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Double in a Decade?
By: Lyle E. Schaller

How does the role of the parish pastor in 2009 differ from that role in 1909? One difference, of course, is the availability of the privately owned motor vehicle. A second is the three-screen culture of television, the computer, and the cell phone is gradually replacing the printed word. A third is the competition among the churches for future constituents is at an all-time high. A fourth is the strategy of planting new geographically defined missions to reach and serve the unchurched geographically defined area is being replaced by the multisite option, in which one congregation with one name, one staff, and one budget schedules worship experiences every weekend at somewhere between 2 and 300 different sites, often in several different states.

This discussion, however, begins with reference to three other contemporary trends in the American culture and economy. The first is we now have far more relevant information than ever before to be used in evaluating the performance of both institutions and individuals. Highly visible examples of this can be found in agriculture, major league baseball, elementary education, the stock market, military operations, marriages, the delivery of healthcare services, and marketing.

The second trend is institutions are larger today than they were a generation or two ago. Examples include farms, public high schools, hospitals, variety stores, financial institutions, medical clinics, universities, and Protestant congregations.

A third trend has been the explosive growth in the number of multisite institutions. That list includes farms, hospitals, theological seminaries, retail stores, financial institutions, radio stations, newspapers, Protestant congregations, municipal fire departments, factories, television networks, motor vehicle dealers, medical clinics, public libraries, and food banks.

The Contradictory Patterns
The United States Bureau of the Census conducted a census of religious congregations in America for 1906 that was published in 1910. That report provides our best available single reference point for changes in the institutional expression of the Christian faith in America. That report and other more recent sources make it clear that the natural, normal, and "comfortable" size for a self-governing congregation in American Protestantism has been and continues to be one that averages somewhere between 18 and 60 at weekend worship. When asked to report their average worship attendance, the most frequently cited numbers are 20, 25, 30, 35, and 40, but not always in that order. One-half report an average attendance of 70 or fewer. One consequence is about 85 percent of all Protestant congregations account for only one-half of the combined weekend worship attendance in Protestant churches in America.

One explanation of this relevant and contradictory pattern is the generations of Protestant churchgoers born after 1960 tend to be found in disproportionately large numbers in congregations averaging more than 800 at weekend worship. One explanation is the larger size is a means to an end not a goal. That larger size is required to be able to mobilize the resources required to fulfill the expectations younger generations bring to church.

Those expectations can be summarized in five words: relevance, quality, and attractive choices. Those criteria apply to worship including the content and delivery of the message, the opportunities to learn more what it means to be a Christ follower, the group life, the music, and the venue or physical environment.

If the availability of a surplus of highly visible, conveniently located, and easily accessible off-street parking plus complete local control of all policies, practices, and governance are added to that sentence, that explains why many of the leaders in the very large Protestant congregations in the North and West reflect, "The reason we doubled our attendance in a decade is about half of our newcomers are disenchanted cradle Catholics."

One consequence of these two contradictory trends is, since 1972, the United Methodist Church has increased the number of congregations averaging fewer than 35 at worship and also the number averaging 500 or more, while sharply reducing the number averaging between 35 and 499 at worship.

How Strong Is the Desire?
Is your congregation interested in doubling the average worship attendance over the next 10 years? A common response is, "Probably not. Our top priority would be to reverse the decrease we've been experiencing." That goal usually requires a customized response that is outside the boundaries of this discussion. The focus here is on (a) congregations that have been increasing their attendance at a pace that could produce a doubling in a much longer period of time, (b) those that have been on a plateau, more or less, for the past several years, and (c) those congregations in which apathy or contentment with the status quo are not barriers to planned change.

Thus, the first question to raise before investing the time, energy, prayer, and research required to create and win approval for a customized ministry plan designed to double the worship attendance in a decade often is, "Are our people willing to make the changes required to achieve that goal?" If  "No!" is clearly the answer, that could mean devoting a year or two to the question, "What do you believe God is calling this congregation to be and to be doing 10 years from now?" That path into the future may be more productive if it becomes the focus of several sermons, plus the weekly gatherings of several Bible study groups, prayer cells, and the agenda of a special task force.

