The Numbers Game

“They’re stealing all our people,” one woman complained about a nearby mega-church. She was a member of a congregation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, back in 1978 when I was a pastoral intern there. I could understand her feelings, though the church did not actually steal people. A few members of our small 100-member church liked the programs of the 3000-people church fifteen minutes away, and so they had left for that church. What was harder though was the general pull of that big church upon others in the area. It was discouraging trying to bring new people in. Nobody knew of us, all they knew was the other church!

Today the situation is not much different, though the disparity has increased. Through satellite campuses and great online media and marketing expertise, the mega-church can greatly increase its reach, and become 10,000 or more rather than just 3000. I have heard these churches addressed as giga-churches. It seems more churches like that Milwaukee church are left in the dust with as little as 10-30 people.

In reality though, only 9% of churchgoing Protestants go to these mega-churches, according to an article in the May 8, 2012 issue of Christianity Today. The article said that 41% associate with a congregation of a 100 or fewer. Not so discouraging when you look at it like that.

It’s easy to play the numbers game, and determine our worth as a church by how big we are. It’s the business model applied to the church. We feel we have to get the biggest bang for our buck or we have fallen short and should hang it up. But God doesn’t look at it like that.

Back in Judges, Gideon had amassed 32,000 warriors to fight against the mightier Midianites. It looked tough to win even with those numbers, yet God ordered him to trim them dramatically. All those who trembled with fear could head for home. All those who lapped stream water like dogs instead of bringing it to their mouths were let go as well. (Maybe the ones left were better, more watchful soldiers, the text isn’t clear.) Now they had all of 300 men. And guess what? They won a mighty victory over the Midianites!

Why did God trim the numbers? Vs. 2 is clear, so the Israelites would not “boast against me (God).” God wanted to show his great power to them. What better way than through a much smaller army. It wasn’t the army then, it was God!

We can easily get discouraged in a smaller church, feeling like we can’t contribute to God’s purposes. But we can take encouragement that he does want to use us for his glory sake. If we do it in His strength, he will accomplish great things, and we can win great victories for the Lord!

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A Snapshot of the Church in America

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The sign says Fontana Union Chapel.

Recently after many years in parachurch organizations, I have taken a position as the pastor of Fontana Christian Fellowship, a small independent evangelical church, twenty minutes from where we live. As I visited the church my eyes were opened to new vistas of the church in America. Having spent the last 30 years of my Christian life in much bigger and newer churches, I saw a whole different side of church life. Perhaps this is the kind of church where more of American evangelicals live.

0923152033aThe church is in a tiny town along a major thoroughfare between two major towns. It’s the kind where if you blink you will miss it. One traffic light may stop you as you drift by the local hardware store and the auto shop. It sits on a corner close to both streets with a parking lot in the back where everyone comes in. The building dates back to the late 1800s, but the sanctuary is newer circa the 60s with a tall narrowing ceiling. At 8 am the people of the church gather, all 25 of them in space that could seat 200-300 max. They tend to sit in the back half of the left side. Pastors in the past have brought a pulpit half way up the aisle to be a little nearer to them.

The congregation is mostly seniors with a few a little younger, but none below 45. As I am getting to know them I am seeing that a number are related as brothers or sisters, or parents and adult children, so there may be just five or six extended families at the center of the church. I asked one man how long he had been at the church and he said 59 years, then I asked how old he was and he said 59 years. So he literally has spent his whole life at the church. Most of the rest would not say their whole life but would say thirty, forty or more years. One man moved away for the air force and other jobs and came back to retire near his brother and sister. The roots go very deep in this church.

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The gas station a few blocks from the church.

But that is only half the picture of the body of Christ in this location, because at 10:30 there is another service, but its not the same church organization but another meeting in the same sanctuary. Here there are not 25 but 35 people that are part of a denominational church. They are on average 10 years younger and even have some kids scattered among them. I haven’t met as many of them but it seems they are a few families as well who have been in this location for quite a number of years, too. Some are connected to the 8 am church. I know of one son who switched from his parents to go to the later service. The story is told that at one point 5 different churches in the area met in this building back in its early years as they alternated weeks. None were big enough to afford their own building so they shared. As the years progressed the other churches moved on leaving these two there.

The 10:30 congregation is part of a denomination I had never heard of, the United Christian Church. It started in the late 1880s out of revivals that swept through the area. It now has 9 congregations in southern Lebanon and northern Lancaster counties. It used to be more plain (like old order Mennonites), but over the years only a few minor doctrinal differences are between them.

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Welcome to Fontana

Interestingly enough there is another organization in the church building, the Sunday School, which is held at 9:15 and members of both congregations attend there, usually in two different adult classes after a hymn and announcements. The power is in this group, because they actually own the building. In fact the location on Google Maps denotes the united Sunday School not either congregation.

Wandering around the downstairs Sunday School area below the sanctuary, I sensed this place used to be bustling with activity. I can imagine the rooms brimming with kids, but now just a few are there. My wife and I only saw two children in one class during that Sunday School hour. Something happened a few years ago that many of the families with younger children left.

I have to credit the people of these congregations for their dedication and loyalty. Many extended families today are scattered among different congregations, some in different states or on different sides of the country, but these folks, their roots in the farming community, have stayed connected in the same body. They have stuck it out through the lean times, when it would have been easy to leave for the greener pastures of a more successful  church. But they have stayed and done the everyday work of keeping the church going in the bustling times as well as the leaner days now.

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A typical farm in the area in southern Lebanon County

But to be honest it is a little sad. As one member put it, “we probably only have five to ten years left as we are dying off and there are none coming after.” It isn’t easy to be excited about the Lord here. There are no new programs, no new people to rev things up.

What’s going on here? If this is not an isolated incidence, what’s happening to the church in America? And what can we do about it? It’s a question I face as I pastor one of these two congregations.

I have some ideas, but I would like to hear yours. What do you think is happening to the church in America? Is it becoming irrelevant? And also what would you do if you were the pastor like I am? Take a minute or two and make some comments below. Thanks for the input.