How Big Is Your Church?

Here are my thoughts for this Mother’s Day, the 6th Sunday of Easter

(This has been edited since it was first posted.)
I have been thinking about a comment that was posted on my blog the other week. It was that the United Methodist Church was a collection of small churches. I really wasn’t sure if that was a true statement, though most of the churches within the denomination that I have been associated with over the past forty years or so probably would fit that definition. But then I found that this is a rather nebulous definition.

One source told me that 67% of the United Methodist Churches in this country have 199 members or less. Twenty-two percent (22%) have between 200 and 499 members. ( The problem with this study is that it did not identify what the average membership was nor did it breakdown the membership into various sub-categories. I think that it would be nice to have a further breakdown of this information because it goes a long way to show how a church perceives itself.

One church that I was affiliated with considered itself a small church but it had over ninety members. The only problem was that only about one-quarter of the membership was active and, ultimately, one-half of the members were removed through charge conference action for inactivity. Physically, this church was a small church and I think it was this physical size that dominated the thinking of the church. There were also other problems in the church (which was part of the reason for the discrepancy between the active number of members and the total number of members).

A second study that I found indicated that at least 45 churches in our denomination can be considered mega-churches, that is, churches with an average weekly attendance over 2000. ( The membership levels for these churches were not given but we can assume that the membership is greater than the attendance (the previous study indicated that there were ~1200 churches with over 1,000 members.)

It is interesting that we tend to speak of weekly attendance rather than membership.

Lyle Schaller, a noted consultant on the issue of church development, tells us that the number of churches with average worship attendance (not membership) less than 100 actually increased during the period 1972 to 2001. This is contrary to the plans and expectations that such churches would close.

During the same period the number of congregations reporting an average attendance between 100 and 199 decreased. And the number of congregations with average worship attendance over 200 remained essentially constant during the same period. (Adapted from “Two Choices”, presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, 16 November 2003; “What Should Be the Norm?” Lyle Schaller, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003)

That information raises several questions. First, what will be perceived as a normal sized United Methodist Congregation in 21st century? Since 1970, the median size for average worship has dropped from 67 to 55 with 72 percent of all congregations averaging less that 100 or fewer. This is in contrast to the national trend which show that a disproportionately large number of churchgoers born after 1960 worship in large churches. Are people deciding not to become members of the churches that they regularly attend, especially the “smaller” churches because they do not want to be a part of the entire church process?

A third study from several years back indicated what average attendance must be in order for the church to support a full-time minister. Perhaps this was the most telling of all the statistics one can find on church size, growth, and membership, for it suggests what the minimal level must be for a church to remain a church. In the 1930’s a church with an average worship attendance of 45 or more was able to have a full-time, fully credentialed pastor. In the 1950s it took an average attendance of between 75 and 80. Today, the number is between 125 and 135. Fewer than one in four United Methodist churches exceed 125 in their average worship attendance. If the ability to support a pastor is predicated on how many people come to church each Sunday and that number is decreasing, then we do have a problem with the church today.

Some years ago I met Dr. Rose Sims. She was the pastor of a small church in Florida that had been given up for dead when she was assigned to it. She is an expert in bringing back to life churches that have been written off. Brought in to preach the funeral of dying churches, she has found a way to bring such churches back to life.

For her, the two most important steps in reviving a dying church are to first have the people involved with the church do the work and, second, make sure that it was the Gospel that was the central point to the church.

Regarding the first point, there are certain things that only the pastor or the preacher can do but if the people are not willing to work towards the ultimate success of the church, nothing the preacher can do will stop its death.

Regarding the second point, if the Gospel is not present in the message of the church, then the church really has no soul or chance to live. It does not matter how the Gospel is presented, but without the Gospel and what the Gospel means, the church will die.

