Church By the Numbers

Church By the Numbers March 31, 2019

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.

Our Numbers

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.

Likewise, if we change our community through advocacy at quorum court meetings and the work of the Arkansas Poor Peoples’ Campaign, all of it energized by our members, that’s a certain kind of vitality, perhaps the most important kind. Taking church to the people.

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.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Janet Graige

    When we figure out how to “measure” Holy Spirit then she will shift forms, probably before we even get close. But, we should try to do evening prayer or compline online from the gslc community. Maybe a different voice every night. Or 7 volunteers each taking an evening shift. I would like it with just the voice and not the video. Night Prayer from the New Zealand prayerbook is just about the coolest thing ever. I used to love to hear Mother Teresa do a good night prayer when I had TV and it was late and I was on my way to bed. She had a wonderful prayer voice. I’ll put it on my need to explore soon long list.

  • kcwookie

    I don’t go to church any longer because I’m tired of Christians. I’m tired of people who give lip service to love and compassion but don’t practice it. I’m tired of preachers who are more hung up on money, being anti gay and Muslim and have no idea of the trials and tribulations that working people live through. I’m tired of churches who believe in Quid Pro Quo, we provided $300 worth of meals when you were hurting so you need to give us $300 back. That’s not giving, that’s a loan.

    If I’m looking for selfless people, I know where not to look. I was thrown out of a church (LUTHERN) because I worked in public safety. The church tossed a bunch of fire fighters and paramedics because we worked on Sunday and couldn’t bring our wallets to the offering.

    I won’t assoicate with AM Talk Radio Christians. I’m tired of the phony, and the fake. I’m tired of the church, like the military preying on people with their phony nationalism and doctrine. When it comes to numbers, count me out.

  • Clint Schnekloth

    I’m sorry this has been your experience. It certainly wouldn’t be your experience in our community or many like ours.

  • Clint Schnekloth

    I used to join an online prayer community on Second Life. I like the idea of doing the prayers online, because I prefer to be with my family when I can, but evenings I can do it via computer fairly easily.

  • kcwookie

    No disrespect, but that’s what everyone says.

  • Clint Schnekloth

    That’s very possible, but all I can say is we also DO. We serve a Ramadan meal with the Muslim community. We walk together with our LGBTQ siblings at the Pride parade. I host a series all Lent specifically on vocations so we can hear stories from within our community like your story, so we understand the unique demands different vocations place on us.

    And I agree with you. You absolutely do not need to be in church to be “in Christ,” and Christ was frequently found all over the place.

  • Janet Graige

    We should do this. A goodnight prayer from gslc folks each night for our greater community, different voices, something people could just listen to or follow along with.

  • kcwookie

    Again no disrespect, but the Muslim community or your Muslim friends? There is a subtle difference. One still sets you apart, and the other is shared community?

  • Clint Schnekloth

    No disrespect taken, but you don’t spend many meals together, a week at camp, time in one another’s homes, time playing soccer, time praying together, without also becoming good friends.

  • kcwookie

    You wrote distance into your post.

  • Clint Schnekloth

    I don’t know what that means.

  • Nancy Tuma

    Like Clint, I too am sorry about your experience. I am a second career minister (in the Presbyterian Church USA) and agree with everything you said. I don’t even like to use the word Christian, because of my dealing with many people who called themselves Christian, but we not Christ-like. That is the word I prefer, Christ-like. It is who I try to model my life after, although not always very successfully. Please know that not all churches as alike (you don’t say what brand of Lutheran you were…). There is a church called House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver that is ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) and they are wonderful. Nadia Bolz-Webber founded this church and while she is no longer their minister, it has retained the love and community that she built. GLBTQAI people and others who have given up on church are welcome there. Blessings to you on your journey Clint.

  • Dhammarato

    you may not know your own community very well. Every Christian community eventually is seen through. It is even a likely bet that others in your group will tell you those things right to your face if you would only listen. Christianity is dying for one reason only: information. Folks are waking up and you cant stop that trend, not with media and the web. sorry lets just set fire to it all and watch the churches burn down.

  • John Purssey

    You may like this. Or you may not.

    Sorry about the formatting. It’s copied from a web page and Disqus keeps messing it up

    A church man came to see me the other day. A churchy man, an

    important man in his church. A deacon I think, maybe. He came to see me

    and our little church. He came to see if there was anything of interest

    going on here.

    I was wearing jeans and a Snoopy t-shirt at church that day, which

    put him off a bit, but the real surprise came when he found that I

    couldn’t answer any of his questions.

    How many members do you have?

    I don’t know.

    My answer, or lack of an answer, stunned him. He squinted a moment,

    trying to understand a thing that seemed impossible. It just isn’t

    possible that a pastor could not know how many members are in his

    church.

