One of the claims Will Willimon makes in his book Bishop is that, “The most revealing indicator of congregational vitality is the trend in worship attendance.”
Worship attendance sure is important. I remember many years ago reading a biographical blurb on a pastor. It said of him, “During his tenure at X UMC, 3000 members were added to the roll and the average attendance rose by 800.” Each statistic taken on its own is awesome. I’d love for either to describe my church. But taken together they’re deadly. How can adding so many members result in such a proportionally small increase in attendance? What kind of members are these?
When I arrived at my last congregation the most recently reported average annual attendance was 135. That’ s more than most UM churches across the land today. But membership was over 400. I asked my people. “Imagine that only a third of your body is functioning. Where will you be? ICU? Hospice?” Attendance, not just absolutely but as a percentage of membership is essential to church health. I’ve even gone so far as to say that a truly healthy church will have more people in attendance then it has members, since it will be attracting people checking out the faith. Yes, I know. Not many churches make the cut that way. Most all of us pastors look incompetent and ineffective by that standard.
Then there’s that pesky little word, “trend,” in Willimon’s claim. It’s not just attendance itself that is the revealing indicator. It’s the direction that attendance is going. When attendance is rising, that tells us the congregation is doing something right. When it’s declining, well, you get the idea.
As I said above, I believe worship attendance – both the absolutely and as a trend – are strong signs of church health. But the “most revealing indicator?” I’m not so sure about that. It may be the most revealing quantitative indicator. The number of professions of faith is important – essential to the life and health of the church. If people are not coming to faith in Christ, the church is sick – on life support. A growth in worship attendance, however, theoretically shows that people added are not just roll padding, not just in the front door and out the back.
One of the advantages of both of these important statistics – attendance and professions of faith – is that they are not only quantifiable but easily quantifiable. They can be reckoned at any time.
Jesus’ command in the Great Commission was a bit different, however. He said there, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Leading people to make professions of faith is explicit here. Having these disciples stick around – a reality marked by attendance – is implicit. But making disciples – especially the “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” isn’t so easily quantified. There’s life change involved here, the change of allegiance reflected in making a profession of faith and the change of the way one lives that grows out of the changed allegiance. We can have a large, growing organization and still be missing Jesus.
Do I want worship attendance to be trending upward? Absolutely. Do I want the number of profession of faith to rise? My heart is broken for the people who don’t know Jesus, so I am cheered by everyone who connects with him. But what I really want is for these quantifiable statistics to reflect the reality of lasting life change in Jesus followers. If the quest for a “most revealing indicator” asks for something that can be quantified, I’m inclined to think it might be asking the wrong question.