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What Counts? (Part 1)
I recently completed an Every Member Visit with 34 families of our congregation. The purpose of these visits was to discern our future direction as well as our current capacity. I had a set of questions that guided our discussion and helped me to learn some specific things about this Church. It was a wonderful experience and I learned more than I can say.
One question that I asked was, "If God were to do a miracle, what one thing would you like to see changed at this Church in a year?" This question was trying to discover what people saw as the measures of success for the congregation. What I was really asking was "what's important for us as a Church?"
Common responses went something like "more members" or "more people in Church" or "a full Church." I think these are desirable and important, but I wonder if they are the most important indicators of success for a Church.
My friend, Scott Gress, recently wrote on the topic of "more wood" in Churches; by more wood, he means fewer people in the pews on Sunday morning. He rightly notes that Church attendance is declining in most congregations across the United States. Scott doesn't offer any easy answers, but gives a great framework for understanding what is happening and formulating a plan for action. [Click HERE to go to the first of his four-part series and you can go from there.]
I realize that anything you want to happen in a Church doesn't happen in an empty pew or chair. If you are hoping to see life transformation, empty chairs don't change much over time. If you want to see people spiritually invigorated by the Gospel and you want them to receive the blessings of the Lord's Supper, those things aren't happening to empty pews. If you want anything good to come from a Church service, those results aren't going to be realized by people who aren't there.
But, I still wonder. Is Church attendance the most significant indicator of success in a congregation? Is it our main goal as a Church? If it is, what are the consequences of that decision?
I read a story recently about a Church in Taiwan. This Church cost $23 million to build and was specifically designed to attract women to Church. The building has 320-tinted glass panels formed in the shape of a high-heeled shoe. I'm not making this up! [HERE is the BBC story on the project.]
I think this story is relevant because, if butts in seats is the highest goal for a Christian congregation, then you willing to do just about anything to get more bodies to warm more wood on Sunday morning. Will a shoe-shaped Church do it? How about a more entertaining experience or more comfortable pews or any one of a hundred ideas to attract more people to Church?
What helps me understand the importance and the limitations of judging the success (or faithfulness) of a congregation primarily by attendance is by applying the framework of inputs, process, and outputs. Getting people in the door is, as that phrase suggests, an input. What happens in worship and the total life of a Christian congregation is the process. The output is lives changed for the better by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, ultimately, a more densely populated heaven.
When "a bigger Church" is the Holy Grail a congregation searches for, it seems to me we are confusing the inputs with the outputs. More people and less wood is not the goal, it is the starting point for reaching our goal. But before we can identify an appropriate key performance indicator, we need to know what our goal is. I am humbly suggesting that more people inside a Church is not the goal and we need to be diligent in making sure that doesn't become our goal.
Is Church attendance important? Absolutely. But, we can't let it be in the driver's seat for how the Church lives out our calling to be Christ's witnesses in our life together as His children. Our focus needs to always be on our "outputs" and Church attendance isn't one of them.
Pastor Dan Czaplewski
PS There will be more to come on this subject in the coming weeks.