There are many models for helping churches grow or revive. But many of these models, and I know you have heard me say this before, focus on the church helping people be comfortable with the Gospel. (Adapted from “And Now It Begins”, presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, 18 April 2004)

I do not believe that the Gospel message is meant to make one feel good but rather the Gospel message is meant to take Christ into this world. Peter stood before the crowd and reminded them that they were given the task of taking the Gospel into the world (Acts 5: 27 – 32). That is the same task that we are faced with today. If Christ is not taken into the world, then the problems and troubles that plague the world cannot be fought. If Christ is not taken into the world, if He remains hidden in a room, safely locked away where only a few, select individuals can find Him, then His death and resurrection are meaningless.

The problem is that many people feel that the church owes them something; that their being a member is all they have to do. They want the church to do everything and be ready when they call; they are not comfortable with a Gospel message that calls upon them to be the messenger. They are quite happy with a church that does not venture outside the room; they are quite happy with the safety it provides. But a church that does not go outside its walls will soon die and though it has not happened yet, I fear that churches that use the model presently encouraged will soon begin to die.

One way is to pay attention to what visitors to this or any church experience on Sunday morning. Will they experience warm hospitality? Will they get a palpable sense of the presence of God? Christopher Schwartz has stated that this is the single most powerful evangelistic outreach possible and through it church growth is possible without the presence or plan of an evangelism program. He concluded his discussion about church growth by noting that all growing congregations have eight traits in common:

1-Leaders who empower others to do ministry;

2-Ministry tasks distributed according to the gifts of the members;

3-A passionate spirituality marked by prayer and putting faith into practice;

4-Organizational structures that promote ministry;

5-Inspiring worship services;

6-Small groups in which the loving and healing power of fellowship is experienced;

7-Need-oriented evangelism that meets the needs of the people the church is trying to reach;

8-And loving relationships among the members of the church.

Schwartz maintains that if all eight of these characteristics are present, congregations will grow naturally and organically, without the need for an evangelist program.

This can be quite a challenge for many people. Some people think that the task of sharing the Gospel is harder than it actually is. It would seem that, as the humorist Dave Barry once wrote, the people who are the most interested in telling you about their religion don’t want to hear about yours.

Ben Campbell Johnson, of Columbia Theological Seminary, suggests that you ask people outside church “When has God seemed near to you?” There is nothing judgmental about this approach; it starts with where people are and it takes their experience seriously.

If you cannot or will not share your faith with others, it may be that you are in the midst of a crisis of your own. Often times, people use aggressive tactics because they themselves are insecure about their own faith and are anxious for others to believe and behave in the manner that they do so as to make their own faith more plausible.

The question then, is whether one believes in the efficacy of the Gospel — the Gospel that justifies so that we don’t need to earn our status before God or vie for position with others. It is the Gospel that gives shape and purpose to life, making us other-directed rather than self-centered. It is the Gospel of peace that can reconcile broken relationships and build communities. It is the Gospel of justice that advocates for the poor and the marginalized. It is a Gospel of good news, and how can one keep from sharing the good news?

The noted Baptist preacher and evangelist, Tony Campolo, feels that the decline of mainline churches in today’s society is because they have been so concerned with social justice that they have forgotten to place a major emphasis on bringing people into a close, personal relationship with God through Christ. The churches that are growing the most rapidly today, the Pentecostal and evangelical churches are doing so because they attract people who are hungry to know God. These individuals are not interested in knowing God from a theological standpoint, as a moral teacher, or as an advocate for social justice. They want God to be a part of their lives, to strengthen them, to transform them and enable them to better deal with the problems they have, both socially and personally. (Adapted from “Signs of Things To Come”, presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, 14 November 2004)

Mainline churches have done little in these matters. They believe it, they articulate it but it’s not where their emphasis is. It is why they are dying churches and why the Pentecostal or evangelical churches are growing.

Christianity has two emphases. One is social, the other personal. It is the responsibility of Christians to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society – to relieve the suffering of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. But it is also the responsibility to help bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ so that they can feel the joy and love of God in their lives. In today’s society, we see that fundamentalism emphasizes the latter while mainline churches emphasize the former. If we are not careful, we are going to find out that those who ignore the social ministry of the church are going to drive away those who seek God but they will have no place to go because the places that speak to the social ministry will have closed.

Another article that I read was about the turn around of a small church. In this article Shane Mize writes about the efforts of his church to turn around its decline and keep from closing its doors.

