Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations Officer
I don’t know if I got more sideways looks when I told people that I wanted to be a band director or when I told people that I was leaving music education and going into ministry. After all, neither option placed me in a highly paid or rapidly growing field. One of the most common arguments I heard against me going into ministry sounded a lot like, “Yeah… that is nice and all, but don’t you realize that the church is dying?” Even now when people find out what I do, I am asked if I am seeing any growth… any at all? And my response is always “YES!”
Maybe it is the former music educator in me, but I don’t look at numbers all that often. An 80-member band is no better than a 30-member band if the quality isn’t there, and that is where I see the growth in our church today- in the quality.
Over the last 10 months, I have visited with congregations ranging from 50 members (roughly 20 in worship) to 1,000+ members and have several worship services every Sunday. I have visited with congregations that, on paper, should not be able to open their doors on Sunday morning. I have visited with congregations who are trying to figure out where they can put another door to open and make the traffic flow a bit easier. Right away, I confirmed something that I always thought- every congregation is different and size doesn’t matter.
But don’t I realize that the Church is dying? After all, the stats recently released by PC(USA) show that our numbers have dropped from 1,760,200 members at the end of 2013 to 1,667,767 at the end of 2014. If the Church is dying, it is a good thing that I did not become a doctor because I am missing (or ignoring) all of the symptoms. The Church is not dying, the Church is growing. The Church is responding to negative generalizations like this and upping its game. More opportunities are becoming available for people of all ages, backgrounds, and social classes, as congregations re-evaluate their mission and vision statements to meet the needs of the changing society. Our overall numbers might be down, but our quality is growing!
In January, I visited White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Willow Spring, NC. This small congregation worships in a sanctuary that probably can’t hold many more than 50 people. If you don’t know where it is along the long country road, you might even miss the small white building. However, as the members make their way in for the 10:30 a.m. worship service, the projector screen fills up with pictures taken from members’ Facebook pages that week (one of their ways of sharing joys and concerns) as friends and family members catch up and make plans for the coming days. The sanctuary may not fill up physically, but the excitement and the joy of those gathered overflows and almost breaks down the front door as they come together to worship God.
All Souls Presbyterian Church is located in the heart of Richmond, VA and members can be seen slipping in the door even as the sermon starts. They don’t fill the pews and eyes occasionally wander up to the latest leak in the roof as they wonder how they will find the money to fix it this time (learn more about their fundraising efforts here.) Despite small numbers and leaky roofs, they yearn to explore their faith at a deeper level and they gather together faithfully throughout the week for studies and discussions. Members drive from 20 minutes away every week and together raise their voices and prayers to the Lord, praising God for the ministry that continues to grow from this congregation despite all of the realities that challenge them.
Weems, VA is a small village in Eastern Virginia that, statistically, is a community of older people. That hasn’t stopped Campbell Memorial Presbyterian Church from gathering together for monthly discussions to discern how they can best go about enacting the dreaded “E” word… yes, that is right-they gather together for a monthly lunch to talk about evangelism–how they can best practice evangelism within their community, and what that means for their congregation. Shrinking numbers haven’t caused the loving and welcoming congregation to stop or even pause in their ministry and worship. Instead they are more engaged in their ministry than ever, claiming what they believe and finding new and exciting ways to share that.
Membership may be down right now, but passion is up. With the recent changes in PC(USA), more people are taking a step forward and owning what it is that they believe and see as most important as they find new ways to lead and carry our Church forward. The Church Leadership Connection shows that there are currently 1,730 call seekers and 488 open positions. More and more, these call seekers are creating new ministry opportunities for the Church in lieu of accepting a “traditional” call with a congregation.
The Church is not dying. The Church is transforming. Just as prospective home owners spend months, even years, building their savings and watching that number grow so they can afford a down payment, only to watch much of their savings disappear as they actually start their new life, we are watching our numbers drop as we start a new journey. However just as those homeowners move into the new house and start a new life, we too are starting a new life. Our dropping numbers do not mean that we are dying. They do not mean that we are sick. Our numbers mean that things are changing, and that isn’t bad.
The Church of 2015 is ushering in new opportunities, new passions, and new faces. I have yet to walk into a church that is dying, but I have walked into several churches of all sizes that are transforming as they look at the needs of their community and respond appropriately, finding new (or old?) ways to live out Christ’s teachings.