A Deeper Look at Numerical Growth

Numerical growth

Church leaders, can we please just stop.

Stop assuming churches without numerical growth are unhealthy.

Stop assuming churches with numerical growth are thriving.

Both might be true, both might not. Congregations are far too important for such shallow thinking. It’s high time we plumb the depths of numerical growth.

A plateau doesn’t always mean a church is flat lining.

A pastor was asked to interview with a church. He declined to interview because he discovered the church had lost a significant number of members the past ten years.

I knew the church in question. Twice in the past decade the church sent 10 to 15 families to start new churches. Instead of a sign of illness, the loss of members was evidence of a very healthy congregation.

The churches I served added a total of five worship services during my tenures. The new services helped us reconnect with inactive members and attract new participants. Just as importantly, new services opened new opportunities for service by members.

As a church, we needed a break after launching each service. With each new service, the church became more complex. It took time for new leaders to really learn their roles. It was challenging to update our systems so new members received the same care as established members. We couldn’t handle new members for a season.

On a spreadsheet, the churches looked stagnant a year after launching a new service. Appearances were deceiving.

The dangers of making assumptions about numerical growth.

A church got on my radar because it almost doubled in worship attendance in one year. The next time I ran into the pastor, I asked what God had done to bring so many new people to his church.

He laughed nervously and explained that the new worshippers were not coming to the church. His congregation had started worship services in three nursing homes.

That put a little different spin on the numerical growth.

I started working with Redeemer Lutheran Church in Charleston, WV in 2006. My roles with the church included helping serve a pastoral vacancy. Last year I walked in on Sunday morning to discover I didn’t know about 25 percent of the members in attendance.

It turned out Redeemer received an influx of members from a nearby conservative Lutheran church. The new members didn’t make Redeemer a thriving church. The fact that Redeemer was already healthy did help attract new members.

The numerical growth reality check.

It almost sounds as if I don’t think numerical growth plays a role in congregational vitality. Almost. What I’ve actually written is total numerical growth is not necessarily an indicator of congregational health.

That said, try this on for size: Adding new participants and members is essential for congregational health.

Huh? Stick with me here.

Cold, hard math shows if a church does not add any new members for a too many years, it becomes at-risk for closing. Such prolonged declines often leave churches unable to afford a full-time pastor or make major repairs to facilities. Too often the decline leaves the congregation emotionally exhausted and inward focused.

As flowing water brings new life to a stagnant pond, so new members add to the vitality of churches. They bring new sets of spiritual gifts. They provide experience from previous churches. They bring new energy.

In churches I have served we helped new participants make meaningful contributions toward our mission as soon as possible. For example, during the orientation process we asked new members what they had noticed about our church. We received comments such as the following:

  • “It’s difficult to find your way around the facility.”
  • “The eternal candle has become quite mortal.”
  • “The rotation of worship settings from the hymnal is confusing. Why do you keep changing services?”

Just as importantly, the new members witnessed leaders making changes in the church because of their observations.

Keep in mind, churches can add members without experiencing an increase in average worship or Bible study attendance. Each year members are called to glory. Members take jobs in different communities. Members graduate from high school. Adding a handful of new members may still leave a church with fewer names on the membership roll.

In the end, total numerical growth or decline is not necessarily an indicator of congregational health. If you want a thriving church, God must still add new participants and members on a regularly basis.

What insights have you gleaned about numerical growth – or the lack thereof – in churches? Leave a comment or shoot me an email.


4 thoughts on “A Deeper Look at Numerical Growth

  1. Kevin, I have always viewed numerical growth as a byproduct of health. Have you come to a place where you have metrics that you use to measure health? One congregation used a combination of worship involvement + bible study attendance+ congregational membership / 3 = congregational health measure.
    Another uses the three Connections: 1. connected to the spiritual life of the congregation (involved in word & Sacrament ministry and identifies with congregation’s purpose and values); 2. Serving (have a role or task that fits their gifts and interests and they are being trained, recognized and affirmed in their role); 3. Friendships (six or more people in the congregation they can identify as friends not counting staff)
    Simply saying we can’t use numbers does not answer the question of how we can measure the effectiveness of our actions. Hoping is not a plan.

    Like

    1. Philip, I realized I never actually answered your question. We use congregational health as a measurement of a congregation’s engagement in God’s mission. We primarily look at relationships between members, systems for ministry (outreach, discipleship, etc.) and the fruit God is bearing through the church.

      Like

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