    You don’t know?

    No. I could print a directory and count the people, I guess. But

    there never seems to be an occasion when we need to know how many

    members we have. So I never get around to counting them.

    Huh!

    He frowned in an exaggerated way and nodded his head slowly and

    deliberately. This is one way that men tell you they don’t agree with

    you but are going to be polite and not argue the fact.

    What are you running on Sundays?

    This is the way church people ask about worship attendance. The number they are looking for is a weekly average.

    I don’t know.

    Really?

    Yeah. I mean, someone would have to count everyone each Sunday

    and run the numbers and all that. Again, there just doesn’t seem to be

    any reason to do it, so we don’t.

    I wanted to be helpful, so I said, Sometimes this room is pretty

    full. Then other times I notice it’s not as full. And then sometimes

    it’s sorta empty, you know, on a slow Sunday.

    I can’t believe he kept asking questions, but he did.

    How many are enrolled in Sunday School?

    I was feeling a little sheepish, for some reason, though I have no intention of keeping these statistics.

    Yeaaahh, I said, dragging it out. The thing is, we don’t enroll

    people in Bible study. We study the Bible, of course. People are free to

    join us if they like, but we don’t keep track of it.

    I could tell by his face that he thought we ran a pretty sloppy

    operation at our church. If you really cared about doing the work of the

    Lord in this world, wouldn’t you count members and track attendance

    like any good business?

    I got one final question, one last chance to redeem myself.

    Do you have a ministry plan of some kind?

    He didn’t say, “Do you AT LEAST have a ministry plan of some kind,”

    but I assure you the tone of his voice made his meaning clear.

    Ministry plan? I racked my brain trying to think of what that might

    be. It sounded to me like some kind of marketing plan or strategy.

    Well, you know, not formally, as such. I guess we would say that

    our plan is to do what’s right, no matter what the consequences. We

    should do what we feel is right and good, whether it brings five people

    or five-thousand people to our door.

    And that pretty much wrapped up the interview. He was polite and shook my hand before he left.

    It’s a very important spiritual discipline for me to let people like

    this think that I am an incompetent fool. It is critically important

    that I not explain myself to them. I just wave bye-bye and let them

    go. In my defense, I can answer a lot of questions about my church. He

    just wasn’t asking the right ones.

    I can tell you anything you’d like to know about our children. I can

    tell you that Adam loves race cars and Steven likes to sing. I can tell

    you that Madeline’s hair always smells good on Wednesday nights and that

    Anna’s mother is teaching her ballet. I can tell you that Jacob likes

    to be picked up, but don’t turn him upside down. That scares him.

    I can tell you about all the secret places at the church. I’m the one

    who cut the trail through the woods to the giant cedar tree, and I can

    tell you about the mysterious pile of rocks at the back of the property.

    I can tell you the funny story behind the decaying mound of wood and

    cactus that we call, “Main’s folly,” and I know what the old ring of

    stones in the clearing was for.

    I know why there’s a rock in the back wall of the church with

    George’s name written on it. I could tell you that story if you had the

    time.

    I can tell you how the building looks in the moonlight just before

    dawn on a cold Sunday morning. I can tell you why Claud seems sad and

    why Chloe needs a hug every Sunday. I can tell you what Savannah means

    when she taps her cheeks, and I can tell you not to worry about what

    Lyle says because he has a heart of gold. I can tell you how Michael

    became a deacon and why Mark doesn’t want to teach Sunday School

    anymore.

    I can tell you about all of these things and more. I could talk for

    hours about the precious gathering of friends that we call church.

    I just can’t tell you any of the things that most people want to know.

    rlp

    http://gordonatkinson.net/rlp-archive/all-the-right-questions

  • John Purssey

    Clint will know his community better than you. Your are just projecting onto your imaginary community.

  • soter phile

    Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community… – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • kcwookie

    Your point???

  • soter phile

    From your comments all over this section, you seem to prefer the ‘safety’ of your cynicism to the reality that opening yourself up (especially to other self-admitted sinners) means you will get hurt sometimes.

    As CS Lewis wrote in the Four Loves:

    To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

    The cross made that much evident.
    It’s awfully hard to become like Christ by hating the Bride he was willing to die for.

  • kcwookie

    Let’s see here, if everyone jumps off a bridge I must jump off too otherwise I’m a cynic?

  • soter phile

    Didn’t say anything about the fallacy of the majority.
    Just pointed out Jesus loves his Bride – even before she’s mended.

    Loving people means being vulnerable – which entails getting hurt sometimes.
    Which do you trust more: Jesus’ vision to redeem ‘those people’ or your own cynicism?

