Last week, Aaron Earls wrote a very helpful article entitled The Church Growth Gap: The Big Get Bigger While the Small Get Smaller. In it, he outlined the results of a recent survey taken by LifeWay Research.
There’s a lot of data in the survey and the article, much of which will take more time to properly digest, but here are 6 of my first impressions after a couple of read-throughs.
1. The News May Not Be As Bad As We Thought
According to the survey, in the past year
- 28 percent of churches declined by 6 percent or more
- 33 percent stayed within 5 percent of their previous size
- 39 percent of churches grew by 6 percent or more
The way this was framed in the article was, “6 in 10 Protestant churches are plateaued or declining in attendance ...”
This is technically true, but it could have also been stated in this way. “More than 7 out of 10 Protestant churches (72 percent) are holding steady or growing numerically.”
So why was it phrased the way it was?
There’s a prevalent mindset in church leadership circles that the only acceptable outcome for a congregation is constant numerical increase. So if that’s not happening, the church isn’t holding steady, it’s “plateaued”.
Certainly, we don’t want to get comfortable with business as usual, but we need to be more careful about framing every church that held steady numbers for the last year as a “plateaued” congregation.
It may not be accurate to frame it the way I did – clumping the churches with flat numbers along with the growing congregations. But unless we have more information about those churches, they should at least be seen as statistically neutral, not negative.
When we do that, maybe the best way to phrase those findings would be, “while one-third (33 percent) of churches held steady numerically, churches with increasing attendance numbers (39 percent) significantly outpaced those with declining numbers (28 percent).”
That’s far better news than most of us expected.
2. Some Of What We’re Calling Growth Is Consolidation
According to Earls’ article:
This is huge. Not surprising, but huge.
We’re constantly celebrating churches that have rapid growth. But this survey confirms what many have often suspected, but hoped wasn’t true.
Transfer growth can be fast, but conversion growth is almost always slow.
The advent of bigger and bigger churches is not a sign of spiritual hunger as much as a sign that today’s Christians like gathering in larger groups.
That’s not necessarily bad or good. But it’s not growth, it’s consolidation.
3. We’re Not Taking Advantage Of The Strengths Of The Small Church
Again, from the article:
Pause for a moment.
Go back and re-read that paragraph if you need to.
Almost half of very small churches had 10 converts per 100 attendees, but less than one in five medium to large churches did!
With such a significantly higher rate of conversions coming from very small churches, why is there such a relentless push for churches to get bigger? Shouldn’t we be studying, learning from, championing and multiplying smaller congregations?
Certainly, when a church does happen to grow numerically it makes sense to learn the principles of breaking growth barriers so we don’t lose the gains or put a cap on the increase.
But adapting to a larger size is very different than pushing for, even insisting on a larger size. Especially when the most important aspect of growth – conversions – is being done far more often in smaller congregations than bigger ones.
4. Facts Are Our Friends
For decades, the church growth movement has correctly emphasized that we need to pay attention to the facts, not our biases, then adapt our methods to fit those facts so we’re doing what works, not just what’s comfortable.
I have always agreed with that approach wholeheartedly – even when the facts didn’t match my preconceptions.
But what do we do when the facts have shown, yet again, that smaller congregations make more converts per 100 people?
Shouldn’t we be more curious about why smaller congregations have a higher rate of new converts than bigger churches?
Then, shouldn’t we use what we learn from them to do things differently? Or have we become so comfortable with the advantages of newer, larger churches that it’s hard for us to even see the value of doing church smaller?
5. Confirmation Bias Is Real
There are several biases that need to be taken into account in all of this.
First, we have a bias toward bigness in the American culture and the American church. And, like most biases, it seldom changes even when confronted with contradictory facts.
This is why we seldom see the value of smaller congregations, even when the stats show them to us.
Second, I may have a confirmation bias toward smaller congregations, so what I’m writing needs to be read with that in mind.
Third, there’s a possible confirmation bias in the numbers themselves. This survey was conducted by phone to over 1,000 Protestant pastors. That’s a large enough sample size for LifeWay to be confident that “the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.2 percent”, which is expected from a reputable group like LifeWay. But it is based on conversations with pastors, not on objective third-party observation and analysis. And we pastors have been known on occasion to (let’s say…) “misremember” the exact number of conversions.
These biases need to be taken into account as we assess these stats and others like them.
Facts are our friends, but only when we’re willing to acknowledge our bias and let the data speak for itself.
6. Every Church Contributes Differently
Because of their visibility, it’s easy to see the contributions of larger churches. It’s harder to see the contributions of smaller ones.
So when we have good surveys like this, we need to pay attention to what they’re telling us.
Every healthy church is bringing something different to the body of Christ.
As Earls notes in his conclusion, “Strategies, programs and rules-of-thumb work differently depending on the trajectory of a church.”
In other words, what works in one church won’t work in another church.
Let’s help each church accomplish the mission God has given all of us in the way that works best for how God has called each of us.
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