The bona fide appraisal of a church's achievement does not rest upon statistics and numbers nearly so much as it does upon the ministry the church performs.
How big is your church? Whenever I am asked that question, I give a facetious reply: "Our worship center is 4,900 square feet, and our education and office center is 10,850 square feet." The answer surprises the questioner and after a pause they say "I mean, what is your the attendance at your weekly worship service?"
Why do we use worship attendance as a measure? After all, isn't that how activities such as sporting events, concerts, theater, and movies are measured? Attendance is the means used to measure the size of events attended by fans who focus on players on a field, the audience at a theatrical event, or box office success on the first weekend of a major movie. Is that an appraisal we should apply to a church?
In one parish where I pastored, I bought into this measurement-by-attendance paradigm, especially since our weekly attendance grew from less than 150 to over 700 in nine years. Last year, however, when I came to my present church, I had second thoughts. My present church is located close to the center of a major city. The area has a lot of military people and retirees. Soon I realized that weekly worship attendance was not in itself the best way to measure the size of our church family or the success of our ministry.
The true measure
Although the New Testament mentions the count of people in certain situations, it does not project attendance as a means for measuring the effectiveness of a church. It presents the church as a family, a place of ministry.
My wife and I have three grown children. When our children were living at home, there were five of us. The main daily event in our family was evening dinner. Unless someone was out of town or had a conflict, they were expected to be there. Attendance at dinner was usually five. When two children were at camp, attendance was three. However, our family size was still five. If we had company for dinner, our attendance might have been nine---yet our family size was still five.
My present church includes many sailors and navy families. When the ships are in port, attendance is up; when the ships are at sea, attendance is down. Does the size of our church family change according to ships in or out of port? We also have a number of retirees, many of whom take extended trips to visit children or other family members. While away, do they stop being part of our church family? We also have some people who occasionally go else where on weekends, so they can't always be at church. Are they any less a part of our church family while they are away? No, no less than our children were a part of our family when they were away at camp.
How big is big?
The New Testament also presents the church as a place of ministry. As an urban church, our congregation ministers to hundreds of people each week who do not come to our weekly morning services. We have a Christian elementary school, a preschool, and an extended care program that ministers to over a hundred students. Only a handful of those attend our church. How ever, all the students attend chapel services, hear Bible stories, sing Christian songs, and are exposed to the gospel. Each year several accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.
We have a youth ministry that involves dozens of young people, mostly from unchurched families. They attend youth activities, Bible studies, and other youth ministries. Most of these young people do not attend our church services. Nevertheless a few months ago the group attended a youth crusade, and six of them accepted Christ.
We have a Tough Love group that ministers to dozens of families each week, most of whom also do not attend our worship services. We have a seniors ministry that is attended by individuals who do grace our pews. Some who participate in our Bible studies do not participate in our weekend services.
Aren't all these people, in our school, youth ministries, Tough Love group, seniors ministries, and Bible studies part of the ministry of our church? Our church ministers to hundreds more people than those who sit in our pews for the weekly worship services.
I believe in church growth. I even believe in measuring church growth. What I question is how we do it. Do we measure it as if it were a ball game or a concert; or do we measure it as a we do a family or a ministry?
When my wife and I were first married, there were two of us in our family. When our first child was born, there were three, then four, and finally five. Obviously as our family grew, attendance at dinner grew, but we did not measure the size of our family by attendance.
Acts 2:41 reads, "Those who accepted his message were baptized and about three thousand were added to their number that day." Now, if the next week 100 converts were home sick and 50 were out of town, was the church 150 people smaller? Of course not.
Since I have been at the church I currently serve, weekly worship service attendance has increased 50 percent. How ever, our church family has almost doubled, and our ministries have increased by an even greater percentage. This raises the question: Which is more important, in creasing worship attendance or increasing the number of people to whom we minister? Which is greater growth adding four families to our fellowship who may not at tend every week or adding two families who attend church almost every week? Both will give the same attendance increase, but only one will give greater family growth.
It is clear that weekly worship attendance has become the standard for measuring church size and growth. But we need to consider what we are measuring and why. Is there a way to measure church size and growth so that our measurements accurately gauge what we are really or should be about? Could what we measure affect what we do? Are we focusing on building attendance rather than God's family and ministry? I believe that if we focus on building the family and ministry, attendance will follow.
The next time someone asks about your church size, why not ask them: "Do you want it in square feet or in souls ministered to, lives touched for Christ, and people helped with the compassionate love of our Lord?"