In 1995, his church had nineteen active members. During the first year, the membership did a number of things to change what visitors saw. Some of the things, like changing the name of the sanctuary to “worship center” and creating a songbook with praise choruses, I disagree with. Others, like explaining what doxology means, make some sense when you realize that many of the people seeking a church home are basically unchurched and do not understand the Latin phrases that dominate the worship service.

The success of the program can be seen in the fact that they had twenty-five visitors in the second year of their program and eighty-five visitors in the third year. Eleven of the visitors joined the church in the second year and twenty-five joined in the third year. But, the one thing that stood out as central to the success and growth of this church was the fact that the church made a visible and concerted effort to build an atmosphere of prayer, faith, and community.

He does mention money and he does mention that there were problems. Money was a problem because it was a small church. But it was never a problem, because the people knew that it was a necessity for success. What they did not anticipate and what caused the greatest problem was that with the growth of the church, in membership came change. Not everyone there at the beginning was open to the concept of change. Pastor Mize wrote that the church leaders had to deal with a lot of things solely empowered by their faith and that it was faith that empowered the changes and success that came.

He concluded his article with words probably inspired by Paul’s words today. A church that stops reaching starts dying. Faith, prayer, and love create an environment that produces disciples who live to fulfill the Great Commission. Paul was writing about those who had stopped working because they expected the Second Coming of Christ to be during their time. (“Small-Church Turnaround” by Shane E. Mize, from Net Results, December 1998.)

John wrote the Book of Revelation for seven churches in Turkey. He was writing about what their individual futures were. In a world where Roman tyranny destroyed any opposition (and the church was certainly the opposition), churches which did not focus on the Gospel message and the faith it took were doomed to die. For some of the churches, the temptation must have been very great to be a part of the secular community around them, insuring that they would survive.

The same is true today. The church is part of the community but it cannot allow the community to dictate its survival. For to do so would be to forget its faith, but if faith is protected at all costs, then the church cannot be a part of the community. Faith must be presented to the community, not hidden within the walls of the church.

On this Mother’s Day, 2007, we need to consider the size of our church and what it is supposed to be. Perhaps it is not a physical size that we should focus on and it is certainly not the number of people who come each week or the number of people who say that they are members. Rather, it is the size of the church in our heart that counts the most.

In the reading from Acts for today (Acts 16: 9 – 15), Lydia opened her heart to the Holy Spirit and invited Paul to stay at her home. In doing so, she was the mother to the first church. Those first churches were seen as communities rather than buildings; they were a group of people who worked together for the fulfillment of the Gospel, for the fulfillment of the Good News. Theirs were communities dominated by the love of each member for the others. This is what we need to be in today’s world, communities of believers united in common belief and supportive of each other’s endeavors.

This does not mean that we form social groups with common interests. Communities are diverse in nature and anytime you put people with common interests together, you remove the diversity.

John the Seer spoke of a new church (Revelation 21: 10, 22 – 22: 5), one that was always available to all the people. It was a community where sickness and death were no more; it was a community where the residents took care of each other.

There have been communities that tried to do this but they were communities that failed because they built walls and would not let people in. And church that hides behind its walls will always die, no matter how big it might be.

And a church that tries to fit into the world around it by changing the Gospel message to meet the demands of those in attendance will also die. As people come to find the truth in the Holy Spirit, as people come to find that keeping the Gospel for one’s self, they will find that they themselves are dying.

We hear Jesus’ words today – “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” (John 14: 23 – 29)

It is not the physical size of the church that I worry about today; it is the size of the church that is in one’s heart. So, how big is your church?

2 thoughts on “How Big Is Your Church?

  1. I have noticed that most mega-churches are exactly opposite of what you state…their membership is much less than their weekly attendance.

    I am uncertain as to why this is so, but it is what I have discovered in studying them and in working at a them.

  2. That’s very interesting. Thanks for the information.

    Additional comment added on 23 October 2007 – the point made in the previous comment was correct; I mis-typed the sentence and it should have been the opposite. My thanks for the editorial help.

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