There are a lot of churches in our world struggling to survive. Not only have many of us have heard the stats about the decline of attendance in churches, we’ve experienced it. We’re going through it. For a lot of churches and church members the situation is discouraging.
But what if it doesn’t have to be?
I heard someone say once that too many congregations focus on the ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash. And when a congregation is finding it especially difficult to envision a future for the church, it’s natural to put our attention on these ABCs. They’re what we see. We can measure them. We can wrap our minds around them. We can–ahem–complain about them. We can blame someone else for them. Maybe we can even control them to some degree.
Except let’s think about it for a minute. And maybe in this way. Here’s the process: Getting more people in the church will hopefully lead to more money in the offering, thereby enabling us to manage the upkeep for our building.
What’s wrong with this picture? Here are a few things.
- The focus on ABCs can often be a focus on institutional survival. We want to continue to have what we’ve had. In many ways, this perspective focuses on the past. How things have been done. How things have always been. The value of being able to appreciate a long history of ministry gets reduced to a refusal to move a pew or redo a room because of a bronze plaque with someone’s name. It can also be a posture of fear. Fear of losing what we’ve had and a fear of change and what we really need to do in order to move into the future.
- Having the wrong focus leads to the wrong solutions. If attendance in our church is down, we strategize ways to increase it. We hold special events, services, dinners, fundraisers, etc. We boil it down to getting more people in the building when we’re doing stuff. And maybe if we invite people to do stuff they like doing anyway, like eating and listening to music, maybe they’ll think about coming on Sunday mornings too. My first church, for example, put on a great breakfast one Saturday a month for years. It was always very well attended. Our church attendance, however, never, ever went up because someone liked their bacon and eggs.
- The focus on ABCs and the solutions we come up with to deal with them can too easily leave God out. This is really the most significant point. Because a focus on the ABCs is often anxiety and/or control driven, prayer is not a big part of the process. We effectively de-spiritualize church life. We compartmentalize what happens in congregational life as much as we compartmentalize our own lives. Attendance, buildings, and cash are not seen as spiritual matters and so we think human solutions will do. Or, worse, we know they are spiritual matters, but dealing with them at a deeper, spiritual level is too uncomfortable and difficult. We’re afraid of what is in that particular box, so we insist on keeping it closed.
So what do we do? Well, I’d be lying if I claimed to have perfect answers. But I do have some thoughts.
- Not focusing on the ABCs doesn’t mean ignoring them. I need to make sure that’s clear. If a church roof caves in or the toilet is overflowing, we need to deal with it. Obviously. If attendance is consistently going down, it is wise to ask why. Because there are underlying issues that likely need addressing. So on and so forth. But paying attention to them means doing so within the larger framework of the identity and mission of your church. You call someone who hasn’t come for a couple of weeks not because of the empty seat in your sanctuary but out of concern for the person who has been absent. The state of our ABCs can tell us something about the spiritual condition of our church, the quality of the relationships among the members, and therefore point us to larger, more significant issues in need of attention.
- Real solutions are usually personal and relational. If your church has a monthly breakfast for your community, like my first church did, make sure there are people from your church whose job it is to connect with those who come. Say hello. Smile. Work the room. Also, don’t make everything about how to get people in your church. Instead, think of ways to get church people out into the community. What are the needs in your community? How can your church bless your neighbours? On the other hand, how close are the people in your church? Maybe it’s time to give some thoughtful attention to building those relationships. Have someone out for coffee or over for dinner or dessert. Whose story in your church are you unfamiliar with? Change that. Don’t underestimate how such personal attention will bless your church over time.
- Remember that it’s all about Jesus and the good news. If our desire for larger attendance numbers stems from a desire to keep what we’ve always had (institutional survival), then the odds are good we will miss Jesus. We will miss out on participating in his kingdom work. We will inoculate ourselves to the good news. The good news is the reason we are here. It’s the reason your church exists. How do you need to refocus so that Jesus is at the centre of your church once again?
I readily acknowledge that there are plenty of factors in church decline that are out of our control. But that’s kind of the point! We can’t control Sunday morning attendance or who gives how much or magically solve all of our facility issues. So the attention we give to the ABCs should have a Christ-centred, kingdom-driven, Spirit-led focus. All big words, I know. But I think it’s really about a shift in perspective more than anything else. When we say the church needs to change, such change begins with us, with our hearts and attitudes.
This is particularly true if underlying the issues with the ABCs is stuff that is personal and relational. Churches sometimes (often?) have a history of unresolved conflict. Church decline might in part be due to unhealthy relational patterns. People get hurt and leave, and the church tries to move on without actually addressing the problem. It’s hard to live out the good news of Jesus together when people in the church have a history of not loving one another well.
As a pastor, I want the people in my congregation (including myself!) to grow closer to God, to become more Christlike, to be more consistently led by the Spirit, and more driven by God’s desire and will for us. Focusing on the ABCs will not get us there. So let’s instead focus on what will. Maybe then the ABCs will take care of themselves. Or if not, perhaps we will be less discouraged and anxious about them.