Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Long Shadow of a Small Presence

Growing up I enjoyed how the sunlight at your back would give you a very large shadow.  It masked my own small size as a child and made it appear that I was much larger.  For a long time now we have heard of the great influence of mega churches and the church watchers like Lyle Schaller (and others) have told us that we must grow or die.  The age of the small congregation is over.  They cannot afford a Pastor.  They cannot do effective ministry.  They cannot find a future without growing.  In the Missouri Synod this has been the mantra since the mid-90s or so and now we regularly hear about the bane of having so many small congregations.  They are called permanent vacancies and nearly every District President I know sees them as big problems for the Church.

I stumbled across this from Mollie Ziegler Hemingway and it seems to cast a slightly different light upon this age old truth about bigger being better and small congregations dying. 

Q: What’s the size of U.S. churches?
The median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings, according to the National Congregations Study http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/ . Notice that researchers measured the median church size — the point at which half the churches are smaller and half the churches are larger — rather than the average (186 attenders reported by the USCLS survey http://www.uscongregations.org/charact-cong.htm ), which is larger due to the influence of very large churches. But while the United States has a large number of very small churches, most people attend larger churches. The National Congregations Study estimated that the smaller churches draw only 11 percent of those who attend worship. Meanwhile, 50 percent of churchgoers attended the largest 10% of congregations (350 regular participants and up).  Want to know more? Check the websites for the National Congregations Study at http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/ The US Congregational Life Survey (USCLS) website has statistics about congregations by religious traditions at http://www.uscongregations.org/

Mega churches do not get that designation until they get more than 2,000 per week in worship.  According to the graph, well below than 10% of the Protestant Christians in America attend such churches yet their influence as trend setters and their shadow looms large over American Christianity.  Even adding in all those congregations where over 1,000 are in attendance each week and these congregations still represent somewhat less than one quarter of American Christians (Roman Catholic and Orthodox excluded).

Funny but what I get to thinking about this, it seems that the vast majority of Lutheran congregations fall into the the first or second tier of church attendance (according to the graph above).  We are not unusual in that regard but rather ordinary.  In fact, the Missouri Synod average is a little higher than the national average tallied in Hemingway's story and the median size is also a bit larger.

My point in all of this is that we were told that the small or smaller congregation was dead or on life support... that people would not settle for anything less than a full service congregation... that people would drive past small congregations every Sunday of the month to get to a large or very large congregation... that small congregations are a problem for which we need to find a solution...  And all the while it turns out that just maybe they were wrong.  One last item for your information.  The mega churches are not growing as a category and significant numbers of the larger churches (over 1,000 per week in attendance) are showing signs of plateauing and decline.  Fad?  Trend?  or Way of the Future?  Hard to see and hard to say but don't count the small congregation out.... just yet, anyway!


Anonymous said...

Nationwide most of the parishes with
attendance under 100 are led by
non-ordained leaders who have a
regular job during the week for their
income. Some of them are storefront
churches, others are simply getting
by in old church buildings.

These lay-led small churches are
often a few families who refuse to
surrender their past heritage and
are proud of their family name.

Janis Williams said...

Fr. Peters,

A "full service" congregation/parish was where Word and Sacrament were rightly administered. (God serves us, and His service is 'full.')

If mega-pastors would stop trying to be CEOs and Rock Stars, and pay attention to what God has called them to do (preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins)...

Also if we the parish would stop expecting our pastors to do everything in the church except what he's called to do...

Whatever happened to the "cure of souls?"

Anonymous said...

"Churches" with less than 50 people
in attendance are merely "playing
church." Without a ordained pastor
they have no Sacraments administered,
and there are no sermons preached
with any theological depth and law/
gospel dynamic.

To have lay-led worship services is
not the same as ordained pastors
conducting the worship services.
This is a sad situation.

Anonymous said...

In 1970, the Lutheran Church Missouri
Synod had 2,788,536 baptized members
In 2010, the LCMS had 2,310,235
baptized members.

This is a loss of 478,301 members
in the past 40 years.

To lose almost 1/2 million members
is not a healthy sign. There is a
need for self-evaluation on the
Synodical and District level.

Rev. Richard A. Bolland said...

I am often amused that folks like "Anonymous" see dropping numbers and assume that the Church just isn't doing her job. In fact these numbers simply indicate that we are living in an increasingly secular culture. "Success" as a pastor or as a congregation cannot be accurately measured by the number of people coming in the door on Sunday mornings. (If that were the case, then the Mormons ought to be emulated.) Rather the measure of "success" is to be found in the faithful preaching of God's Word and the right administration of the Sacraments.

The numbers concern is for God to deal with. He knows who His elect are and He won't loose any of us. We cannot increase the population of heaven nor can we decrease the population of hell despite our best evangelistic efforts. God knows His own. However, it is our joy to faithfully preach and administer so that those (unknown to us), who are elect will be called by Christ to Himself.

What the decline in numbers tells us is about our culture, not the efficiency or inefficiency of the Church. We really do need to believe that God's Word and Sacraments will accomplish what God has promised they will do.

Pastor Peters said...

I would suggest that a study of those dropping numbers might attribute most of them to congregations on the large side... it is much harder to lose track of people in a smaller congregation than it is in a large one.

For my own case, some of our "losses" represent people who move and we never find out if they joined another church or which one and often do not even get an accurate forwarding address.

Anonymous said...

"To lose almost 1/2 million members
is not a healthy sign."

Healthy populations reproduce.

Irenaeus said...

In response to the Rev. Richard A. Bolland's comments above: Well said and AMEN!

Anonymous said...

It is amusing that we have all kinds
of excuses for Synod's loss of
members. God would have all men to
be saved and come to the knowledge
of truth in Jesus Christ. It is
sad that a majority of our LCMS
parishes have no adult baptisms or
adult confirmands each year.

Yet we hear the cop-out about the
elect being saved and no body else
has to work hard to spread the gospel as we hinder the work of
the Holy Spirit.

Anonymous said...

"It is
sad that a majority of our LCMS
parishes have no adult baptisms or
adult confirmands each year."

Is this even true?

Does this include parishes in tiny rural towns that no one moves to and people keep moving out? Explaining is not the same as a cop out.

Also, if we can't reach our own kids, are we really so dynamic that we are going to reach strangers?

Anonymous said...

The no adult baptism statistics is generally true, however, it does include all parishes of Synod -- including those in remote and rural locations where population decline is the norm and it does not note the number of adult confirmations where adults baptized before are catechized. Statistics can be brought to bear toward many different conclusions and we need to be circumspect about basing conclusions on the popular attestations.

Rev. Allen Yount said...

"Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith *when and where it pleases God* in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe they are received into grace for Christ's sake" (AC V: 2,3; emphasis added).