Seeking transformation through the renewal of our minds
Churches, stop counting your members!
A scary story about the Fear-monster in your church’s basement
by Jeffrey A. Schooley
Since it is Halloween time, I want to tell you a scary story about “Fear-monster.” Fear-monster lives in the basement of your church. He lurks there, consuming the souls of your members and eating the heart of your church. And I have—descending into the steamy depths—recently spotted Fear-monster in my own congregation.
I pastor a church in southwest Pennsylvania, about 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh. The general region has all the markings of the 20th-century “rustbelt” phenomenon, though my particular community—located near Pittsburgh’s suburbs—is rather affluent. The church has a membership of about 290 and we worship about 110 each Sunday. Our church budget is greater than our presbytery’s budget. And while I think it is a very good church, there is an often-palpable anxiety around numbers. This anxiety is the first sign that Fear-monster lives somewhere south of your boiler in your church.
Like many suburban churches, we once had 600+ members with 350–400 worshiping each week. We had robust programming around children and youth, an active Presbyterian Women’s association, and the need for both elders and trustees. We were thriving. And then . . . something happened.
‘Fear-monster feeds on numbers, so he keeps my congregation focused on numbers. It whispers from its steamy pit, You’re dying. Bring more people. Grow your numbers!‘
What that something is, I have yet to figure out. There was no big pastor scandal that ripped the church in half. No embezzling by a treasurer. No “worship war” around drum kits and organ pipes. We just sort of slid into our current place, and—while I think the current place has some wonderful features—where we’ve slid is not where we started, so we feel a loss.
I suspect many suburban churches could read that description and say, “That’s us!” If so, Fear-monster lives in your basement too!
I could point to a dozen or so sociological reasons for this decline, such as
~ Suburbs losing young adults until they have children (if even then)
~ The general end of “Christendom” in America
~ Population decline in the region itself
~ The racial, economic, and cultural homogeneity of suburbs slowly eroding the sort of diversity that makes communities thrive
~ The continued rise of individualism in the culture with its corrosive effects on community.
But addressing those causes isn’t going to provide the silver bullet that kills Fear-monster. Fear-monster feeds on numbers, so he keeps my congregation focused on numbers. It whispers from its steamy pit, “You’re dying. Bring more people. Grow your numbers!”
Church numbers are really just a way of talking about church membership, yet no one really seems to know what membership means. For example, a few weeks ago, a couple invited my wife and me over to watch football and have dinner one Sunday after worship. They have a young son who had a friend over, and his mom told me that both she and her son had invited these kids and their parents to our church. But everyone, she explained, already belongs to a church. When I asked her how often she thought these parents and children went to church, she said she didn’t think that often. This was a eureka moment for me.
Inviting people to church and doing relational evangelism doesn’t work if the people you’re talking to already regard themselves as church members. Once you find yourself talking to someone with this self-perception, we have often decided that the only way to get them to come to our church (or to any church . . . including their own!) is to recast the church as a commodity (defined by membership, entertainment, and programs), rather than a community (defined by discipleship, spiritual discipline, and family). In other words, we try to sell them a better product.
Church-as-commodity has been our most prevalent defense against Fear-monster. It presumes that if we can just package and market our congregation as the best option for people, then our numbers will go up and Fear-monster will die. Of course, given that Fear-monster feeds on members, it is unclear if we’re going to kill it this way or just keep it really well fed. Remember, it’s the one that whispered about numbers in the first place!
What Fear-monster doesn’t want you to know is that quantity won’t kill it; quality will, though.
Just consider how commodity businesses actually work. You want to minimize costs on both ends, convincing your buyers that they’re paying as little as possible, while cutting down on your own overhead. And this is just what many congregations do. They race to the bottom of how little they’ll ask of you, if only you’ll join.
‘Church numbers are really just a way of talking about church membership, yet no one really seems to know what membership means.’
A community, on the other hand, raises the bar as high as possible. It’s not about a transaction, but interaction (between us and Jesus Christ, within the church, and between the church and the world). A community asks a lot from you because you’ve already been given everything in Jesus Christ.
When you look at the Book of Order and scope out what all is entailed in church membership (see: G-1.0304 for you polity wonks), you’ll see how to kill Fear-monster—by being a community, not a commodity. Consider just two of the forms of involvement:
~ living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life
~ reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful
Congregations that start valuing these qualities in its people (whether they’re “members” or not; I have a handful of really committed, engaged congregants who aren’t members) will soon find that they’re too robust for Fear-monster to swallow. Fear-monster has a weak throat and soft stomach. Once a community isn’t watered down by members-who-really-aren’t, it gets too thick for him and he moves on.
So I recommend we get rid of membership numbers. I recommend we quit counting how many congregations left or split and how many folks we’ve lost since the last General Assembly. I’ll even go after the denominational golden child and say we quit counting to 1,001.
Yes, I realize this will create headaches for a lot of people. What about per capita? What about measuring growth? What about church budgets where just one loss to membership could mean closing the doors?
We must remember, though, our headache is Fear-monster’s stomach ache—the ache of hunger.
Focusing on the numbers takes us away from focusing on the one thing that might actually beef us up enough to keep us from being consumed. Playing commodity games with communities is a recipe for turning your congregation into a tasty, little delicacy for Fear-monster.
Your church has Fear-monster lurking in its walls? You need a few heroes, not scores of victims. Beef up; don’t thin out.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD in Theology candidate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.