Wednesday, December 01, 2010

What's Going On Here?

Here is some musing about some congregational dynamics I've seen this year. For those of you who dig this kind of stuff, I welcome your feedback. For those of you who don't, you can probably skip this post altogether - but give it a chance because I really do want to hear from people to get responses and reactions!

So far in 2010, there have been 65 new members of Campbell United Methodist Church. 26 of those have been profession of faith, meaning people who were not members of a church anywhere and so were not simply transferring their membership from one congregation to another. 13 of those 26 were in this year's confirmation class.

I am so happy to be able to share that. To me that says that 65 people felt a deep enough connection with God at Campbell UMC to want to become a part of this phenomenal community. To me it says that 26 people who had no spiritual home found one. (And when you think that some of those who transferred membership may not have been active in the congregation in which they were members, that's an even higher number.)

At the same time, this year's average worship attendance is probably going to end up being 25-30 or so lower than last year's, barring an unprecedented December turnout. Our average attendance was 535 per week last year, and may end up being somewhere just above 500 this year.

I've been puzzling over these numbers for days. I try not to focus exclusively on head counts when discerning congregational health, but this time they have kind of caught my attention, and I'm wondering what, if anything, they reveal about the congregation.

A big number of new members, a big number of people who made profession of faith, mixed with a lower average worship attendance - what does it indicate?

1) People are joining but then not coming to worship.
2) The number of people who stopped coming to worship this year is approximately 90, accounting for 60ish new folks plus 30ish lower average attendance.

There may be a few people for whom the first option is descriptive, but not very many. So in general, number one is not the case, which means something like option two must be taking place. Then the question is "Why."

People who have moved away or died this year account for some of those 90. I don't know exactly how many that is, but it is not 90. (In fact I just sent an email to our Membership Coordinator asking her for that number, so I'll know soon!) Accounting for those people, that still leaves a significant group who have simply stopped coming to worship.

Here are my thoughts so far...

Melissa and I have been serving as the pastors here for two and a half years now. Average worship attendance was 510 in 2008, then 535 in 2009. Is it as simple as "The honeymoon is over?" There is no longer any buzz about "the new pastors," which has led to the disappearance of 90ish people from worship?

We have been consistently preaching the need to be outwardly focused this year, affirming repeatedly that being the church is about more than just caring for our own needs and wants. We have been exhorting people to give, reach out, serve, take risks, be disciples. Could it be that this message has "turned off" a group of people who would rather not disrupt their own comfort levels? Or maybe have we couched this message in too harsh a tone, such that it came across as scolding rather than encouragement?

This year, we have decided that we can no longer be financially faithful if we carry a huge debt and an impending facility burden, so we launched a major capital campaign called "Imagine" to address these issues. Are people exhausted by the thought of the effort it will take to get back on top of our financial situation and would just rather not deal with it?

We have tried to affirm a distinctly Methodist identity, partly by nurturing our connectional relationships, including increasing the priority of our apportionment. Is the United Methodist apportionment too deeply misunderstood, so that this emphasis has been resented? Is it just hard to really be truly Methodist in the religious ethos created by the presence of the Assemblies of God headquarters in Springfield, and the heavy influence of the Southern Baptist church in this area?

There are a number of gigantic churches in Springfield that put on excellent worship services that look a lot like performances of professional rock bands with a full compliment of technical gadgets and gimmicks and draw huge numbers of people every single week. We don't do that at Campbell. We have intentionally tried to emphasize that worship is not a performance for an audience, but a participatory encounter with God. Is it because we don't advertise "face melting lasers" in our worship services that people have stopped coming?

I don't know about any of these possibilities; they represent a few areas of pondering that have been rattling around in my head as I've thought about these numbers. They are just honest speculations about possibilities with no clarity or direction. I don't know if a clear answer will ever fully emerge, either. It may just be what it is.

And so,
If you are a part of Campbell, I would love to hear your feedback to these numbers, and your thoughts about why.

If you are not a part of Campbell, I would love to hear if this experience resonates with your own in any way.

Thanks for helping me think through this stuff!


Todd said...

Andy, Are you just looking at the average number of people in worship each week, or are you able to look at individuals' attendance patterns?

I ask because what I'm seeing is not so much fewer individuals attending church, but attending less frequently. Some are recently retired and traveling, some are getting older and simply not able to get themselves out as often, some are young singles and families who are working extra jobs and longer hours to make ends meet and thus less likely to be off and awake for worship.

Time is the most precious resource for most of us in 21st century America. The question for me is less How do we get more people into the building for worship? and more How do we continue to connect people as "church" even when they can't be with us at worship.

Matt Bogen said...

I really think average people see less and less benefit out of attending church regularly. I don't think it's against any one denomination or pastor; it's more a problem with attention spans and personal free time.

Karen and I are the *only* people in our congregation that bring their young children to church every Sunday. I can't speak to why others stay home, but I know that it's important for me to be there every week to serve and worship. Others must not be as crazy as me. :) Our congregation is in their late 50s and older, for the most part. There are some in their 30s and 40s like us with young kids, but if we see them more than once a quarter, that's a pleasant victory. They feel too harried to come more frequently. Goodness knows I would love to take a weekend off every once in a while, but I know I'm where I need to be, even when I wish I could do more.

We're ecstatic if we have 75 in attendance on Sunday, out of about 400 members. (Presbyterian church in a small town in the northern suburbs of New York City; a town that is HEAVILY Catholic.) It's constantly on my mind, thinking about how we can get people to church more regularly. In the end, I think we just keep doing what we're doing, and the Holy Spirit will have to do its work to turn hearts in a prayerful way to consider what people's priorities are.

If you have 500+ per week, I think that's an excellent critical mass to keep doing the long-term work I know you must be doing there.

Hang in there!

Elizabeth said...

I would echo Todd's comment. In the church's I've served, what I mostly see is not families leaving the church (I serve a church now of about 100 in worship, 200 members, making it easy to really go through the roles and consider) - no, it is that for our regular attendees, "regular" now means twice a month instead of four times a month.

Anonymous said...

I saw the same pattern on a church in the North Alabama dashboard that Will Willimon keeps. It was among the conference leaders in professions and new members, but also saw significant declines in attendance.

I do wonder if whatever new is happening to bring people in is causing some people to leave or become less engaged. Change does lots of things.

By the way, keep up the good work. If God is using your church to bring that many new people to the faith, something good is being done.

Helen said...

Interesting post.

What I have seen and been concerned about is "us" ones in the church that are late 50s and early 60s.

Here in our church in JC, MO we all started a Sunday School class in 75---had children from 76 to about 86 or so. We all were at church so much together with our children and others and always in church and Sunday School.

Now those young adult children have moved away, in college, out of college, married have children, have careers.

Well, now some of the couples have dropped out altogether---as they say taking a sabbatical!!!!! some come every now and then but are retired and travel---do not seem to have same need.

Since my husband sings in the choir as do some of the others we are there every Sunday and othe times.

Also since we have a minister daughter in another state that helps out!!!!!

I am sad about this because I do miss those people and the Christian fellowship.

I wounder if this is happening in other churches---once you have your children through and out---you do not think and feel the need to be there for the church and even involved in the other activities.