Pastor’s Friday Comments (05.03.19)

 

I’ve been laboring under a false impression and I have probably led some of you to think along similar lines. As I have discussed the challenges facing Christianity in our culture today, I have made several observations about national trends in attendance in worship:

           Fewer people are going to church than at any point in our lifetimes.

          Those who are attending are attending with less frequency.

          Those who are attending are most likely to be attending a large church.

The first two of those statements are decidedly true. Those who claim no religious affiliation at all is now 23% of the population and a startling 36% among millennials. And numerous studies have demonstrated that when actual church attendance is counted (not the overly optimistic self-reporting) the number of times congregants attend in a year is down markedly.

However, I could not have been more wrong in my impression that most churchgoers now prefer large churches. A recent Barna survey finds instead that 46% of those who attend church do so in congregations that have fewer than 100 members! The megachurches may be the ones that get the most attention, but they make up a small percentage of the religious landscape.

In fact, 37% of churches are like ours, falling into the category of those with 100 to 499 members. Only 9% attend a church in the 500-999 range and 8% in those that have over 1000 members. (Barna isn’t clear on the difference between “churchgoers”,“attendees”, and “members”, but the numbers should shake out about the same regardless of the definition used.)

That means that over 80% of the people in church each Sunday are in worship with less than 500 people. One of the reasons I think this is significant is that, when one sees a church that is small, one might think that that church is dying. That may not be the case at all.

Nevertheless, many congregations have disappeared over the past few years. Christianity Today counted over 30,000 churches that shut their doors between 2006 and 2012. Most of these were obviously small when they decided to disband, but they may at one time have been much larger.

Mark Wingfield, associate pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, recently observed that “Being small is not a prescription for death; being in decline is a prescription for death.” And that truth is the one that should concern us.

Parkway has been through a few peaks and valleys over the past few years but our highest attendance came about ten years ago. Since then we, like so many churches around us, have experienced a gradual decline. There are a number of factors that have caused this, but the fact is indisputable. Given our very enviable financial situation and the relative physical health and ages of our members, we are in better shape than many churches, but there is obvious cause for concern.

Wingfield further noted that congregations that are going to survive in our current culture will require three traits: objectivity, honesty, and creativity. These all apply to us. We have to look coolly at both our spiritual and numerical health, setting aside our feelings in order to consider where we stand. We must be honest with ourselves about where we are and what we need to do. If we are to reverse the trend, returning to old ways of doing things won’t work. We must think creatively.

As we ask God to lead us into our future, the one thing of which I am certain is that, at least for our lifetimes (and we have some very young members), there will be the need for a church like ours in this place. And I am also certain that, if we apply ourselves to the task of being the church, God will lead us to do whatever is necessary to thrive. Let’s just be sure our dependence on God is complete and undivided. That’s all God asks.