If you talk to church leaders – it won’t matter what tribe you ask – they will likely tell you that attendance is down in their local congregation. Very few churches these days report numerical growth and many are in steady decline. That’s bad news right? The problem with this issue is that there is an untested assumption that comes in through the back door uninvited, and if you’re not careful you won’t think about it at all.
Is your church better off with more Sunday morning attenders?
Of course it is right? That’s the point isn’t it? The point of doing church is to get more people to come to church? Isn’t it?
Now before I get too far I need to qualify my “click-bait” title. I am not saying that attending a big church is bad for you. There are lots of blessings there. If that is what God is doing in your immediate context, great! I am also not saying you should make your church smaller. I’m just saying that there are unexpected blessings in smallness and in order to think about this issue more clearly you probably need to reflect on what the purpose is for gathering together in the first place: Does the church exists to satisfy its own needs or does it exist to give its life for the world?
Your church may be misled into thinking that it exists for the benefit of its members. There is no doubt that more people attending on Sunday means more donations (more cash) and more volunteers (more slave labour). It’s fun to sing with a big group, and the extroverts in the crowd get a charge with a larger gathering of people. So if your church exists to serve its own members then yes, more Sunday morning attenders is better. But I would like to suggest that this comes from an impoverished imagination. The church doesn’t just exist to serve the needs of its members. That is a lie that distracts us from what our purpose really is. If you want to know the purpose for gathering together then we need to think about the nature of the God we worship.
God is love (1 John 4:8), a self-giving love that lives for the benefit of the other. God came in human form and spent his life serving (Mark 10:45). God not only served humanity but also poured his life out in complete submission. God was buried and has now risen from the dead. He lives today, and serves the world today, embodied by those who call him Master.
So when groups of followers of Jesus gather together today, they find new ways to give their lives to each other and to the community, just like Jesus did; Serving without an agenda or without concern about whether people deserve it or not. We serve because God served. We love because God loves and a gathering of followers of Jesus, big or small, is an opportunity for us to share a witness of what God is doing in our midst. God has forgiven sin and restored the capacity for us to have a relationship with God. If you are a follower of Jesus then you are called to be a witness, someone who has observed first hand what Jesus has done and what Jesus is capable of doing.
Whether the community is gathered or scattered, the mandate to be Christ’s witnesses defines every dimension of our life together. No matter how many attend the gathering, we demonstrate the reality of God’s love in the ways that the community functions. When we gather together we practice “saying our faith” – with and without words – so that we will be able say it when we aren’t together. We gather in order to practice speaking of God’s mercy in our lives and practice listening to what God is doing in other people’s lives. We gather together to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:11-12). That is why we gather together and it doesn’t matter how many people there are.
As a result, ministry in the missional age (the time which we find ourselves in now) is not about attracting a crowd, but instead it is all about cultivating a holding space in the midst of the community where we can watch for evidence of God’s work in our midst. The question the 21st century church leader needs to be asking in the midst of his or her community is, “What is God up to in our midst? Where have you seen evidence of God seeking, of God saving, or God restoring? Is there some way that we can participate with God in this new act of redemption?” Through sermons, songs, readings, adult classes, coffee time conversations, we need to be asking these questions and encouraging the people in our midst to get better and better at answering these questions.
I appreciate that you could read this and say to me, “easy for you to say. You work for a church with 180 people attending on Sunday morning.” I would respond that while that is true, a church of 100, 200, or 1 000 has some very difficult challenges that small churches do not have to worry about in the same way. Larger churches are increasingly tempted toward self-sufficiency. When you have 200 people you can be tempted to rely on your own collective strength, which is a sin. You will be sorely tempted to trust your ample donation revenue, your ample supply of volunteers rather than relying on the risen Christ. If you had more people attending your church you could be increasingly tempted by the draw of performance excellence rather than the excellence of our Saviour. If you had more people attending your church you might be tempted to chase the illusion of empire: beautiful buildings, multiple staff, exciting programs. Jesus was never impressed with programs, you shouldn’t be either (Matt 24:1-2).
If Christ is risen, he is in the midst of your group, whatever size it is. Christ is also in the midst of your community. I would encourage you to witness to the greatness of God when your group gathers. Practice trusting him for everything, and then cultivate an attitude of expectant watching. Where is God showing up in your midst these days?