There’s been a lot of hand-wringing among Christian leaders lately.
As a church coach, I feel their pain.
Let’s admit it: the stats are bad.
In the most recent post-pandemic survey (January-May 2023) from the Hartford Institute, the median church size in America is only 60 people. Lately I’ve heard from pastors who flaunt their online numbers, but the same report offered only 75 as the “in person and virtual” median number.
The same study reported that more than half (51%) of the pastors surveyed said they had thought about quitting their jobs in 2023, compared with 37% two years earlier. Turns out that younger pastors were also more likely to consider leaving.
In the newly released book, “The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?”, the authors offer a stunning fact: “More people have left the church in the last 25 years than all the new people who became Christians from the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and Billy Graham crusades combined.”
In a Lifeway survey, it was reported that in 2014, 3700 U.S. Protestant churches closed, but 4000 new churches were planted. Not too bad for attrition. But only five years later, the opposite has happened: 3000 Protestant churches were planted, but 4500 closed. And that was pre-Covid.
The data doesn’t seem promising.
But there is another way of thinking about this. I’ll admit it’s a little dark, but let me offer another take.
Jesus never promised big numbers. As a matter of fact, scriptures often use the word “remnant” to describe the number of people who truly pursue God and live for his pleasure. In our efforts to express the Good News as described by Jesus to everyone on the planet, we don’t ultimately know who will respond or even sometimes how they will respond, but it is our commission, so to speak, to simply offer it.
When Jesus tells the sower and the seed parable, only one of the four types of soil he described produced a crop for the farmer who scattered the seed indiscriminately. In Matthew’s account of this story, Jesus actually revealed the meaning of each element in the story, which he didn’t always do for his riddles. The seed was the message of the Kingdom. The soil was the different audiences or types of people who heard the message. The sower is implied to be us, that is, the people who express and proclaim the message of Jesus. And while the crop was quite fruitful, it was still a 75% failure rate in terms of people who responded positively.
In other words, a remnant.
Okay, that’s depressing. Maybe it’s just a reality check and that’s simply how the universe works. But on the other hand, it’s not a license to not be concerned about our productivity as Kingdom “bringers-and-includers”.
So here’s the good news:
Though it’s only a 25% success rate in the parable, it is remarkable that the farmer seemed so unconcerned and random about his reckless seed-flinging. Wouldn’t he have noticed the rocky soil? Or the thorn-covered dirt?
Apparently not. Why? Because he had plenty of seeds. Lots of seeds. No need to worry about carefully placing each painfully plotted planting.
I wonder if—and at the risk of irreverency—grace could be described as being extravagantly wasteful?—at least in the way we measure squandering and to whom we squander on. Perhaps it’s not wasteful if we have more than abundantly enough for everyone. And I would suspect that’s truly what we have in Jesus, collectively and individually.
So yes, let’s be circumspect about our fruitfulness and our methodologies. But if we are authentically proclaiming the Good News in winsomely forthright ways, that is, in both grace and truth, and teaching our followers to do likewise, the results—qualitatively and quantitatively—are truly God’s business.
Dave Workman | The Elemental Group
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