I wish I could report that in my years of pastoral ministry, I’ve come up with incredibly creative alternatives to measure congregational vitality other than worship attendance.
In this scenario, I’d report to the synod the number of times we refilled the Little Free Pantry, the pounds of food we brought for the Ramadan meal we served at the mosque, our number of participants in the Pride parade, or total number of engagements on the Facebook page.
But in the end I default (because we have to report it to our synod) to the classic numbers: total worship attendance and official membership.
At our little Lutheran congregation here in Fayetteville, we grew from 337 baptized members in 2017 to 359 baptized members in 2018. Our average weekly attendance went from 164 in 2017 to 162 in 2018. And we estimate in terms of activity at the church 489 people participated in the life of the congregation in 2018.
We also had 14 baptisms (five adult baptism) in 2018. That’s a blessing.
Those are the real numbers. Nothing shiny. Just a little congregation over here in this part of God’s big world.
The Larger Trends
Because church life is always subject to larger cultural trends, it’s helpful to put these numbers in context. If we don’t, we may ascribe false causation. If it’s a trend, it’s a trend. For example, Thom Rainier, church guru, says, this:
Stated simply, the number one reason for the decline in church attendance is that members attend with less frequency than they did just a few years ago.
That’s definitely represented in our numbers. Our total baptized membership went up year-to-year, but our worship attendance dropped just a bit.
I mean, I’m not going to say that I don’t want us to do better, and that we can do better, at the basics of inviting people to worship and retaining and growing worship attendance. But it helps to know the larger culture.
Carey Nieuwohf theorizes even committed church attenders are attending less frequently is because on average, people are traveling more, committed to youth programs and events, include more blended families, and have online options.
What Does This Mean?
You know, some days I’m not sure. But as a pastor attempting to innovate in the 21st century, I tend to have a both/and mentality around these shifts as they impact church attendance.
On the one hand I understand that engagement looks different today and I’m fine with that. I’m comfortable with, and quite enjoy, that a lot of what we think of as church takes place in new media context. Heck, I even wrote a book about that!
So if, as recently is happening, via a couple of neighborhood Facebook groups, I participate in a community bike ride to the neighboring elementary school in cooperation with some neighborhood moms, and we make deepened connections in our immediate neighborhood, I understand that as growth. I don’t know what the long-term impact will be on our worship attendance, but I believe in the idea of a “parish,” and that sounds like parish ministry.
Impact matters to me, and on an impact scale, at least as I hear it reported back to us from our neighbors and community, we have a significant impact.
But in the end, worship attendance also matters. Our congregation feels more energized, more whole, more alive when there’s a full community of people at church on a Sunday morning. I’d be lying if I said worship attendance didn’t matter to me, every week as I gather with our community. It matters. And it is a sign of vitality, an important one.
That being said, it may be the very people who prioritize community impact who are less concerned with making it to church every Sunday. Therein lies the glorious irony.
Let’s Not Forget About Church Size
It’s important to keep in mind, in order not to become dispirited, two truths about church size and numbers. The first is a sociological truism: it’s hard to break the 200 barrier for worship attendance.
A majority of churches in North America have less than 200 in worship on a Sunday morning. In fact many have less than fifty. But there’s something sociologically significant about that 200 number, and it’s difficult to break past it.
It’s the size past which one person (a pastor) can no longer interpersonally and successfully connect with all of them. It’s the size of a community that moves beyond a pastor-centered model.
The other truth in the contemporary American Christian church economy: the big churches are growing, and the smaller churches aren’t. The big get bigger while the small get smaller.
In much the same way big box stores like Walmart grow while smaller little shops in the downtowns decline and struggle.
What remains to be seen in this attendance landscape is the shift to online and distributed forms of worship. Amazon is competing with Walmart? Is online church going to throw up a challenge to the big box churches, or present new possibilities for tiny churches to market themselves.
Will there be an Uber of church, or an Etsy?
In the meantime, if I can accomplish a certain level of calming among all readers about the state of their churches as it compares to these wider trends, I’ll have accomplished one goal. If I can then inspire all of us to think creatively about what we measure and why we measure and which measures we should still measure, then I’ve accomplished the other task.
And in the end, all of that being said, sometimes there can be still, small, tiny little moments that can never be measured and yet will mean everything, the everything contained in one metric. And that’s fine too. Wherever two or three are gathered. The one sheep. The dregs of the world.
The numbers are important, but they are never even close to everything.