By Mark A. Taylor
Is growing attendance a reliable indicator of church health?
American Christians generally answer yes. Perhaps this is because we live with the effects of corporate pressure for quarter-by-quarter growth in sales and profits. For several decades now, the American mind-set has equated “bigger” with “better.”
But not everyone accepts that conclusion any longer.
Speaking at the Energizing Smaller Churches Network conference in Lincoln, Illinois, last month, Paul Williams listed 10 signs of a healthy smaller church. His first point: “Measure by relational growth as well as by numbers growth.” Many of the smaller church’s problems can resemble those of a dysfunctional family. If broken, unhealthy relationships are being healed within the smaller church, this is growth as important as weekly attendance.
Williams also pointed out that many smaller churches are in communities with declining populations. Even a healthy congregation may not experience significant numbers growth in such a situation. But Williams said its attendance will at least stabilize.
His lecture was on a Saturday in the same week The Wall Street Journal reviewed a new book about church health with an attention-getting title. Quitting Church, by Washington Times religion reporter Julia Duin, blames local congregations for what she describes as an epidemic of church-quitting among evangelicals.
Duin asserts that evangelical churches once experienced remarkable attendance growth but says today they are growing “only appreciably.”
According to Terry Eastland, who reviewed her book for the Journal, Duin names many reasons for this problem, among them: out-of-touch pastors who fail to shepherd the flock, a lack of community among church members, poor or shallow or irrelevant teaching, inadequate leadership in general, and a failure to integrate singles.
Her solution, according to Eastland, is for churches to become “decent.” “She calls for better teaching, better preaching, and better pastors, who are in touch with the lives of their worshipers,” Eastland reports.
Duin challenges churches to “concentrate on discipleship,” which Eastland congratulates. But such a strategy inevitably requires teaching the whole Bible, including its difficult or unpopular requirements. Eastland questions whether this will always build attendance. He concludes, “There is no guarantee that churches will prosper as they attempt to make disciples—if we judge prosperity by church membership alone.”
Perhaps the truth, as with so many issues, is found in the pursuit of balance. Numbers aren’t everything. But they aren’t nothing, either. A church may not become large because it’s healthy. But if its attendance continues to dwindle, something’s wrong.