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
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?
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?
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
Is Quarreling More Fun?
Growing Older or Younger?
The Big Myth
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?
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