One outcome of the pandemic is that every large church I know has seen their numbers decrease (not counting on-line viewership). In-person, “butts in the pew” attendance is down. In some places, it’s down dramatically. (There are some smaller-ish churches that seem to be less affected numerically by the pandemic. But larger-ish churches have seen in-person numbers plummet). This article is not to bemoan this fact. To quote some philosopher somewhere: It is what it is. Will those missing-in-action people come back? Best guess: Some will. Some won’t (How’s that for a non-answer answer?). But that’s not the point of this article (although it is a legitimate question). Here’s the question: Will the statistical attendance decline finally allow us to move away from the mindset that growing numbers indicate strong spiritual growth?
Confession: “Hi I’m Rob and I’m a recovering church growth movement addict.”
My definition of “Church Growth Movement” is the idea that the most important thing was people inside a building. Didn’t matter if anyone was led to Jesus. It didn’t matter if these people were properly discipled. Numbers. It was all about numbers. Get them in any way you can. I’ve eaten a lunch on a church roof upon reaching a numerical goal of the church. I’ve been in a dunk tank and hit with a pie all for the glory of Jesus (if you can call it that). Our mantra: “We count people because people count.” Maybe the pride behind that statement truly was: “We count people because important people will see that my church has lots of people and then those important people will say, ‘wow that’s a lot of people.’” I’ve sat in pastor’s meetings and thought, “man o man, she/he can’t be a good pastor, look at her/his numbers.” I’ve sat in pastor’s meetings and thought, “man o man, what a rock star! Look at his/her numbers.” Is it OK to admit that type of thinking was a problem? Is it OK to admit, like any obsession, it’s hard to break that mindset?
Covid is breaking it. With more empty pews than ever before, maybe it’s time to reexamine the church growth movement. If it wasn’t dead before the pandemic, maybe the final nail is in the coffin. Large numbers have never told the story. The Latter-Day Saints have huge gatherings. Are they spirit led? Comic-con can draw a crowd. So can politicians, football teams and vulgar rock-and-rollers. None of these have anything to do with the Spirit of God.
Instead of noses and nickels, we should be counting service hours spent, home group gatherings held, Bible studies groups formed, those called into ministry, widows helped, orphans rescued, discussions with far-from-Jesus people, meals served, hands held, the grieving comforted, hospitals visited, the weak strengthened, the lonely encouraged, individuals prayed with, persons who have started a faith journey and baptisms. How about counting those things (and many other godly things) more than simply the butts in the pews on a particular Sunday.
Covid is killing the mindset that ministry happens only in a full sanctuary. Ministry happens every day. God is working in this pandemic. Those good things (God things) are not showing up in the Pastors Annual Report. They never have — that’s the lesson I’m still trying to learn.