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Measuring church vitality

"If a church’s vitality is measured less by what it takes in (people or dollars) and more by what it gives out (meeting needs outside its walls), the downturn in Sunday service attendance could become a catalyst for greater vitality," writes Sheldon W. Sorge.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Presbyterians love to document things. The meeting records of the Consistory (the church’s regional governing council) in Geneva during the Reformation have survived to this day – down to the most minute, often fascinating, details.

Presbyterians are genetically disposed to be fastidious record-keepers. Every year we require congregations to submit a lengthy statistical report that includes a dizzying array of numbers. We count members by age, by sex, by race, and more. We count all the ways the church receives and expends money.

The Church of Scotland brought the term “ruling elder” into Presbyterian parlance. The “ruling” referred not to governing, but to measuring, as with a “ruler.” Elders were charged to measure the spiritual wellness of the parish’s members. They did this by periodically visiting each home to determine the spiritual health of its occupants. Those who “measured up” were given tokens that granted them admission to the Lord’s Table. One reason that Holy Communion was celebrated infrequently was that it took months for the elders to visit all the households assigned to their charge.

Our annual statistical reports don’t even try to measure the spiritual vitality of a congregation. They settle for numbers – births, baptisms, deaths, membership changes, worship attendance, giving, and so on. When the pandemic hit, and many churches shuttered their sanctuaries for a time, one of the key measures of annual reports – worship attendance – became problematic to determine. How do we measure online attendance? For how long does a computer user need to stream a worship service in order to count as having attended? What about those who view the service later?

All of which begs the question, how ought we measure a church’s vitality? Paul considers the prevalence of love as a primary marker of church vitality. But how can we quantify love? The genuineness of the church’s love is manifest in its fruitfulness. Love cannot be counted, but fruit can.

One of the ways the church manifests fruitfulness is in its outreach. From where I sit, a church’s engagement with those beyond its walls – locally, regionally, and abroad – is one of the best indicators of its vitality. Outreach is a manifestation of fruitfulness.

With the church returning to regular Sunday worship as it emerges from the pandemic, we are finding that fewer people enter the sanctuary doors than before the pandemic. This is especially so for children, youth, and young families. When I visit churches, I am often struck that there are far fewer children gathering at the chancel for the children’s sermon than before the pandemic.

If we measure a church’s vitality by the size and composition of its Sunday morning gatherings, the church is in bad shape. But what if we measured differently? Have you noticed that nowhere in the New Testament is the size of the crowd counted, except when they had to be fed, or were keeping vigil? The number of new believers is mentioned twice in Acts, but nowhere is attendance at a church gathering recorded.

If a church’s vitality is measured less by what it takes in (people or dollars) and more by what it gives out (meeting needs outside its walls), the downturn in Sunday service attendance could become a catalyst for greater vitality.

Even when they boasted large Sunday morning crowds, most of our church buildings were barely used through most of the week. Some churches hosted childcare agencies and recovery groups in some of their secondary spaces, but the main gathering places in the church remained largely empty on weekdays.

With church attendance faltering, it is more glaringly obvious than ever that we have way more building facilities than we need. So why not let the community use them? When the church becomes a community center, a new kind of vitality is revealed, one that doesn’t show up in statistical reports.

A few of our congregations already function as community centers. Youth sports, civic meetings, service organizations, school committees, youth clubs, immigrant services, arts groups, legal aid, and so much more – in freely providing such groups a welcoming space to meet, the church is turning outward to bear good fruit in its neighborhood.

Jesus teaches that we can bear good fruit only by first planting seed and letting it take its own time to grow. Turning outward may not make any visible initial difference in the church, in terms of reportable statistics. But Jesus invites us to trust the seed we sow and the soil we turn for the Lord’s sake, no matter how little of a difference it seems to make at first.

How ought we measure a church’s vitality? Less by what it looks like when it gathers, and more by how it reaches out in welcome to the neighborhood.  By such a standard, the church today may be poised for greater vitality over the coming season than we can imagine. May it be so, to the glory of God!

This letter was originally published on the Pittsburgh Presbytery website.

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