Have we failed? Is the church as we know it done? It’s all over the headlines. Membership is down. Fewer and fewer people identify with a church. The rise of the “nones.”
Let me begin with a disclaimer. The intent of this article is not to upset or offend anyone because I know the health of a congregation can rarely be determined by numbers alone. I see and hear of congregations all over Southern Ohio who are struggling to keep their doors open, but are also working very hard and are successfully being the presence of Christ in their community.
I realize that very little about the Parochial Report actually reflects the Kingdom of God. With that being said, we do track data the same way Best Buy, Target, and Starbucks do. The difference is that our data is self-reported rather than being derived from sales transactions. Therefore, it may be less accurate than the above-named stores and may be more likely to be “skewed”. However, it’s what we have and is probably accurate enough for some broad generalizations. So, I downloaded all of the Parochial Reports for all of our congregations for five years, from 2012-2017 (2018 was still incomplete at the time of this writing). That’s over 20,600 pieces of data.
I wondered what this data would really tell me and which pieces of data I should focus on. I chose to look at average Sunday attendance (ASA) versus membership numbers, because my gut tells me that that number could be radically inaccurate. Who knows how many dead people, people who moved to Florida or people who have left the church for other reasons are still on the membership records? So, instead of membership, I settled on looking at the columns marked “increases this year” and “decreases this year.”
I think all congregations probably know how many new people walked in the door in any given year and most congregations have a good idea of how many people died or moved away in any given year.
We have traditionally been very focused on how many congregations we have. This is all fine and good, but if we were Best Buy (again, I get that we’re not) then we would be more interested in customers (Episcopalians) than stores (congregations). In fact, in Best Buy’s opinion, stores are a huge expense and they’d prefer to have fewer stores and more customers.
What if we look at the number of Episcopalians instead of the number of congregations? If we do, then we see that 70% of our ASA attends one of 28 congregations. In other words, about 37% of our congregations have 70% of all active Episcopalians in Southern Ohio.
So, what does this mean? It means that there can be value to looking at our diocese as a 70/30 split. What do our numbers tell us about where 70% of our parishioners go and what do our numbers tell us about where the other 30% go?
If you look at 100% of our parishioners, then our ASA went from 7,195 in 2012 to 6,440 in 2017. That’s a loss of 10.5%. However, if you look only at the 28 churches where 70% of Episcopalians go, their ASA went from 4,757 to 4,501. With a loss of 5.4%, their ASA decreased at only half the rate of the whole. (For simplicity, I’m going to say top 70% and bottom 30%. I know this sounds judgmental, but please know that’s not my intent at all.) The bottom 30% of congregations went from 2,438 to 1,939 over five years, which is a 20.5% loss, or twice the total average and about four times the loss of the top 70%.
Loss tracked in actual numbers rather than percentages is:
• In 100% of the congregations, we saw a loss of 755 people, or an average of 151 people per year.
• In the top 70% of congregations, we saw a loss of 256 people, or an average of 51 people per year.
• In the bottom 30% of congregations, we saw a loss of 499 people, or an average of 100 people a year.
Any percentage of loss isn’t sustainable over time but I’m not sure that any of these numbers are as bleak as the headlines would imply. I have no solid data to back this up, just my own observation, but it seems for many of our churches that there is a change in how we go to church. Traditionally, a “good” Episcopalian went to church every Sunday, but now it seems that more and more Episcopalians are going to church only two or three times a month. If this is, in fact, the current behavioral trend, then we still have Episcopalians. However, their new behavior will drive down ASA while not necessarily driving down the health of the church.
In fact, with this theory, it’s just possible that a lowering of ASA could be a sign of a healthy church. What if members are choosing to do more for the church outside of Sunday mornings? What if a congregation has a Tuesday night tutoring program for children at risk and 15 members of that congregation participate in that program every week? Life is busy. There’s work, soccer practice, school plays, etc. Now you’ve just given up your Tuesday nights to tutor children at risk so you might need a Sunday or two “off” each month. Your church’s ASA goes down but the health of the congregation in terms of living the gospel has gone up.
Or what happens if once a month instead of going into the nave on Sunday morning, the teens go to a soup kitchen and cook a meal to feed the poor. They are not “in church”, but they are in the kitchen and are serving people in the shelter. ASA goes down but here again the work of the kingdom increases.
As my partner in crime in the Communications Department, Julie Murray, has said to me about her church, St. James, Westwood, “If everybody would show up on the same Sunday, then we’d have quite a crowd.”
If there really is a change in the way people “go to church” then looking at the increase and decrease each year might give us some insight. If you look at all of the congregations over that five-year period, we gained 6,056 new Episcopalians and we lost 7,196 Episcopalians for a net loss of 1,140, or almost 16%.
Here’s where it gets interesting. If you look at the 28 churches where 70% of the Episcopalians in Southern Ohio go, they increased by 4,480 people and decreased by 4,281 people for a net increase of 199 people or 4.6% growth. That’s right! Growth. Not huge growth, but an increase over five years. Unfortunately, the bottom 30% had almost a 40% loss of 1,339 over that same five years.
I know we aren’t comparing apples to apples. I understand that congregations that are seeing growth are usually in larger communities that are for the most part either growing or at least maintaining. And I also understand that many of the congregations who are struggling the most are in communities that are shrinking and suffering under societal pressures.
But my premise for this article is that things aren’t always perhaps what they seem. I think that the numbers suggest, as we all know, that the Episcopal church is still relevant. We have new Episcopalians across the board. The only concern is whether or not the new members are coming faster than our losses. With the changing face of how people look at church and perhaps new worship habits, I think there is a lot of hope in these numbers. My analysis of the numbers isn’t to make the top 70% feel good and the bottom 30% feel bad. I did that so instead of thinking the church as a whole is decreasing, we could better see what the whole story is. With that information, we can hopefully start to customize our practices to reflect where we are and where we want to be.
Even though I’ve just spent an entire article talking about numbers from the parochial report, I think it is clear that the parochial report doesn’t capture the essence of who we are. If healthy ministries are changing how people “do church” then we need additional ways to quantify our data and productive ways to react to that data.
So is the church failing? I don’t think so. I think it’s changing. I think it’s changing in ways that are hard to quantify.
David Dreisbach serves as Director of Communications for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.