Today I sent this email to the members of session (the session is the governing board of a Presbyterian Church)
At the last session meeting, I made a statement to the effect that Diana (our associate pastor) and I have absorbed a great deal of information about the trends in the American church that we have not shared with you, and that you as leaders of the church really need to be brought up to speed, so to speak. In response to these words, Elder Royce Truex said something like, “Well, share with us what you know.” This email is the first of perhaps many in which we will share with you the latest wisdom about the future of the Church.
First, a preface: If you’ll remember, a few years ago our Officers’ Retreat topic was “Our Iceberg is Melting.” We know that the culture is changing, and that we need to respond, not react; to adapt, not panic. Still, the way was not clear.
Last year, our retreat theme was “Why We Start with the Why,” because in order to step with confidence and integrity into an unknown future, we need to know why we exist in the first place. And, as Simon Sinek said, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
There are still many articles being published about how the church is “dying,” but more and more, the wiser pundits and observers are saying, no, the church isn’t dying, but it is going to look different. The Church of Jesus Christ will continue to thrive in ways that are faithful to the gospel as long as there are people faithful to the “why” of the gospel – but again, we do not know what that future looks like. We do know that knowing our “why” and living into it as a community makes us more flexible, more adaptable, more ready to become what God is calling us to be.
(By the way, “look different” is NOT about worship style. The so-called “worship wars” are behind us, and more and more writers are realizing that liturgy and traditional music have tremendous value. “Look different” is more about ministries, programming, and people’s connection to the church. I invite you to refresh your familiarity with “The Missional Church: Simple” video (it’s 2 minutes long): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arxfLK_sd68 )
Below I have printed out an article about the end of “average attendance” as a measure of church health. More and more, I am thinking in terms of lives touched by hope, rather than weekly worship attendance. The Church is one of the few institutions in the U.S. (and maybe the world) that offers a word of hope, even a plan for hope (we call it “the Kingdom of God”), in this broken and hurting world.
Please read this at your leisure. Diana and I will not flood you with reading material (or videos) – you can expect perhaps one piece a week from us. I saw this article but it was Diana who suggested it as something we ought to share with you.
Thank you for being leaders. Thank you for your vulnerability and courage – for daring greatly along with us.
Together we serve,
— Joanne Whitt Pastor and Head of Staff First Presbyterian Church San Anselmo, California
RIP, Average Attendance
by David Odom, August 21, 2014
The Rev. Dr. David Odom is the associate dean for leadership initiatives at Duke Divinity School, which includes Alban, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and Faith & Leadership. He blogs regularly on Call & Response.
Average worship attendance was once such an important number. With it, I could predict the size of the church staff, the informal patterns of decision-making, most of the stresses on the pastor’s time, the leadership required for small groups, and more.
Back in the day, church consultant Lyle Schaller was quoted as saying that average worship attendance was a better indicator of congregational behavior than denomination, geography or neighborhood.
Today that number means much less because the definition of an active member has shifted.
At one time, “active” meant attending services three or four times a month. Today people feel active when they enter the church building once or twice a month. Some people engage worship more regularly online than from the pew. Others prioritize participation in a small group over worship attendance. Congregations have multiple services and, increasingly, multiple campuses.
It is more and more difficult to determine what “attending” means, much less judge someone as “active.”
These changes are signs that congregational culture is now less uniform, which has practical implications for things like the development of a Bible study curriculum.
When a denominational publishing house could predict the needs of congregations, curriculum materials could be mass-produced. While the number and variety of materials have expanded in recent years, teachers are often dissatisfied with their options. They then feel obligated to write congregation-specific material for children, youth or adults, requiring a huge commitment of time and creativity.
Developing customized curriculum and activities, such as missions experiences, means that the congregation feels a need for more staff, regardless of the church’s size. The needs are not connected to any predictable ratio of ministers to members, but the costs are.
In the old days, attendance was a good predictor of revenue for the church. Today, revenue can be up when attendance is down–sometimes these trends can go in opposite directions for years.
In a doctoral seminar with experienced pastors last semester, the group begged for help in developing a score card of statistics by which they could monitor the vitality of their congregations. Each was tracking average worship attendance, giving, mission/ministry hours and more. Yet, the relationships between the numbers were not clear.
Church attendance was once a key indicator of a virtuous cycle. If the church could get a new person in the pew regularly, offerings would go up, involvement in small groups and missions would climb, and the church would be healthy. If attendance was declining then everything else would eventually decline.
The growing lack of dependability on attendance is a sign that the virtuous cycles that have sustained congregations since the end of World War II are collapsing. In order to sustain congregations over the long haul, new cycles need to be developed. Once that begins to happen, new measures can be identified.
One place to start is to map all the ways that a person engages a congregation — joining a small group, attending group meetings and social functions, contributing to special causes and to the church’s general budget, reading sermons or other resources on-line, volunteering in a missions project, teaching a class and more.
What patterns of engagement emerge? Which activities encourage participation in other activities? What practices are most likely to lead to spiritual growth? These are the building blocks of virtuous cycles.
Having answered these questions, look at the numbers the congregation is gathering or could be gathering. How do these numbers help track the ways of engagement? What other data could be gathered easily? It is important to gather data that are measurable signs of the engagement that matters most.
Marketing is all about answering these sorts of questions. Rather than seek to master this field, I prefer to ask for help from an expert. No marketing professional knows the church like the leaders, but the expert can ask the questions and organize the data into something that can be tracked over time.
Yes, this is a lot of work. I wish we could go back to the good old days and track a couple of different numbers. But, most people know that is no longer working. What will we do about it?
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