By Evan Dolive
At a church I used to serve there was a well intentioned person who after every service would tell me how many people were in attendance. “We had 47 today, Preacher,” he would say. I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he would have to tell me a low number like 35. A smile beamed across his face when we had more than 50. No matter the number, he would tell me without fail.
In every church that I have ever visited or served there has been an emphasis on the number of people that attend the morning worship services.
After years in the ministry I have come to the conclusion that the church needs to stop taking attendance, immediately.
For many churches the process of collecting attendance is to get an accurate accounting of people in worship, to measure how many people occupy space in a pew. Some churches have note pads in the pews so people can fill out their information and place it in a designated area. Others have a volunteer to manually count the people in attendance. No matter how small or big the faith community is an attendance is taken. Some congregations publish the number of people in their church bulletins or have it on a sign in the sanctuary to compare last week to this week.
For too long churches have measured their ‘success’ and ‘failures’ on the number of people that darken the door on 11am on Sunday morning. The quickest way to get people to wring their hands in worry is to tell them that numbers in worship have dropped. Visions of the church closing its doors will run through people’s minds inciting more and more anxiety.
It’s no secret that the church in the American culture is not where most Christians would like it to be. The church was once the central hub of the community is now a place where people go on Sunday mornings if they want to. The church has been in a decline for some time and I believe this has caused us to become more inward focused. As the church began to experience decline numerically the church’s reaction was to try making everyone left happy including the ministers, elders, deacons, lay ministers, organist and even the custodial staff. The boat was not rocked, things stayed the same, a course was laid in and no deviation would be acceptable.
I believe that this is the wrong approach. One time when I was interviewing with a church for a position they inquired if I had any plans that would help the church grow numerically. The answer I told them I believe with all my heart and prompted a bevy of puzzled looks. I told them that I was not a ‘numbers guy.’ I did not measure the success of the church in how many people showed up on Sunday morning. Is Lakewood in Houston, the largest church in America, a “more successful church” because they average several thousand people each week? No. Most churches just want bodies in the pews and babies in the nursery but this is the wrong approach.
I would rather have fifty people in church on Sundays that went out and touched a hundred people’s lives, than have a hundred people in church that only touched fifty.
The church has become too worried about having more people than the other churches in town. The church needs to stop looking inward and start looking outward. There is a world that is in desperate need of a Savior right outside the walls of the church. The time we spend in meetings or around the pot luck lunch table talking about how big the church was in 1947 is wasting everyone’s time.
I have to admit that even I can fall into this number trap. It can be disheartening when a minister prepares a sermon or the choir works diligently on a piece and only a handful of people are there to experience it. I have to remind myself that the people who are in attendance are there to experience God and worship and that is it. God can use all sizes of churches and faith communities to promote God’s message of love, peace, joy and reconciliation.
I want people to experience God in the same way that I do but I am not beholden to a number.
Let’s start taking a new kind of attendance, one that is centered on the other, not bodies in the pew.
Rev. Evan M. Dolive is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He currently serves in Beaumont, Texas. He is currently writing a book to be published by The Pilgrim Press (publishing house of the United Church of Christ). For more information about Evan visit www.evandolive.com. Follow him on social media at @RevEvanDolive and fb.com/evandoliveauthor.