget?   We need to be brutally honest about what our motivations are when we talk about these things, because people are going to suspect that our motivations are selfish and money-oriented.  Why?  Because that’s the way the rest of our culture and society function.  They’ll assume the Church is the same way.  And if that’s really at the base of all our talk about the Gospel, they’re going to smell it pretty quickly.

I’m worried about small congregations as well.  I want to encourage congregations of all sizes to be more collaborative, to partner, to share resources.  I understand very well how difficult that can be at first.  But I believe that it is a privilege far more than a necessity.  In learning how to work together as the Body of Christ, we can present Christ more authentically to the culture around us.  That’s what really matters, trying to follow the Holy Spirit as He guides us through challenging and perplexing times, but not through situations and circumstances that are new.  These are issues the Church has faced throughout the last 2000 years in various places.  We should be humble and wise enough to be willing to learn.  Together.  Regardless of the numbers.

2 Responses to “Bigger or Better?”

  1. Steve Says:

    Say what we may about them numbers are always important. The attendance numbers for a region may not be very meaningful to our local congregations but the combined attendance of the three churches might start members to think about each other.

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      Hi Steve. Yes, they might. But I would argue that the reasons that numbers remain important is because of a particular model of church – full-time salaried pastor, land, church building, etc. – that make numbers necessary to consider. It’s not that this is a bad model – it has worked for a long time! But it may not continue to work well. Statistics would indicate that it already isn’t working well for a majority of congregations. Within our particular denomination, something like 80% of congregations worship less than 100 people in a week, and there are a few larger congregations that may worship thousands.

      If it gets people thinking about being part of something larger, then I’m all for it, and willing to try this particularly because it’s not difficult to do. I would love to have my gut instincts on this proved wrong!

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