One of my favorite expressions by a key mentor in my life, Lyle Schaller, relates to what time it is. During the 1990s Lyle often said, as an example, “Next year is 1995. The trouble is that too many congregations are operating like next year is 1955.”
The world has changed dramatically during the past 58 years from 1955 to 2013. Congregational ministry has morphed to a new dimension during the past six decades. Unfortunately, too many congregations are still functioning out of a 1950s framework with only a few mandatory updates they could not avoid.
A tremendous number of factors are different now than they were in the 1950s. Here’s one. What size congregation does it take to engage in first quality programs, ministries, and activities for all major life age/stage groups from birth to death?
That depends on what decade you reference. In the 1950s it took an average worship attendance of 400. In the 60s it took 500. In the 70s the number was 600. Going up 100 in average attendance per decade, it now takes an average worship attendance of 1000.
Congregations with less than 1000 in attendance have to make choices and set priorities. They cannot do it all. This means that 95-plus percent of all North American congregations cannot achieve first quality programming for all major life age/stage groups. If they deny this reality and try to anyway, they will engage in mediocre programming.
What happened? That’s easy. The world got a whole lot more complex. The make-up of families and households diversified exponentially.
During the 1950s there are around eight major life age/stage target groups on which congregations could focus and cover virtually everyone from birth to death with first quality programs, ministries, and activities. Today there are at least 16. Here they are: Preschoolers, children, middle school youth, high school youth, college/university students, young adult singles, young adult couples, median adult singles/singles again, median adult couples, empty nest singles/singles again, empty nest couples, active senior adult singles/widowed, active senior adult couples, inactive/attending senior adults, dependent/non-attending senior adults, special needs/issues children/adults.
Nothing about this list is magical. It is pretty straightforward. Yet, congregations of the 1950s had not thought about many of these specializations or target groups as unique ministries. They all fit during the 1950s into a larger pool of children, youth, and adults of various descriptions.
Few congregations in the 1950s had a singles ministry; much less a singles again ministry. Fewer still had a singles again ministry for divorced persons, or those widowed during the first two-thirds of their adult life. They just had to fit in. Blended families were generally not on the radar screen. Adults who never married, but gave birth and raised children were often marginalized.
With the greater length of life it is necessary to define senior adults in four categories. As an increasing number of people retire early a fifth category is sneaking in. Empty nesters is probably the most forgotten era of adult life. It is just now becoming a focus for some congregations.
Ministries to special needs children and adults have been a specialization for some congregations for many decades. Yet it is unknown how many congregations actually have intentional ministries in this area. I suggest, unfortunately, it may be characterized by the word “tokenism” rather than the word “plentiful”; at least in comparison to the need.
Are Big Numbers Really Necessary?
You are free to react against the increase in numbers I suggest over the decades, and the fact that less than five percent of congregations are able to handle the diversity of target groups now present. The key is the phrase “first quality programs, ministries, and activities”. Many more than five percent of congregations can attempt to have programs, ministries, and activities for the 16 identified life age/stage groups. The question is, can they do it with quality?
Increasingly people in North America inclined to be connected to a churched culture are demanding higher quality in everything the church does. If they do not find high quality in your congregation for their target group, they are quick to seek another congregation where their life stage needs are a primarily focus.
The point I am trying to make is not one of gearing up to serve everyone. It is to ask if you know who your congregation is best gifted, skilled, and has the capacity to reach, disciple, and send forth in the mission of God. Congregations of the 21st century know they cannot be all things with all people in an increasingly diverse context. They, instead, choose to focus for effectiveness.
Another one of my mentors, Kennon Callahan, spoke into this when he said, “Plan to accomplish more by planning to do less?” Does your congregation have the courage to prioritize and focus its efforts, or do you desire to attempt to reach everyone and perhaps reach no one?