The Measure of a Ministry
Everyone knows church attendance slides in the summer, but should we care?

This week Americans are celebrating their independence by watching parades, enjoying backyard barbeques, and by not going to church. If your congregation is anything like mine you know that during the summer worship attendance slips noticeably, and the week of July 4th is typically the low point. Family vacations and parties draw people away for some valuable R and R. I'm not pointing a self-righteous finger at church slackers. Last Sunday my family and I were not seen in church either, we were away camping.

But the "summer slide" raises a question. Why is Sunday morning attendance the one measurement we cannot escape? Why is Sunday morning attendance the make-or-break number; the figure we proudly display or secretly despair? Like a corporation's stock price, worship attendance seems to encapsulate a church's entire mission and health in one simple, if volatile, number. A number we watch carefully week to week praying for its increase.

At my church I am aware of a number of families and individuals who won't be attending Sunday worship very frequently this summer, and I'm thrilled about it. These people won't be in worship because they'll be overseas helping missionaries, or taking inner city kids to a camp in rural Michigan, or they'll be making meaningful connections as families on vacations- something valuable in a culture where families are struggling. Don't misread me, I think gathering regularly as a community for corporate worship, confession, and learning is both good and important. I just don't think it's so important that it should be the singular measure of missional impact, or even the primary one.

It has become very popular to talk about "life transformation" as the purpose of the church, and numerous studies have shown that worship attendance alone does not seem to impact people's behavior or values. (Ron Sider's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience comes to mind .) However, people who connect in meaningful and transparent relationships, the kind possible in small groups or with a mentor, do show more evidence of life change. Wouldn't this be a much better and more helpful number for church leaders to measure? Do you know how many people in your church connected relationally with another brother or sister in Christ last week? Probably not, but I bet you know how many sang songs and passively listened to a sermon.

Granted, Sunday worship attendance is easier to measure than small group attendance or relational connections but I don't think that's why we do it. Dallas Willard has said that most churches are designed to grow their ABCs (attendance, buildings, and cash) not disciples. The ABCs form an unholy trinity; a cycle that cannot be escaped easily. Sunday attendance is vital and meticulously measured because that is what funds the church - people give money on Sunday. The money is necessary to pay for institutional needs such as buildings, staff, and programs. And, of course, these tangibles are needed to attract more religious consumers to pay for more buildings, staff, and programs.

July 06, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 17 comments

Ian

August 06, 2007  7:35pm

Using the very crude "Sunday Morning head-count" as a tool to measure Church quality, impact, spiritual growth, etc., makes no more sense than what we've traditionally done in universities to measure learning: the "Warm seat-count". Because it's now recognized as a useless metric (except to, for and by, politicians-on-the-stump), we now measure for what it is we originally set out to accomplish. We call it Outcomes Assessment. That is, we set goals at the outset, and at the end of the time-limited period, measure to see if we've met those goals. By doing so, we get to ask and answer, "Have we done what we set out to do?" The most difficult task is to set the expectations: "At the end of x period, students will be able to . . ." (Diagram a sentence, Quote Dante, use the colon correctly, whatever . . .) I suspect that the same challenge applies for those whose role it is to identify, codify, and write out succinctly those things that a congregation of sinners "ought" to be able to demonstrate after x period. It's very hard work. Heads-in-church is easy to define. The second issue underlying the difficulty, I suggest, is that, like in the university, it's hard for leadership to stay on task and to avoid "fine-tuning" as they go. Unless they stick to the firmly established plan, no measurements taken at the conclusion can possibly measure against the original expectations. It's hard work to stay-the-course. But that's how meaningful measurement is even possible. Heads-in-church is easy. It doesn't require the hard work of defining future success, and it doesn't require the hard work of staying -the-course.

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Lou

July 17, 2007  11:20pm

I appreciate Kat's comments I think they are right on. Obviously "God knows the heart" and to say that growth equates to positive trends in the "ABCs" seems contradictory to the things we are called to do. Love God....Love your, neighbor as yourself and go into all the world and make disciples (Para phrased) When hearing God's voice and acting out of obedience the results are God's no matter what the outcome.

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david

July 10, 2007  10:25pm

As a pastor I have always struggled not to put too much emphasis on Worship Attendance. On the one hand our worship is not defined by how many people show up on Sunday morning, but rather it is by helping people enter into the presence of God to be changed by the Gospel. However, I do believe watching a indivdiuals worship pattern gives us a window into their spiritual condition. Paul tells us to never give up on the habit of meeting together. That meeting together serves a purpose of being encouraged by the LORD and one another. When a person becomes inconsistent in their worship attendance or stops comming all together it usually (there are exceptions) means something is wrong. Tracking attendance can give us a chance to identify spiriutal, physical, or emotional probelms that may require the assistance of the body of Christ. On the other end of the specturm I think is important not to put to much stock in church attendance when it comes to becoming a disciple of Jesus. Attending church puts you in a position to hear the word of God. The choice to put into practice the message of Jesus goes way beyond Sunday morning.

