SMALL CHURCH GROWTH PATTERNS

One congregation of which I was a pastor had about 40 people in worship when I began working there. Finances were a problem and I began as a 3/4 time pastor. During my ministry there, we baptized more than 25 people, accepted many transfers of membership and welcomed lots of people who became more or less permanent parts of our church life. When I left the church, the average attendance was about 40 people, finances were a problem and I left the church as a 1/2 pastor.

When measured by some common standards, the church experienced no growth during my time there. Using what a friend of mine calls the “nickels and noses” standard, which is almost the only measuring stick commonly used for congregations, we were not a good example of church growth. There are other methods of measuring church growth and we will look at these in later blogs but since the “nickels and noses” approach is so widely used, I would like to reflect on why that is a poor ruler for measuring small churches.

We begin with some basic realities. Small churches have very different growth patterns. My experience is with small congregations in rural areas far from urban areas. Congregations in this area show three basic growth patterns:

1. A few are growing numerically and financially. But that growth needs to be seen in context. Such growth generally happens only at irregular intervals and is directly related to a variety of other factors like pastoral style and tenure, development of culturally appropriate ministries or an influx of people in the community. Such growth tends to happen for a period of time and then move into another of the three patterns.

2. A few are declining rapidly. While those attending can remember glory days when the congregation was bigger and had lots of ministry, they are now a small group meeting in a old building that probably has mold and serious repair needs being served by some form of part time pastor who may be a retired pastor or a lay person. Such congregations have negative nickels and noses and don’t have a long future.

3. The third pattern is most common. The church is essentially static, maintaining about the same attendance and membership for years. Some are showing a slight decline over the long term but these congregations are remarkable stable resilient. They have about 40 attending worship this year and may have had 42 in attendance 35 years ago–and if the pattern holds, they will have about 39 in another 35 years, unless they happen to have one of the infrequent growth spurts or some crisis that causes attendance to drop.

The key thing here is that the number may remain relatively stable but the actual people have changed to the point where the majority of the congregation were not there 35 years ago. Take the church I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Over my 17 years or so as pastor, we didn’t exhibit an overall increase in attendance–but did experience a significant turnover of members.

Because we were a small congregation and I am a pastor, I know where most of the people who no longer attend ended up. We lost a few to a crisis concerning my style of leadership–perhaps 4 or 5. Some ended up moving away for school or work. A few found their spirits more in turn with other congregations in the area. Some left the community for nursing homes and so on. Others died. Except for the few lost during the crisis, most of the separations were not made out of anger but out of necessity.

So, did we grow or not? We began and ended with the same number–but if the numbers are the same and the people are different, isn’t that a form of growth? And if the majority of the departures are due to necessity and natural causes, isn’t that stability of numbers a sign of health?
This is especially true in many rural contexts where the community itself is slowly declining–if the church stays at the same number or declines more slowly than the community, perhaps that is a healthy sign as well.

All of this is to suggest that we need different way of measuring the health and vitality of the small church. Nickels and noses simply don’t capture the realities of the small church. Over the next few days, we will look as some other ways of evaluating the small church.

May the peace of God be with you.

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