by Bob Phillips

You’ve heard it. “There are lies, d— lies, and statistics.” Or for those intent on head- counting in church, try 1 Chronicles 21 where David decides to count heads. God saw it as a sign of lack of faith and offered him the ancient version of “Let’s Make a Deal,” choosing what was behind door #1 (three years of famine), door #2 (three months of whupping by his enemies) or door #3 (3 days of disease). Have you heard about the pastor whose weekly attendance figures seemed to include a celestial Star Trek ‘away team’ from Heaven, with numerous real but totally unseen angels, archangels and the company of Heaven to jack up the numbers? I followed that clown in at least two places I served and had statisticians (but not the congregation) wonder why the numbers declined when I arrived. And there was the famous pastor of many years ago, a pulpit prince with over 13,000 members in his congregation, as his bio made clear. I looked up the specific data. His attendance figures were about 2,800, which meant that every Sunday over 10,000 people stayed away from his preaching. Now that’s a notable achievement.

I just read the figures from my conference, Illinois Great Rivers, for 2020. It was a feeling vaguely like watching a puppy being smacked by a truck. Membership declined but worship attendance cratered. There was a separate category for on-line worship. It seems clear that a few of the brethren/sistern folded one set of figures into the other. Others kept them totally separate. Others seem to have done a partial mixing. If you counted only those who were verified to be tuned into the web broadcast for at least 45 minutes, my hunch is that numbers would diminish. In short, it was a statistician goat rope.

The good news is, so what? Everyone with half a brain or half a theology (left half, right half, center half) knew then and knows now that the impact of COVID 19 on worship gatherings would be universal. The handful of clergy who have reported increases in attendance for 2020 need to be asked to invent time travel as their next achievement, since both outcomes require equally miraculous skills. In one sense it is normal and natural that the typical metric of attendance took a body blow in 2020. The church of Jesus weathered the Black Plague, with decreased church attendance in that season when 50% of everyone died…and no internet option to ease the number freak. The church of Jesus will get through this as well. I suspect the Holy Spirit has called a year’s moratorium on head counts for 2020. Don’t obsess, don’t sweat.

The better news is this. Amid the tragedy of serious illness and the deaths of many beloved by family and friends due to COVID, the church has been offered the chance to push the re-set button in ways impossible in a business-as-usual climate. Face it. The denomination was sliding down the poll before the virus. COVID has buttered the poll and the rapidity of the slide will increase for any who do not use this season to rethink, re-imagine and reboot the work of ministry and the focus of the church.

Online ministry is here to stay for churches who wish to be here…to stay. The arguments over membership vs. discipleship received a rude shove, for in this post-COVID time when so many have gotten out of the habit of lots of traditional practices, only a vision immersed in passion of love for God, commitment to Christ, and sacrificial Kingdom service will thrive. The nominal (as in ‘name only) types mostly will drift in body to where they have been in spirit for a long, long time, which is elsewhere than at the feet of Jesus. That unpleasant reality frees a greater truth, the power of the gospel of Christ to redeem, transform and empower can be released anew. It is time for the people called Methodist to become worthy of one of the most common criticism of our forbearers in the days of the Wesleys…time to be “enthusiasts” for Jesus. I once heard fanaticism defined as ‘when my dogmatism chases your catechism.” It is time to unleash the dog, in loving and holy ways, and to kick the cat of sameness, predictability and staleness off the porch.

So we have the rare opportunity to re-think everything for the sake of reforming the institution to make disciples of Jesus. These can be exciting, positive and faith-inducing days. Some of the comfortable, overstuffed chairs of business-as-usual will have to go. Recall the first followers of Jesus had nothing but within a few generations the calendars of planet earth would be aligned with the One at the center of their lives and message.

Some will read this far and suggest I am whistling past the proverbial graveyard. The decline in numbers represent the literal drop in real people within the building, often (not always) accompanied by a decline in the offerings that fund worthy and needed ministries. One can cry, “All is lost,” with the wee characters in Men in Black II who lived in a locker in New York’s Central Station, but that is unnecessary.

As the Arnold said in “Conan the Destroyer,” ‘Enough talk.’ Here are three insights for positive engagement with the reality of numerical decline in the plague season.  First, and as previously mentioned, see the crisis as a reality check on questions such as spiritual depth, disciple-level commitment, and where true leadership is found in the congregation. The crisis has brought to the front some laity not previously known for leadership. Illusion and wishful thinking, neither of which are biblical strategies, took a deserved hit, which can reposition church and clergy for realistic next steps.

Second, identify and prioritize two or three (at most) major goals to move the church into the next level of post-virus ministry. Common wisdom in organizational leadership is that an institution that sets one or two major goals has a good chance of reaching both. Three goals offer possibilities of attaining at least one, maybe two. Four or more goals…get used to disappointment and the likely failure to achieve any of them in a major way. And yes, our General Conferences and other major church pronouncements routinely have ignored that wisdom, with predictable (non)results. What does your congregation most need to do, to start or stop, to enable for serious forward motion in making disciples? A collaborative discernment invites the Spirit’s guidance; solo declarations of direction or need typically have too much ego in the mix to rally the troops.

Third, find one or two fresh locations outside the box of the status quo and move there. Doing different for the sake of difference is a dead end. An informed, prayerful, discernment of Spirit-led innovation will lead inevitably toward the One who says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” This doesn’t imply throwing out what has worked and what still nurtures ministry and meaning. Two years after the virus is declared officially ‘whupped,’ what one or two major new ministry initiatives will your church reflect? As for numbers, the Wesleyan field of dreams has a saying: If you build Him, they will come.  Acts 2 concludes with saying that on that first Pentecost, “there were added that day (to the movement) about 3,000 souls,” not as the result of a plan targeting that number as a goal but as the fruit of a quality and faithful movement of the Spirit. When it comes to numbers in the church, numbers as by-product of faithful and effective ministry  is the only way that…counts.

Bob Phillips

Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference

Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews

Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution

Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)

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