Thinking out loud about church numbers

Someone asked me the other day how I think we can bring more people into the church. The numbers in our church are slowly dropping: families move away, people die. I was caught off-guard by this question, but it is one I need to think about if I’m heading in the right direction vocationally. Chances are that sometime in the next couple of years I’ll be asked what my vision for the church is.

The problem is this: I’m not the visionary type.  I’m not into mandates or visions for an organization.  It seems to me that if there is a mandate for the church as a body, it is to encourage each other to faithful discipleship to Christ–to love God, to love each other, to love our neighbours.  What other mandate could a church have?  Maybe that’s my idealism coming through.  Part of me thinks that if we are simply passionate and faithful followers of Jesus, then everything will be ok–even if that means the death of a church.

But I’ve been thinking about the question since I was asked, and I’m starting to wonder if the question of how to get more people into the church is the wrong one.  Sometimes the question is asked out of genuine concern for outreach and evangelization, the thinking being that the number of people in a given church is in indication of the spiritual state of the community.  That might be true.  I don’t know.  But for most of us the question is asked out of concern for our survival.   We need people so that our community will last. It occurred to me this afternoon that if it wasn’t for buildings and legacies, we probably wouldn’t be asking this question.  

One’s answer to this question will depend, I think, on what one thinks church is.  This is a question I’m trying to answer for myself.  I suspect many evangelicals would see church primarily as a place for outreach and evangelization, so that one should bring one’s “unreached” friends and neighbours to hear the basic gospel message.  In this view, church numbers are indeed an indication of the spiritual state of the community.

Others would see it church as a place where the people of God come together to worship and experience God as a community, where we are strengthened and encouraged to go out and live our everyday lives in the way of Jesus.  In this view, evangelization happens outside of the church.  (I’m just thinking out loud here; I’m sure there are other definitions of and approaches to church.)  These days I tend more towards this second view of church.  The reasons are many, I’m sure, including a disinclination towards cold-turkey evangelism.  But in studying the early church one of things I’ve found interesting is that they appear to have been decidedly closed and non-attractional.  Believers would gather for communal worship and then just before they partook of communion everyone but those who were “members” (those who had been catechized) were ushered out of the church.  It would seem then that evangelism was done outside of the church body and the converts were not made in church but outside of church.

Now the early church wasn’t necessarily right, but neither are evangelicals (or any other branch of the church) necessarily right.  But these days we are so fixated on numbers and growth to the point that some books about church could be interchanged between the church and the corporate world that there is something backwards and at the same time inspiring about the way the early church functioned.  The corporate element of the church (board meetings and motions and minutes, etc.) doesn’t sit well with me, but it’s something that needs to be done to maintain status as charitable organizations.  Maybe losing those tax priviledges would be a good thing for the church.  Many of us might die out, but it might force us to lose some of the physical assets that can weigh us down.

When we start worrying about our numbers, we start doing things to get those numbers up.  And when we do that, we lose our focus, and honouring God and following Christ becomes less important than filling the pews.  And when we get to that point, we are no longer the church and we become a business.

Maybe I’m too negative about the concern about numbers.  Maybe there is a valid way to think about numbers.  But something about it doesn’t sit well with me.

How would we choose what to do to attract people?  Which people would we want to attract?  That’s an important question, because, as they say, you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time.  And so we become market-driven: who is our demographic and how do we target this group?  And church turns into a business-consumer venture.  We try to find out what people want and we try to supply that demand.

Where is God in that?

I’m not opposed to meeting people’s needs.  I’d say that is one thing Christians should do and have been doing since the beginning.  But it’s another thing to meet people’s wants.

We live in a time when people are busy and church isn’t a priority.  We can change the time or day of a service, we can change our format, but people will still have jobs and meetings and their children’s endless extra-curricular activities.  Changing what we do doesn’t guarantee the the pews will be filled.

Now: changing who we are.  That might mean something.

Rather than asking how we can boost our numbers (and I’m speaking about churches in general, because churches are in decline all over our city), maybe we should be asking if we are being faithful to the Gospel and if we are not, are we willing to change, no matter what the cost,  so that we can become faithful to the Gospel.

But then we’ll have to establish what the Gospel is.

I’m rambling and I have no conclusion to these thoughts.  But I’ll stop there.  (I long for the day when I can once again take the time and effort to write a cohesive post.)

10 thoughts on “Thinking out loud about church numbers

  1. Don Hendricks

    Excellent thoughts brother, tap dancing around the central issues of what it means to be missional or business model entrepenurial. No easy answers. A traditional church in a traditional building cannot really change its stripes, and if your premise about faithfulness is true, should not, even as the viability of the numbers slip. If that is true, then you and I are in for a post building and post salary existence as God brings us by necessity to a religionless Christianity.

  2. Don Hendricks

    Excellent thoughts brother, tap dancing around the central issues of what it means to be missional or business model entrepenurial. No easy answers. A traditional church in a traditional building cannot really change its stripes, and if your premise about faithfulness is true, should not, even as the viability of the numbers slip. If that is true, then you and I are in for a post building and post salary existence as God brings us by necessity to a religionless Christianity. Read todays post at one of my favorite blogs on our possible future.

