How to interpret those alarming church statistics
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AMERICAN CHURCH SIZE AND AGE STATISTICS CAN CAUSE CONCERN
TOM LAMPRECHT: Harry, I want to take you to a story of statistics. Statistics never tell the whole story, but they can validate that a story exists. Two simple statistics can help explain the American church:
- The median church size is 75 people.
- The median church age is 73 years old.
DR. REEDER: Tom, now let’s get clarity as this new story also brings clarity. A statistician doesn’t cringe any more than when he hears people say, “Well, the median average is.” Those two terms don’t go together. Median means mid-point. In other words, when you take the churches in the United States of America, the median point of the size of churches is 75. In other words, half of the churches in the United States are above 75 and half are below 75. The median age is 73 — that is, half of the churches in the United States are above age 73 and half of the churches are below age 73. That’s the median point. And then, out of that, the majority of churches actually have less than 100 people — probably less than 75 people. That’s where they are in their size.
FOCUS ON CHURCH HEALTH, NOT SIZE
Now, how are we to see that? And, by the way, if you’re a pastor of one of those churches, how are you to look at that? We have a ministry, Tom, called “From Embers to a Flame,” and Embers to a Flame is taking the Biblically revealed paradigm for church revitalization — how can you lead your church back to health and vitality? And one of the points that we make is your objective is not church growth; it’s church health.
I didn’t tell my children to grow — “I want you to grow three inches” — but what I did is I fed them, I exercised them, made sure they got rest, that God had a DNA in them, what He had put within them. And my job as a parent was not to make them grow — that’s why we don’t give them steroids for false growth. There’s a lot of churches on cultural steroids because they value growth more than health so it’s not big is good and small is bad, or small is good and big is bad — it’s healthy. You want to be a spiritually healthy Gospel-vital church.
Now, where you’re located — your location and your generation — is going to affect that. If I’m in a community that is declining, then likely I can have a healthy church but, actually, the statistics may be decreasing. I was with a young man in the ministry and I had gone to do a conference for him and to spend some time with him at his request and, in our prayer time together, he was weeping and I said, “What’s the problem?” and he said, “I feel like an utter failure.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, when I came here, the church was 250 and now our average attendance is 175.”
This guy pastored in a church that was in a county that is the only county east of the Mississippi River that doesn’t have a traffic light. “What was the population when you arrived here in the country?” “Well, it was around 30,000.” I said, “What’s the population now in the country?” “It’s about 8,000.” The recession that hit the coal mine industry, people had moved out, businesses were shut down — it looked like a ghost town. I said, “First of all, you’ve got 175 people and, when you came it was 250, but when you came, you had 250 people but there were 30,000 people here. Now you’ve got 175 people but there are 8,000 people. Well, I’m not a whiz in math, but I do believe 175 out of 8,000 is a higher percentage of people in the county coming to your church than when you came and you had 250 but there were 30,000 people in the county. I could make a case that you’ve actually grown.”
LOOK TO THE BIBLE FOR WHAT’S IMPORTANT
When I look at the Bible, I see the Bible bringing to us the testimony of a healthy church, not a “big” church. The Bible does not avoid statistics — they’re all over the place in the Book of Acts. When the Bible commends the church at Jerusalem, there are 3,000 — that’s just counting the men — then 5,000 are added — that’s just counting the men — and people are being saved every day.
Likely, the church at Jerusalem at one time, in those opening salvos of the first generation of the church, when James became their pastor, the brother of the Lord, that church probably was somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 people. Yet look at the commendation that God gives to churches that are meeting in houses that the apostle Paul affirms — go read the Book of Revelation — two churches get a clean bill of health and they’re both house churches. So it’s not that God says, “Oh, if you’re big, you’re good; if you’re small, you’re bad,” nor, “If you’re small, you’re good if you’re big, you’re bad.” What you need to see is it’s Gospel health is what you want. Your size, many times, will reflect where God has you.
It is said there are certain species of fish from which we get goldfish. The goldfish grows proportionately to the size of the pool that they’re in. Well, so it is with many churches. You can have a Gospel-healthy church and there’s only 75 people in a small rural time and I praise the Lord for that. We need that.
FOCUS ON WHERE GOD HAS SEEN FIT TO PUT YOU
Tom, as you know, if I just had my druthers, I would have pastored a small Presbyterian church in a small southern town with a wonderful laid-back lifestyle — my romantic desire in all of life. That’s all I ever wanted to do, but God has seen fit to put me in other situations where there are larger churches and that is what He has seen fit to do and that’s fine.
I don’t see myself as a superior pastor because my church is big — I just want to be faithful and I want to be effective — and, if God puts you in a place where there’s booming population, well, that’s where you are. If God’s put you in a place where there’s a shrinking population, that’s where you are. What you aim at is effectiveness and church health and, God, give us maturation of longevity — not just that we’re hanging around, but that we keep growing in the Lord and our next years are even better than the last years. Even though the surrounding population may be shrinking, thereby affecting the size of our church, we’re still reaching our parish — we’re still reaching them.
MAKE SURE YOUR CHURCH IS DOING “WELL”
You want to aim at Gospel health and vitality. We call it a “WELL church.” A WELL church is a church that, W, Worships with authenticity in spirit and in truth; evangelizes — the E is evangelism and missions — and you are reaching the lost with intentionality; L, loving one another — “They marveled at how they loved one another”; and then the last L in the WELL church is a learning church.
Therefore, you’ve got Worship and that’s our ministry of upreach to God, evangelism and that’s our ministry of outreach to the world, loving one another and that’s our ministry of inreach to one another, then learning and that’s our ministry of downreach to ourselves where we’re being discipled and discipling others. That’s the testimony of vitality.
Normally, when you got a WELL church, just like a physical body grows, and is healthy, so will a church grow statistically. In God’s providence, sometimes that statistical growth won’t be there because of the location and the generation but it’s still a healthy church in that context.
STATISTICS CAN GUIDE, BUT DON’T LET THEM DOMINATE
Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t use the metrics. If the metrics are showing something declining and it’s not explained by dynamics in the community, then you need to take a look and say, “Wait, wait, wait. This statistic is revealing something is amiss,” but the answer is not to puff up the statistics because your mission is not growth — your mission is to make disciples that are healthy.
And don’t you love it in the Great Commission where it says, the disciples of Jesus, when they saw Him after His resurrection, they worshipped him — W. Then He tells them to go — that’s evangelism. Then he tells them to baptize and that’s when believers and their household are sort of enfolded into the body of Christ — when they love one another. And then he says, “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” — that calls for learning with conviction in your life and that’s what we look to the Lord to do.
So, Tom, statistics don’t lie, but liars can use statistics and statistics can lead you to the wrong place if you don’t have the right paradigm. In the ministry, your paradigm is: Fix your eyes on Jesus, fulfill the Great Commission, liv the Great Commandment, and then have a great commitment to Christ and then, “God, thank you for where I am. Where I am let me raise a standard. The size of the church will reflect where I am. The health of the church will reflect the grace of God that is greater than our sins.
Dr. Harry L. Reeder III is the Senior Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham.
This podcast was transcribed by Jessica Havin, editorial assistant for Yellowhammer News. Jessica has transcribed some of the top podcasts in the country and her work has been featured in a New York Times Bestseller.