A quick perusal of the official statistics from the Church of the Nazarene website will tell you the Church of the Nazarene in USA/Canada is in a steep worship attendance decline. A historically, massive abrupt free fall. The church was already in decline for the last 10+ years, but nothing like what has happened in the last two years. The pandemic coupled with life in a Post Christian America, the very public failures of the notable Christians, the backlash against many evangelicals’ politicization and other factors have contributed to this decline.
There are exceptions (like in most any rule). For example, Oro Valley in Arizona went from 2223 (2020) to 2590 (2022). Last year, they took in 204 new Nazarenes and their income was up $800,000. There are others exceptions too. Praise the Lord!
For every victory story, there are 10 churches (or more) in utter and massive decline. Large and medium sized churches are taking the biggest hits. Smaller churches have seen less dramatic decline but have had little attendance growth (there are exceptions too, no doubt). On the district where I serve, 17 churches (23% of the district) have an attendance 25 or less. Attendance on the district is down 2000 people in the last two years (-28%). This is not atypical. The good news (is it good?) is that giving has not experienced a similar decline. It may be off slightly in some churches, but many churches have experienced deep attendance cuts, while their income has remained steady or even increased.
What’s happening? It would appear that the nominal, non-tithing members have disappeared and the rock-solid members are coming and giving. The attendance decline could be in part because “regular attendance” is less “regular” than prior to the pandemic. “Regular Attenders” are coming less often. Instead of two or three times a month, now it’s once a month.
Is the steady income “good news”? It may be steady now, but how sustainable is it if those giving are older (in many cases) or if those giving are watching on-line and have kept sending in their tithe. As on-line viewers get more and more disconnected from the church will they continue to tithe with the same frequency? Probably not.
The Church of the Nazarene is not unique. This same steep decline is happening is all denominations in all places in the USA. We are dealing with a new reality. These are uncharted waters for churches in America.
There is no one-size fits all answer, but here are a few suggestions in moving forward:
- Move to “a circuit rider” system to save smaller churches. One pastor serving two close proximity perishes. Churches, not be able to afford a pastor (and his/her health insurance) on its own, will need to have one shared pastor.
- Recruit second career pastors. The denomination needs to prioritize an urgent call to pray for God to call men and women who have retired in another field, yet still have energy to serve in smaller churches that could otherwise not afford a pastor. A small church might offer a parsonage or small housing allowance, while the early retiree will have a pension/health insurance to supplement his/her income.
- Pastors will need to be bi-vocational. Ministerial training in our colleges need to focus on teaching skills other than ministerial so that the pastor can enter the marketplace. The days of churches fully supporting a pastor and his/her family are coming to an end.
- Be prepared to close churches. A lot of churches. Will the 17 churches on my district running 25 or less still be around in ten years? A few will. Many will not.
- Use money from the sale of closed churches for non-traditional church plants. The way we have done things in the past will not work in our new reality. Some older, decrepit buildings will be difficult to unload or have little value, the district leadership will need to think creatively about these buildings usage.
- Be open and honest with the church and pastoral staff about attendance and income declines. Shrinking large and mid-sized churches will mean the need for less pastoral staff. Cutting salaries are the most difficult decisions, but frequently it is the only way to save significant income.
- Pray for revival. Only God can change the current trajectory.
There are challenging days ahead. But be hopeful. Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hades will not overcome it.” That is still true in a post-Christian, post pandemic America.
*Full disclosure. In the church where I serve (Flint Central) attendance has gone up (1364 to 1488) and Income up (about $200,000); but we will experience a decline in 2023 (unless something changes in the next three months).