  • KingstonJack

    And I didn’t see anything in kcwookie’s comments which suggested a lack of love or a lack of vulnerability. The fact that the poster does not find those things inside a church says as much about the church as it does about the poster. In fact, given the content/criticism of kcwookie’s comments, I think it says a whole lot about church. To use your own awful imagery, I suspect kcwookie is tired of a church which dresses up and pretends to be a bride, but is in fact anything but bride-like.

  • KingstonJack

    I certainly agree that understanding trends is important. Failing to see the big picture leads to wallowing in our own goldfish bowls without any understanding of factors which are bigger than ourselves and which affect us regardless of the steps we take. (Wow, there’s some mixed metaphor in that sentence – goldfish bowl/picture/steps.)

    Truth is, we can trace back the decline of western, mainstream Christianity to the time of the Industrial Revolution. Once people started moving, society began an ineluctable process towards a society no longer based in community. Yes, the US has moved more slowly away from the kind of church that existed from the time of Christ right through the middle ages and beyond, but it’s happening and can’t be avoided.

    One of the things which intrigues me about church numbers (as we in Australia put it so crudely: “bums on seats”) is our tendency to compare ourselves with mega-churches, particularly in the Pentecostal tradition, without understanding that they, too, are dying at the same rate as smaller churches. Perhaps even faster. By counting bums on seats, we fail to see the numbers of people who come, stay for a brief period of time, and then leave, never to darken the doorstep of the place again. Another trend which we fail to take account of.

  • kcwookie

    My cynicism especially with your ego.

  • soter phile

    for lack of a substantive reply, throw pejorative labels.

  • soter phile

    1) re-read the Bonhoeffer & Lewis quotes.
    Bonhoeffer notes the delusional ‘dream’ of community often prevents real community.
    Lewis points out that loving will necessarily entail being hurt.

    kcwookie seems to be under both delusions:
    a) the dream of an already perfected church… &…
    b) loving should mean I don’t get hurt

    both are (false) expectations of an over-realized eschatology.
    as long as those are held up as barriers (& wrongly affirmed by others), there is no possibility of real community – which will require vulnerability & (b/c all sin & fail) will entail pain at times.

    2) this side of heaven coming down (Rev.20f), the Church will always be both Jesus’ instrument of healing and a place where fallen & sinful people hurt one another. Both. Always.

    The “our community would never do that!” protest that some have offered here is equally delusional. Your community has & will continue to do that. And it’s not just churches. It’s the human condition. Hurt people hurt other people. including you & kcwookie – doing both. you don’t escape that by avoiding church.

    However, the major, unique promises given to the Bride of Christ is that:
    a) the gates of hell (schemes of the Enemy) will not ultimately prevail against her (Mt.16)
    b) Christ is actively healing & perfecting her (Eph.5:23-32), despite her unfaithfulness (Hosea)
    c) She’s the only institution that is eternal (Rev.19-21) & has union with him (Jn.15; 1 Pet.2)

    So, do not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another all the more as you see that Day approaching… (Heb.10:25)

    Bottom line: You can’t love Jesus and hate his bride.

  • Inquirer

    “I don’t go to church any longer because I’m tired of Christians. I’m tired of people who give lip service to love and compassion but don’t practice it.”
    “Wa wa waa, I wish, I wish, I wish other people would define my Christianity better for me.”
    Perhaps that’s your problem.

    “The church tossed a bunch of fire fighters and paramedics because we worked on Sunday”
    I call bullsh!t.

  • kcwookie

    I’m not really interested in what you call. Being called a liar by a good Christian doesn’t really bother me.

  • Inquirer

    I suspect it’s happened more than once.

  • kcwookie

    Being called a liar doesn’t change facts.

  • Inquirer

    You mean the fact that you’re a Protestant and pretend that non-Popes excommunicate you?

  • Chorbais Dichault

    > I don’t go to church any longer because I’m tired of Christians.

    Nah, by your words it looks like you’re tired of right-wing Christians, not Christians per se. It’s like my disappointment when I deconverted (became an atheist) and found so many on atheism leaning to the left, which wasn’t to my liking. So I searched and found right-wing atheist groups, and it seems you could similarly find left-wing Christians to fit your taste.

    It’s much easier to change your political grouping than your religion.

  • cvryder2000

    “Tossed out a bunch of fire fighters and paramedics because we worked on Sunday”? I find that a bit hard to believe of Lutherans, although I can certainly see it of Wisconsin Synod or even some Missouri Synod congregations. Surely they would accept your monetary offerings on other days, by check or in bills in the envelopes. Nah, it’s about butts in the seats to some.

  • kcwookie

    Regardless I was tossed. You can spin it as you choose.

  • cvryder2000

    Was it a Wisconsin or Missouri Synod Lutheran church? Inquiring minds and all that.