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H. Miller

July 10, 2007  3:31pm

On the matter of church attendance: I also think that part of our mission is to make the pursuit of the kingdom of God our number one priority. Quite often not being at church is not for so noble a reason as spending time with the family, but rather because church attendance is sadly not a priority for many. Measuring has its place as a tool for assesment and growth.

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Janet

July 10, 2007  3:27pm

Another thought – for those of us who have to be away from our home churches, summer travel gives us the chance to visit other communities of faith and witness how they are celebrating life in the Spirit. Within two weeks, my family and I visited a small rural Tennessee church where my husband (the baritone) was warmly welcomed, robed and part of the choir within the first ten minutes. Contrast this with a large urban community where no one said anything to us during the course of the morning worship – they assembled, the worshipped, they communed, they adjourned, and they were glad to pass the hat in our direction, but not to acknowledge our presence in any other way. So summer visits can be learning experiences for us all – how does your church welcome the traveler?

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S.W.Wong

July 09, 2007  1:07pm

Wish to express a view that Sunday worship service attendance remains an important measure of the spiritual health of a church. God's people are called to be God's worshippers. The variety of activities including small group meetings are to help us grow spiritually, and the ultimate purpose is that we become more devoted worshippers. Attending Sunday worship services is not necessarily the reason why one do not join small group meeting, neglect one's family and friends, etc. And Sunday worship services do not need to be boring. Collecting offering when most people are in does not necessarily have anything to do with consumerism.

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Alan

July 09, 2007  10:41am

This is a good post, one that makes me thoughtful. I know that I do find myself frustrated that many people associated with our church are very inconsistent in their attendance all throughout the year, and particularly in summer when kids are off school, weather is nice, etc. I think perhaps Dallas' comment (shared in the original post above) sums the core issue that is at the root of the problem. The church typically focuses on it's "A, B, Cs" and not on making disciples. It seems to me that if were were doing better at "making disciples" then the issue of consistency in worship attendance would take care of itself. To use Willard's definition, a disciple wants to learn from Jesus how to live life the way Jesus would if he were them. The disciple thus realizes (or comes to realize) that this journey he/she is on was never intended to be walked in isolation and seeks to be connected to others learning to live that way and makes it his/her intention to make participating in that kind of life a priority in his/her life. If we got to the point where more people were actually living as disciples, then we might see them begin to view "coming to church" differently and not take as many "days off". Church attendance might transform from an optional activity on Sunday on par with flossing one's teeth (i.e., something I do if I have extra time this week) to an activity that I view as vital to my life and something that is in my best interest not to miss. Of course, what's offered when people "show up" might also have to change as well if we really want people to shift how they view "going to church". There has to be something "at church" that makes people feel it's worth showing up to do and makes them want to come back again and again. I'm afraid that often times, people stay away from church or attend inconsistently because they don't see what we offer "in church" as connecting with their life outside the church doors. It isn't really helping them to live their life better; it's just another in a long list of activiites they do and when push comes to shove, other activities are more important to them. ALAN

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Mark Goodyear

July 09, 2007  9:49am

I like what Dan J. said. It seems hypocritical to say we value something if we aren't also attempting to measure it. That means a lot of churches that struggle with statistical analysis end up looking like hypocrites. We don't know how to gather data more complicated than attendance, so it becomes the end all measurement of success.

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Kat

July 08, 2007  7:16am

Interesting post. I think it reveals a lot about how we define both worship and spiritual transformation. We seem to have forgotten that worship requires an audience of only One–no matter where or when it takes place. When the focus of the meeting is us, instead of Him, it isn't worship, no matter how many of the seats are full. It's idolatry. Also, the only one who can rightly measure ministry is God. He is the only one qualified to determine spiritual formation in either the "preacher" or the "preachee". It is arrogant to think that we can measure spiritual growth in another. Holding people to weekly numerical goals (ie. prayer times, evangelism, etc.) is tempting, but it is a recipe for spiritual disaster. Someone's standard has become law...and I don't think it is God's. Where are liberty, grace and accountability to the Holy Spirit in all this? Kat

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Jay Kelly

July 06, 2007  12:01pm

Wonderful thoughts! 'What gets measured gets done,' as the old management axiom says. Reggie McNeal has a twist on that when he says, 'What gets celebrated gets done.' (At least I think he said that. Maybe I did. Yes! I think I did! :) )

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