Is the Real Estate a Ceiling?
For many, but not all congregations, a second barrier to doubling in a decade may be the real estate. Can that site accommodate the additional off-street parking spaces required to accommodate that many more vehicles? Will the building accommodate the required increase in the ministries?

Do you have two different venues for worship, one for a traditional design and one for a nontraditional format? If the answer is "Yes" on both, that customized ministry may include adding one or two worship experiences to the weekend schedule.

If the answer is "No" on both, the relocation of the meeting space to a larger site, perhaps at a better location, may float to the top of the agenda. If the answer, "We now average 225 (or more) at worship and our building will accommodate a combined average worship attendance of 500 at two or three weekend worship experiences, but we are limited to a maximum of 100 off-street parking spaces, and our people already have voted down relocation on two different occasions," the choices may be limited to three: (1) plateau in size, (2) accept numerical decline, or (3) choose the multisite option.

A Good Match
Some observers will contend this should be listed first, not third. This barrier often is the absence of a good match between the values, gifts, skills, experience, years to retirement, priorities, theological stance, and competence as a leader of the pastor and that customized ministry that calls for doubling worship attendance in a decade.

Is Quarreling More Fun?
In at least a third of the congregations in American Christianity, the top barrier to doubling in a decade is an internal quarrel between two parties. In a minority but a growing number of congregations, this polarizing quarrel is between the denominational policies, priorities, and values on one hand, and the value and priorities of the leaders in congregations. Currently, these quarrels have high visibility in the Roman Catholic Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Presbyterian Church USA, but that is far from a complete list! The polarizing issues include sexual orientation, title to real estate, resistance to a top-down organizational structure, governance, the role of women in the church, abortion, theology, and doctrinal positions.

Perhaps the most overlooked barrier is governance. The majority of congregations in American Protestantism perceive themselves to be a participatory democracy. Every full member has one vote at congregational meetings. Each vote carries as much weight as any other. The uninformed vote is as influential as the well-informed vote. This makes it somewhere between difficult and impossible to make the changes required to double attendance in a decade. Most congregations averaging more than 175 at worship that have doubled in a decade are staff led. They are not participatory democracies!

Growing Older or Younger?
Everyone reading this essay has years, and most have decades, of practice in growing older. With rare exceptions, congregations that double their worship attendance in a decade experience a decrease in the median age of the constituency. Generations of Americans born after 1960 bring a different set of expectations to church than are shared by more Americans born before 1960.
One example is reluctance to have the sermon or message prepared by a preacher who ranks among the top two percent nationally in terms of both content and style, and delivered via projected visual imagery vs. one being delivered in person by "Our Pastor" who ranks at the bottom of the top third nationally in terms of content and delivery.

The Big Myth
"I was ordained back in 1985 and I've watched church attendance drop all over this country," declared one 50-year-old minister. "It was relatively easy for a lot of congregations to double their attendance in a decade back in the 1970s and 1980s, but that day is in the past."

We do not have a perfect database, but we do know that while attendance at worship in Roman Catholic parishes is down from its peak, we also know that weekend worship attendance in Protestant churches in 2007 was at least 10 to 15 percent higher than in 1987. This myth of "church attendance is down all over" represents a seventh barrier.

We also know that it is easier for the staff-led Protestant congregation averaging 900 or more at worship to overcome that natural opposition to radical change and to mobilize the resources required to double worship attendance in a decade than it is for the congregation averaging 35 or 75 or 135 or 450 at worship.

Are You Competitive?
That paragraph introduces an eighth barrier. The competition among the Christian churches in America is at an all-time high. Back in the immediate post-WW II era, interchurch cooperation was a major theme among Protestant leaders in America. By the late 1960s, the large regional churches began to replace the small neighborhood congregations. The erosion of inherited institutional loyalties and technological changes, plus the arrival of millions of American churchgoers born after 1950, gradually combined to produce a conflict between traditions and new ideas.

For many congregations, a useful statistical indicator is when the average attendance at weekend worship is increasing at a faster pace than the increase in confirmed membership. The red flag goes up when membership is increasing but worship attendance is declining!

Which of these barriers must be overcome for your congregations to double the worship attendance over the next years?

Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and parish consultant. His most recent book, From Cooperation to Competition, was published by Abingdon Press.

Copyright 2009 by Lyle E. Schaller

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