Over at Derek’s blog a few days ago some comments came down hard on the issue of "pew counts," that is, tracking a church’s performance or health by the number of people who show up on any given Sunday. Certainly commenters over at Derek’s blog are not alone – many people reject using AWA (average worship attendance) as a measure of congregational vitality or success. One argument is that the church is not concerned with numbers, but rather is concerned with fidelty (to the gospel and tradition), integrity (theological, liturgical, pastoral) and growth (not necessarily in number, but in depth of spirit).
Well, I like pew counts. Call me silly, but it seems to me that the church needs to have at least an eye towards – if not a real and deep concern for – the current trend in worship attendance. And whereas there isn’t a direct, 1:1 relationship between church vitality and AWA, I am convinced that there is a relationship. Let’s consider a few things.
It’s not just about worship. Whereas AWA measures worship attendance, it is not a direct measure of the "quality" of worship. Why do people show up at church, especially new people? Perhaps because they drove by the church, had a vision from the angel Gabriel, or – most likely – they were invited.
And once they show up, why do they stay? They stay because they’ve made a meaningful connection with the church – perhaps through worship, but more likely by getting to know others in the congregation, participating in a group of some sort, or finding meaningful ways to use their gifts. It seems to me that a stagnate or declining AWA figure reflects problems with evangelism, outreach, education, or discipleship more than it reflects poor worship practices. There’s more to church than just worship, folks.
Are you an innie or an outie? Is your ministry focused on people and events that take place inside the walls of your church, or with people and events that take place outside the walls of your church? Not that an outward-looking ministry neglects the needs of people inside the walls, but ministry needs to be oriented towards the world and address its people, its concerns, its needs – if this is not the case, then why did Jesus come? AWA helps us assess if we’re bringing new people into the church, and if our general trend is towards more or fewer ears hearing the Gospel, more or fewer lives being formed for ministry.
Take a pulse. We should expect that if we’re doing everything more or less well that our ministry will grow, at least modestly (and by "we," I mean the whole congregational leadership, not just the pastor). Just as a decrease in weekly giving likely reflects a problem in the health and life of the congregation, so too does a decrease in worship attendance. The AWA helps us monitor how things are going, even if it is only a general measure.
Church attendance data isn’t the golden benchmark of church leadership. If your church is located in a growing, sprawling suburb with new houses going up in all directions, you had better be growing! Alternatively, if you are in any of the many mill towns where the mills and mines are dormant and young people are moving out, you might expect that AWA will decrease with the population. Yet I don’t think we can just disregard AWA out of hand. AWA, it seems to me, invites us to look beyond our walls and ask, "who is not here, and why?"