Seeing Where the People Are... and Aren't

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

From the "Elephant in the Room" Files...

It's a widely known fact that The United Methodist Church in the United States is a denomination made up primarily of small congregations (<100 in average weekly worship attendance). Indeed, a little over a decade ago when we published the 2004-2007 Music and Worship Study, GCFA data at that time established that roughly 72% of all of our congregations in the US fit that size category (Slide 11). The general conclusion many seem to draw from this statistic is that general agency, annual conference, and other resourcing should be predominantly focused on resourcing these small congregations if we want to reach the most people or support the most United Methodists.

In point of fact, the data do not support that general conclusion. We noted then, but without much fanfare, that while 72% of our congregations had 100 or fewer in average weekly attendance, that represented only about 10% of the active worship attenders in our congregations (Slide 12). In other words, nearly 90% of all United Methodists in the US were not attending small congregations. About 41% were attending the 21% of our congregations which are mid-size (101-299). The remaining 49% were attending the 7% of our congregations which are large (>300 in average weekly attendance).

This kind of situation-- where denominations have mostly small churches, but most of their active attenders are in medium or large size congregations-- is also the norm in the United States. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research notes on its "Fast Facts" page that while 59% of all Protestant congregations in the US are small, only 11% of all attendees attend them. About 50% attend the largest 10% of all US congregations (>350 average attendance). Nearly 27% of all worship attenders attend the 2.1% of congregations larger than 1000. 17% of United Methodist worship attenders were in the slightly less than 1% of our congregations larger than 1000.

This raises some significant questions about missional strategy. Does size matter in terms of reaching more people in worship? Apparently, it does, and quite a lot. In our country, it appears denominations may prefer being able to brag they have lots of small congregations, but American Protestants in general seem to prefer to worship in midsize or large congregations by about a 9 to 1 margin. What should missional strategists-- DSes, bishops, conference leaders, and general agencies-- do about this?

Put another way, which "more" is actually more important? More congregations, or more people in worship?

To be sure, it's not the case that this is a forced choice. Congregations of various sizes can and should be part of the larger ecosystem of church life in our country. Each church size has the capacity to generate particular kinds of value, and some sizes produce some kinds of value better than others. Small can be beautiful. Don't hear me saying otherwise.

I'm not saying we don't need small churches. We do.

I am saying we probably have way, way, too many of them.

Our ecclesial ecosystem is significantly out of balance.

If our goal is, as Lovett Weems has put it before us for more than a decade now, "to reach more people, more younger people, and more diverse people" focusing any sizable portion of our resources toward the maintenance or support of the supermajority of small congregations we currently have would seem not to be a very effective strategy to accomplish it.

What might a healthier distribution of church sizes look like to reach more people, more younger people, and more diverse people? I'm not sure we know any precise answer to that, but it would seem that at least a somewhat higher percentage of large and midsize congregations, taken together, than small congregations, might be healthier and far more sustainable.

1890s baseball phenom "Wee" Willie Keeler, who still holds the record for highest one season batting average for any left-handed batter (.424 in 1897), famously said when asked his secret to successful hitting, "hit em where they ain't." By that he meant hit the baseball where there aren't fielders to play it in time to throw the runner out. That works very well in baseball. It works somewhat less well in missional strategy.

Maybe, our better strategy is to come to grips with where our own people are-- 90% of them in the 38% of our congregations that aren't small, and nearly half (49%) in the 7% of our congregations that classify as large-- and start rethinking. Clearly, we should rethink where we focus our resourcing.

But perhaps we should also do something even more radical. Perhaps we should rethink, from the ground up, how we are deploying congregational ministries across regions so the mix of small, medium, and large congregations within each region reflects and generates a healthier and more sustainable ecclesial ecosystem, one more likely to be highly effective at reaching more people, younger people, and more diverse people.

Or, to play with Wee Willie's dictum, "deploy em where they are!"