    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/

  3. Mr. C.C.

    Possible sermon in future?!? 😉

    I have thought about this myself. The Anglican Church, although a big denomination, has been shrinking in some churches. St. David’s Anglican Church on 24th St. and 5th Ave. has remained small ever since I can remember. But they have a lot of older members and not enough younger people to help sustain it for the future. The same is with St. Michaels and All Angels Anglican Church in Strathmore, Alberta. A small church and community, but a lot of older members.

    I do agree that it shouldn’t be about how big the numbers are. But you should at least be thinking about how to attract younger people into the church to sustain it for the future. Older members are dying, younger members like myself move away even though I l0ng to comeback at times, etc.. I am not saying grow to the point where we Gateway becomes a mega church. I absouletly hate mega churches.

    The problem with mega churches as you pointed out have become a like a business. Centre St. Church in Calgary is a mega church and they run like a business. They have a coffee shop, a bookstore, a huge child care facility, they had security guards, etc.. I am pretty sure there was a Foot Locker there. Foot Locker was a running joke at CBC as to how big Centre St. Church really is.

    You don’t need a large number of members in the church to have a good community. A smaller church can have a better community at times.

    One thing I remember from St. Michaels and All Angels Anglican Church was the following:

    If everybody in the church directory contributed money every week or even once a month, than you would more than have enough to cover expenses. But the sad fact is they don’t. I can’t remember who exactly said, but it does ring true. This way we wouldn’t have to look to getting more people to join Gateway or whatever other respective church.

    Another thing is getting the younger members of the church to help out. But it seems like the older members of the church who are the ones doing most of the stuff. Getting younger members to help out in the church is key as well.

    I do agree that church shouldn’t always be about building. But that is what people think of when they think of church.

    Here are a few quotes to munch on and think about. I find them to ring true.

    “Church isn’t where you meet. Church isn’t a building. Church is what you do. What is who you are. Church is the human outworking of the person of Jesus Christ. Let’s not go to church, let’s be the church.”
    -Bridget Willard

    “The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of. Our attention would have been on God.”
    -C.S. Lewis

    “Some go to church to see and be seen, some go to church to say they have been, some go there to sleep and nod, but few go there to worship God.”
    -Proverbs quote

  4. Andrew

    Excellent post. As soon as a church starts to worry about its own survival, it seems to me it has missed the point of its own existence. As you say, there can be a time for a church community to come to its natural end. As the cliche goes, nothing last forever, and as christians we should be particularly aware of this truth…

  5. Simon

    Very cohesive post actually, Marc. And the introspective nature of it makes me think that it answers the question you posed to yourself in the first paragraph: you are headed the right way vocationally. I’d totally come check out your church if I lived a wee bit further east.

  6. Ang

    You bring up some interesting tidbits here Marc and some things that we have been talking about at our church since the very beginning. Our focus hasn’t been on a big church (big numbers) but on a strong church. Our focus is on strengthening the body that is there and bringing the church back to a proper honoring of God. We haven’t ever focused on numbers and we are continually growing (3 years ago they started with about 10 people and today we are far above that…in between 150-200 and more all ready plan on moving here in the new year). I think if you put your focus on strengthening your response to God as a body and people see that, they will come.

    We are being taught mainly on that proper honor of God and in keeping our covenant with God and have come to a place where we are at around 94% consitent tithers and there are only 5 people in our church in the working age group that are not working right now and like I said before, the church keeps growing.

    Perhaps then, your focus should just be on pursuing a lifestyle, as a church body, that brings proper reverence and honor to God and the rest will come as people are brought to a place of change and as people see what is going on in your church they will come…

  7. Randall

    Some good thoughts there guy.

    As soon as the motivation for any local church becomes the continuance of their life or agenda they have “Jumped the shark.” When that happens they are all about fresh meat and working to continue their own agenda. People who are searching for a spiritual home can smell that a mile away and go elsewhere. I would too, because then I wouldn’t trust why the church wanted me to be a part of them. Do they really care about me or do they only care about me as much as I can help further their agenda.

    We may have a good theology for the death of an individual but we don’t have really any helpful stuff going on when we talk about the death of A local church. We get all weird then, and our motivations come into play more than ever.

    And if we as pastors become all about keeping enough people in the church to pay our salary, then God help us because no one else can.

    I like your last paragraph:
    “Perhaps then, your focus should just be on pursuing a lifestyle, as a church body, that brings proper reverence and honor to God and the rest will come as people are brought to a place of change and as people see what is going on in your church they will come…”

    Yes. And Amen.
    If people are being changed and lives are finding hope and connection, I gotta believe outsiders will be drawn to that, which is Christ in you.

    Sounds like you are moving well into the next stages of struggling with your calling, and the church.

    God will lead you guy.

    🙂

  8. Linea

    Remember that post a few days back where I said that it is much harder being the church than going to church?

    Going to church and sitting in a pew is so far from what church is to be, I think. Being faithful to the gospel is more like it – and that is very hard some days. But that is what is required of us if we are going to be the church.

    I am just not sure what we do with the organizations that have helped us come to this place in our own faiths where we recognize this. They have some purpose in forming community and in providing a place for worship as a body. Have they grown too stale to do their job? What do we do with our need to meet together to build each other up. And how should we do it?

    I have way more questions than answers.

  9. mam.v.

    dad agrees with point two, we are the church , we come together to learn more of God’s word. and worship Him and build each other up. Through our actions , our lives at home and work or wherever we are , people should
    want to find out why we are what we are, if we are truly faithful, (I have failed at times!) and be interested to come to the fellowship.

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