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.
Great post and on the money.
The church growth movement was attractive to us because we all felt pressured to have the room full and bills paid. I sure did. My church never broke the 300 barrier on a permanent basis (under my leadership. They had run 300 or better than that in prior years. When I came they were running less than 250). I know how uplifting it can feel to have a full crowd, and was ‘attacked’ or criticized more than once when the room wasn’t full. I don’t know if I ever fully participated in the CGM but I surely did want a room full of people to preach to on Sunday mornings or evenings. We had ‘big days’ and went all out for Easter, and it felt exciting when it seemed to work. And I was constantly, continually, always aware of my annual accounting of myself at District Assembly. The numbers don’t tell the story, the whole story, but they mean something. You are probably right that the CGM is over and good riddance. The appeal of getting on that wagon is very easy to understand, though.
Don’t throw in your towel, The pandemic is not over by any means. Still negatives hanging over the country and the world. I wish we could just twitch our nose and it all go away, but it’s not… Schools, Colleges, and every other meeting place has the same uncertainties
As a pastor of a “smaller-ish” church, we have experienced the exact opposite. Not just in numbers (for those in those “larger-ish” will not consider our growth at all) but in small groups, discipleship and transformed lives. I often wonder what the big church pastor actually gets to see as far as lives changed. I am humbled to be the one who gets to watch front row. I am humbled to meet the neighbor who calls me pastor that hasn’t come into any church in years. I am honored when that neighbor calls me over for a prayer in their yard. This whole event that will never end has called us all to look inward and evaluate how we live our lives daily. How do we show our circles of influence who Jesus is and how can we attract those in those circles to Him. Not what program we have or what fancy stage we have but what a God we serve. Then again, small churches like the one I serve has always thought in this way. As a local chaplain in the hospital here, I have been called by people who attend those larger churches because they cannot reach one of the many pastors they employ. I am also called by my own flock. Maybe this pandemic can teach a pastor what it was that called them into the ministry, Who it is we serve, and where the water and soap is to wash some feet.