I know of a former church in my area of service that started with a big BANG. They saturated the market with tons of flyers, they moved a three person ministry core (along with their spouses) to Denver from another region of the U.S. All of these men were gifted in various areas. One for leadership, another for community building, yet another for music and they were charismatic to say the least. Then another group stepped up and put up money for them to rent a BIG worship space, a nice place…They had state of the art sound equipment, talented people by the droves who came to help them, they grew to two services within a few months and were near 200 people before the six month mark. I do not have official attendance numbers but I know their growth continued and they were featured in a well known book that was published at the time promoting a specific church growth method.
Then, IT happened…
I’m not sure when IT happened but the church had a decline in giving. They shifted worship spaces due to cost and attendance began to dwindle. Apparently the church body wasn’t interested in body life as much as they were comfort and when they had to relocate, some moved to new churches in the area. Giving declined further. Soon, the church was down to one service and IT continued. A few of the leaders resigned to work elsewhere. Apparently, the ‘call’ to this area was contingent on their salaries. One moved back to the area they came from. Later, another moved to another super-large church in the area. Finally, the lead Pastor resigned and turned the ministry over to another man who eventually closed the church. It died. And with it, scores of people left for large churches. The body life they craved was not contingent on their ministries but rather, by sheer numbers.
Attendance is overrated.
I feel well qualified to make this statement so anyone that wishes to criticize me can freely do so. This scenario indeed happened. What’s sad is I saw it happen two more times with other new works that cropped up around my church. Three times in less than ten years and I have seen identical events in other works that happened similar to this that killed what on the outside appeared to be healthy churches. They weren’t. If they were, they would have multiplied and not died when the leadership failed them and the enemy attacked. We place far too much emphasis on one man in many of these types of churches and only God knows the financial waste that accompanied these failures. Money that could have been spent helping other people rather than fueling the culture’s desire for comfort, space, and more of everything that we THINK is related to ‘church’.
We’re doomed at the outset if attendance is the starting point. In today’s current ‘church planting’ environment, we now have books outlining systems of growth that force us to focus first on numbers and then, on everything else. Vast money is spent finding a place, advertising the kick-off service, and then, spending on trivial things for this service designed to make it look first rate. We may even bus people in from other areas to boost early numbers. If all has been done well, the ‘machine’ will produce a crowd of hundreds maybe. Then, we can call it ‘success’. But it’s not. The reality is half the people will likely not return. Even if 2/3 do the statistics point out that several will leave in the first year if the church doesn’t maintain the atmosphere it created for the opening service. Well known church growth ‘experts’ have statistics that point to those staying as having a shelf life of two years, maybe three, before they decide to pursue something else. This appears to be the case in each of the three incidents I reference here. At about the 24-36 month mark, all three of these works started declining. Some hit bottom quicker but all started a decline. The only common denominator I can see in each case was the fact that the initial excitement died and reality set in. The money required to maintain a ‘machine’ like the one that they kicked off with is substantial. Many did not wish to contribute a ‘tithe’ but rather, wanted to put their $5 in each week and call it good. Before long, services were cut and when the bells and whistles weren’t there anymore, people left and predictably many went to another work that offered the bells and whistles. I know this because I followed up with many of them in my own research. Most wanted the ‘atmosphere’ and ‘event’ excitement. Few pointed to spiritual growth as their reason for going. This is not being critical of any church but it is being critical of our expectations. When a plan is hatched that says we have to start with a bang, we had better realize what we are using to draw people in and it’s NOT Jesus or the Gospel. It’s the ‘event’ and once that atmosphere dies, the people die with it. There is truth in the statement that what you draw them with is what will keep them coming. That doesn’t mean we have to be boring but the reality is there’s a big business in church ‘planting’ with large groups these days. They can sink a lot of money into a plant and create quite the event. When what you offer is a simple, discipleship focused, structure, some will find that not as exciting. You quite possibly will stay small but that is okay. If that is what God wants, so be it. If he wants you to grow larger, that’s fine too but remember, what you draw them with is what you will keep them with. Can your finances support a large enterprise? Can they support it long term and not just for two to three years? Experience has shown me that if the answer is no, you will be no different than the churches mentioned above. All are real, all of the pastors lost their ‘jobs’ and the works closed. Although some just followed their ‘call’ to another city to try again, some left for other opportunities. Their churches were all better funded than most churches I know. The people were there but I’m not certain they were ‘invested’.
And that…my friends…is the final installment in this series coming later this week.