December 28, 2015

Does Church Attendance Count?

There are always those that say numbers don't matter–that Christian leaders ought to do what they do even if it impacted a small group, or simply one person. Not likely. This is simply a response, made out of fear, in reaction to an era of church decline. Without a concern about attendance what most churches do couldn't and shouldn't continue.

The only reason why some churches can continue without giving attention to this is because they are living off the gifts of a previous generation. It isn't sustainable. If attendance doesn't matter, change how you do church. Simplify! You don't need a building or staff and shouldn't expect it ... but attendance does matter.

The local faith community functions like an organism and healthy organisms grow. Unhealthy organisms can grow too but it isn't sustainable growth. Sustainable, healthy faith communities grow in attendance because they place a value on two other kinds of growth first: spiritual and missional. Neither are as easy to track but they matter for the third to be healthy.

Congregations that are growing in healthy and sustainable ways pay attention to spiritual formation. They pay attention to the results of their formation efforts. Are they hearing stories that display the spiritual development of those in the community?

Missional formation is similar. It's not easy to track but it matters. Faith communities that prioritize this know their neighbors, their communities. These communities would notice if that church were no longer there.

Church attendance, numerical growth ought to be evidence of the effectiveness of a faith community's spiritual and missional formation efforts.

Of course, the western church has long had an unhealthy obsession with numbers. But this doesn't mean church attendance doesn't matter. It simply needs to be properly prioritized and scaled by the context, culture and values of a faith community.

Not all, and certainly not most, faith communities were meant to be mega-churches. Mega-churches are more anomalies than models and can often be an example of unhealthy growth–often lacking, as do their smaller counterparts, spiritual depth and poor impact on their surrounding community. As contrast to mega-churches, consider how a community like St. Lydia's in Brooklyn is attending to spiritual, missional and numerical growth in a scale that matches their context, their culture and what they value. (Hint: their genius isn't that they do "dinner church.")

Would we say that numbers don't matter within any other social organization? A cause for justice? A political campaign? Of course not. So, why would we think it different with church attendance. Does church attendance count? Yes, it does.

Church leaders can cut out church attendance as a priority. They can say it doesn't matter. This means they no longer want to be held accountable to effective spiritual and missional formation. In which case, why are they leading?