Saturday, February 11, 2023

The smaller Protestant congregation. . .

Certainly the reality many small congregations are facing in the post-pandemic times is that they are growing smaller.  Indeed, average attendances suggest that the numbers are half they were in 2000. 

The drop is from 137 to 65, as charted by by the Hartford Institute for Religion.  While there is no direct correlation between Lutherans and generic Protestantism, it would be surprising if there were much difference.  While the average congregation is small — fewer than 70 people — the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of that averages about 400 people.

The difference is that where there was once a pattern distribution among the various sizes, congregations today tend to be either mega size or mini size with not so many in between.  The other difference is that the smaller the congregation the more likely the pastor does not depend upon the congregation for his living.  In fact, it is typical that such clergy are often employed in several other places and the congregation shares the pastor with work demands and the demands of family and home -- something that was unusual fifty years ago.  While the smallness of these congregations is their blessing, it is also their curse.  Relationships are front and center is such smaller worshipping communities but those relationships are often the reason why the congregation remains small.  The pandemic has introduced an online presence to congregations of all sizes that may be counted for something but cannot equate to the in person attendance that we are measuring and certainly cannot be depended upon to make up for what lacks in the attendance in the pews.

While I wish there was an easy answer to the dilemma, there is none.  There is no one size fits all solution.  Congregations in close proximity to other congregations of the same denomination may find that merger is the answer, no matter how long or how hard you try to postpone that solution.  Congregations without others in close proximity will not have this as an option.  Clearly there are people to serve but how they can best be served with the allocation of resources and people remains a topic of debate.  In the end, each congregation will have to decide what the cut off number is when that congregation will have to close (number both in terms of people and finances).  While growing the church is the best solution, some of these congregations are in areas that are losing significant numbers of the population, especially those with children or those of childbearing age.

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