The first time I gave a real sermon to a real congregation, I was filling in for a student pastor friend at a church north of our seminary. I prepared diligently and gave the 12 people gathered that morning what I’m sure was a shockingly lackluster imitation of a sermon. I honestly enjoyed the experience, though, and I hope they did too.
Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to preach to much larger crowds and a few similarly small ones. There is joy in both to be sure. I’d be the first to say with certainty that a church of 120 is by no means 10 times more valuable than that church of 12 I first preached to. Those kinds of comparisons are frankly just silly. They also demonstrate the potential pitfalls of focusing too closely on one number. So, I understand where the “Stop taking attendance” notion is coming from.
However (big however), just because I don’t believe you can make these types of comparisons doesn’t mean I don’t believe in tracking worship attendance in church. I very much do. The issue isn’t that we track attendance; the issue is that we don’t really understand what those numbers are trying to tell us.
Let me put it another way. My wife has a resting heart rate of 50 beats per minute (bpm). For those not in the know about these things, that’s pretty low. Almost “do we need some medication?” low. It’s also how it’s been her whole life. For some reason that is where her body wants to be. Now I, on the other hand, have a resting rate closer to 90. Maybe a little high, but within normal. That seems to be where my body wants to be. So, what you cannot say is that my wife’s heart rate is inherently “better” than mine. It just doesn’t work that way.
Now, what would happen if one day my wife started having a resting rate of 90? Or, for argument, I started having a resting rate of 50? Well my guess is that, in either case, someone would be going to the hospital for more tests because it would be a sign that something is not how it should be.
Similarly, the issue isn’t that we’ve taken notice that average attendance for mainline Protestants has been declining for 30 years. In fact, failing to notice that would be as serious as failing to notice your heart rate suddenly doubling or that you have a 105 degree fever. We need to notice these things! It’s the same for a local church. Before my arrival, my previous church had lost 10% of their worship attendance every year for 8 years. Something was wrong.
The issue isn’t that we track these things. The issue is that we fixate on the number as if it’s the problem, when it isn’t. The heart rate or the fever isn’t the problem; the problem is what those measures are telling us about the health of our bodies. Similarly, attendance is one measure for the health of our church (among several). It’s not the full picture by any means. However, chronic decline in attendance is often a warning of unhealthy church life, similar to chronic high blood pressure is often a warning sign of a unhealthy personal lifestyle.
The truth is that attendance matters a great deal and communicates something important. It is also the case that it isn’t something we should be addressing directly. Almost never do they put someone with a fever into an ice bath. Why not? It would bring their body temperature down. Well, we all know the answer to that. The real solution isn’t to fixate on the temperature because it isn’t the real issue. The real solution is to address the underlying condition (cold, flu, infection, etc) that is causing the fever!
So please, keep taking attendance. It’s important and it can tell you something important. And if you find it consistently heading in a direction you don’t like, don’t fixate on it, but try to discern what it is really trying to tell you.
* Rev. Jeremy W Scott is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as the Vital Congregations Developer for the Mountain Sky Area (Rocky Mountain & Yellowstone Conferences).