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Is This the New Normal?

Is This the New Normal?

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After 36 years of pastoral ministry I find myself perplexed by some trends that are unlike anything I have ever experienced. I wondered if my experience was normal or if only our church was living with some new realities. In response to my inner turmoil, I began a conversation with Tom Nees, Dennis King, and Geoff DeFranca, who have solid track records as pastors and church leaders. We shared our thoughts about what we referred to as "the new normal."

First: The first trend observed is a transition in the church that has forced us to reconsider the definition of "regular" church attendance. Irregular church attendance is the new regular. To put it simply, because people attend less frequently, it takes more people to average 100 than it did 10 years ago.

Second: A second observation is that because of the age group churches are attracting (under 35) and the lack of church background for many, the typical giving patterns are also different. What motivates this age group to contribute is not a commitment to the institution but rather a response to investing in people and causes. Giving levels are further impacted by high debt loads and other factors. This means that leaders must work more diligently to develop resources because it takes more people to generate a basic monetary amount than it did 10 years ago.

Third: The third issue has to do with measuring ministry. Traditional measurements have focused on "bodies in the pews and greenbacks in the plates." In other words, the number of people attending and the amount of money they were contributing were two key indicators of a church's health and vitality.

In fact, in the 1970s and 1980s, pastors and churches were introduced to the "science" of church growth in which statistical formulas were used to predict results. Now it seems that most of those formulas are obsolete and leaders have the difficult task of determining what is true of the setting in which they minister. The following is an attempt to define normality for my setting.

The New Normal for Attendance
Someone asked me recently if I was upset about our attendance patterns. Quickly, I confessed that I was perplexed and perturbed by the erratic attendance patterns. The composition of the congregation that I came to pastor 15 years ago is different today. My sense is that there is not a single factor but rather a constellation of changes that reflect the complexity of defining what is normal and an emerging new reality.

Some of the trends I have observed include:

  • Church is increasingly on a list of competing options for Sunday mornings.
  • Some people attend multiple churches depending on programs offered, personal needs, and schedules of family members.
  • Participants who had been driving a distance are struggling to afford the gasoline.
  • An increasing number of families are gone during the summer months.
  • Many people who may not have been able to take week-long vacations are opting instead for a number of weekend excursions, extending well into the fall.
  • While older, core Nazarenes have held fairly consistent attendance patterns, their numbers are dwindling due to deaths and major health changes. With that reality, we find that it takes more than one person to make up for their attendance. While there has been a wonderful influx of new people, particularly younger families, their attendance patterns are much less consistent than those of the older members.

While it would be tempting to make judgments about the level of commitment reflected in these changing trends, instead I am seeking to understand how to minister effectively in these new realities.

In the second decade of my ministry, Elmer Towns reported that the average church attendee missed seven times a year. More recently, Bud Reedy, pastor at Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene in York, Pennsylvania, shared that as they have studied attendance trends, they find average attendance is about 1.8 times a month, with a 40 percent turnover in the children's department every week.

While this may vary in each context, frequency of attendance has changed dramatically. Regardless of the particular formula used for a church's situation, it is readily apparent that it takes more people to average 100 in worship than it did when attendance patterns were "more normal."

The New Normal for Giving
While the traditional Nazarene gives tithes and offerings, and is even willing to make a weekly commitment to Faith Promise, those new to the church, as well as younger families, are not as consistent. Despite the fact that we are living in a weak economy, the evidence suggests that other factors are at play and will require a long term strategy.

  • Many people have been impacted by the economic downturn. Tight budgets have become tighter. We have responded to more needy families in the congregation this year than I can remember in any of the last 10 years.
  • People under 35 tend to give to people and causes instead of to institutions.
  • Debt load for the under 35 generation is incredibly high due to life style choices, educational loans, credit card debt, and mortgages.
  • Some retirees, dependent on income from investments, have found themselves with less discretionary income than they had anticipated.

We are increasingly called on to do more with less. We are also experiencing a change in the amount of time volunteers are willing to give. We live in a sprint culture rather than a marathon culture of long-term commitments. Pastors and leaders are challenged to invest more time and energy in finding creative ways to develop these resources.

The New Normal for Measurement
While living in the shadow of mega churches where comparisons are often made, we are also aware that many churches are either in decline or have hit a plateau. In my setting, we have noticed several important changes.

  • While attendance and financial giving appear to be at a plateau, changing attendance and giving patterns simply reflect that we are ministering to as many or perhaps more families, but our measurements are not as effective because of the previously mentioned changes.
  • As we look at the Great Commission, "To go and make disciples," the changes in attendance and giving patterns may serve to create a new definition of normal. The trends, over which we have little control, force us to wrestle with the more fundamental questions. Are people coming to faith in Christ? Are people experiencing life transformations as they respond to the message of holiness? It is this focus that continues to energize me and helps me view the future optimistically.

So what is normal? I'm afraid the answer to this question is more complex than we may realize.

Rather than live with the complexity it is easier to make assumptions that ultimately have a negative impact, particularly on the pastoral morale of those still measuring ministerial effectiveness with metrics that no longer reflect the new normal. Quite frankly, I am concerned about the morale of many of my pastor friends who seem drained of passion because they are unable to fill up the pews, meet budget targets, and staff their ministry needs with volunteers.

This is a period of unprecedented transitions that are not necessarily initiated internally. I would compare this period of my ministry to what I observe on a popular TV program where folks risk their lives to fish for king crab on seas that are unpredictable and deadly. Within the context of one fishing season those workers experience changing seas and unpredictable conditions that spawn a wide range of emotions from exhilaration to panic and fear. Why would anyone do that?

It is the thrill of the catch that makes them willing to go out each season. This is not a day where a GPS approach to ministry is much help. Things are changing too rapidly with little predictability. The call of Christ is the only real stabilizing anchor in these changing seas.

Personally, there is no greater joy than when I look around me during the Sunday morning service and see twentysomethings sitting in the front rows, praising God because He has delivered them from sin and its enslaving addictions. The joy on their faces reveals that God is healing brokenness. When that happens, my anxieties about what is normal are calmed, and I am at peace with God's incredible grace that is bringing lost children back home. I confess that I do not know what is normal about attendance and giving, but I do know that when lost people find God, that is "normal," and God is pleased.

Russ Long is senior pastor at Bel Air Church of the Nazarene in Bel Air, Maryland, USA.

Holiness Today, May/Jun 2011

Please note: This article was originally published in 2011. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.