I am convinced that the membership statistics Louisville releases each year are not the most useful way to judge where we are or where we are headed as a denomination. This is because the depressing membership statistics and my personal experience with Presbyterian congregations conflict with each other. My experience of our congregations is generally positive. The statistics have been mostly negative. Despite the negative statistics, many of us experience much in our congregations that is very positive.
A couple of years ago, the Center for Congregations in Indiana hired me to conduct workshops for interested pastors. The only thing not closed? Local congregations. They are the last thing open in these towns.
If one looked at those congregations through a membership statistic, the news would be grim. They have been losing members for years as the towns in which they are located shrink in population. However, they remain open because they continue to serve their communities. Restaurants and other small businesses that served their towns are gone. The congregations continue.
I would suggest that we develop other metrics for judging/evaluating the health of a congregation. Is a congregation providing worship and programming that help its members grow spiritually; supplying spiritual support for members as they go through life’s major transitions from birth to youth to middle age to old age; helping its community cope with the enormous changes going on within it; being a prophetic voice on the pressing issues of our times; and helping the poorest in its community survive the enormous changes taking place in the town?
I can hear some of you thinking, “Sounds good, John. But how do we count those kinds of things?” Well, if Apple and other corporations can figure out how to evaluate whether or not people are satisfied with their products then we should be able to measure whether our members are growing spiritually, the number of times the pressing issues of our times are addressed directly in worship or the specific acts of support for the poor that have happened in the past year. While it is easy to count members and income, the Louisville lens focusing on such numbers is keeping us from counting the things God (and even much of the world) counts. We need to develop a better set of metrics.
A caveat: I am not saying that worship attendance is not an important metric for a congregation. Lately, it has become trendy thinking to dismiss worship attendance as a helpful indicator of a congregation’s health. The trend isn’t new. For my 40 years of ministry, I have heard people dismiss declining worship attendance with incredibly self-deluding justifications such as “I am preaching prophetically and some people just can’t handle it.” Or, “We are separating the wheat from the 1950s chaff.” Really?
Clearly, a church in a town where the town is declining in population is likely to experience a worship attendance decline as well. However, if a congregation is located in a community where growth (population, generational turnover of homes, etc.) is taking place, shouldn’t there be some growth taking place in worship attendance as well? I think so. As a consultant, I find worship attendance remains a key metric for what is or is not happening in the life of a congregation. If nothing else, declining attendance may speak to the decline of the community around it.
Presbyterians are more concerned about membership statistics than counting how many hungry people we fed in the previous year or how many times we addressed our national plague of violence from the pulpit or how many millennials are sitting in our pews even if they haven’t joined the church. It is time to start counting the right things.
Yours in Christ,