(*Editor's Note: The following recently appeared as an article in Leadership Journal)
If you're like me, numbers are maddening, particularly when it comes to the church. One reason is simple: how do you gauge how a church is doing in a quantitative, much less qualitative, way? Can you chart pastoral care, or community, or spirituality?
From this, one of the more common lines is "we're not into numbers." But the equally common response is, "We count people because people count." Numbers matter because they represent people, and people matter to God. No, they don't account for everything ("a church isn't just about numbers"), but they do account for something.
During my seminary years, all I heard about in terms of churches and numbers was "membership." As in, "they have 500 members," or "they have 5,000 members." The reason was simple: membership was the holy grail of church size.
Then, also while in seminary, I became a pastor of a church. There I learned the inside truth: membership wasn't the metric I was led to believe. At least, not in our church. It was a small to medium-sized, county-seat church. We had 500 or so members, but only about 175-200 actually coming on any given Sunday. Many "on the rolls" had moved away, had stopped attending, or, as I learned, had even died.
I kid you not.
But heaven help you if you suggested removing them from membership. In those circles, in those days, that was akin to removing them from the rolls of heaven. So no wonder all those conference speakers talked about membership. It was the best-sounding metric they had going.
Then I had a short stint working for the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Again, everyone talked about how many members a church had. Lead-ins to pastors speaking at conferences always talked about the size of their church in terms of how many members they had, many of which had thousands upon thousands of members.
Digging deeper, I found what was true of my seminary church was true of almost every other church I encountered. Actual attendance ran half or less of the membership numbers. The latest figures from the SBC show this phenomenon hasn't changed. At the end of 2013, overall membership in the Southern Baptist Convention was 15.7 million, while average weekly attendance was only 5.8 million.
So I guess the phenomenon has changed – it's gotten worse.
Here is the question: is the SBC nearly 16 million strong, or only 6 million strong?
So when I planted Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), I wanted a metric that I felt told me how many people were not only calling Meck home, but making it home; how many people were not only in its orbit, but were actually involved.
Membership mattered, to be sure, and one answer was to simply beef up membership and make it more reflective of the church and the biblical demands of church involvement. Yet membership still seemed to fall short of encompassing the church's overall size and reach. In fact, the churches that I respected the most that were clearly the fastest growing held to such a high-standard of membership that they actually reversed the dynamic. Meaning, they had far more attenders than members. That seemed sound to me, for if a church was healthy and membership mattered, you'd have a majority of card-carrying members present on most weekends, along with a solid dose of guests.
Not only that, membership is an increasingly hard sell to Millennials, not to mention the rising tide known as Generation Z. As much as you may value membership, there is an anti-membership bias among many in our culture. In previous generations, membership was the first step in church involvement. You found a church you liked, you joined, and then got involved. Today, involvement almost always precedes membership.
So was the answer mere attendance?
I knew better than that.
I had already seen, from the earliest of years, how seasonal attendance can be. Easter is high, July 4th (for most) is low. You have a fall "run" from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, and then you start having lower days mixed in with higher days. You die between Christmas and New Years. Another run would then begin after the new year, building to Easter, and then end by Memorial Day.
That's not all. Newer churches, which tend to be planted in new growth areas, drop in attendance on weekends where more traditional, established churches would spike. Much of this is because people go "home" for the holidays, and in new growth areas, it's not that kind of "home" yet. So new churches have everyone "go" home, and more established churches have everyone "come" home.
But, chasing this even further, few people attend every weekend. A very committed person might only attend 40 or so weeks a year. Which means that most churches are "bigger" than their average attendance.
Of course, the more substantive issue with mere attendance is that it says very little about impact and influence. So you have a crowd? The real issue is whether people are coming to Christ from that crowd, and growing in that relationship.
So if membership doesn't give a sense of a church's true size, and neither does weekend attendance, what does?
At Meck, we stumbled on to something that was new to us (but I have no doubt others have thought of as well), which is thinking in terms of an entirely new metric: active attenders. This metric does not replace membership, but it does complement it.
Here's how we define an "active attender": If we can point to someone being "active" through such things as attending, giving or serving, then they go into the "active attender" category. If we can't point to them being active within a six-month period, they come out of that category. So our number of active attenders is updated monthly, with many being added, and many being subtracted. If they are removed from the active attender category, we keep them in our database, but that is all.
This metric seems, to us, to be the most valuable metric for gauging a church's overall size – and even health. Here are the people we can point to, by name, who are currently involved. We know who they are, how they are connecting, and that they are truly part of our community.
We have many more than these attending because to become "active" you have to surface or engage in some recognizable way. You could attend Meck but never put a child into MecKidz, never fill out a connection card, never financially support the church in a way that identifies you, never register for a class or join a small group, and we would not know you exist. All the more reason why it's important to classify our "active attenders" because they are the people who are truly involved and participating.
We maintain membership, but it is by nature, and by design, a much smaller number. To be a member means moving beyond the active attender status and making a very specific commitment to the church through membership. You have to take a class, and agree to a doctrinal statement and set of core values through a simple but important covenant. For us, you also have to be baptized as a believer. Only members are allowed to be platformed, such as singing or speaking, and allowed to be involved in leadership positions. Only members can participate in various business matters, such as voting on the annual budget.
If a member were to fall out of "active attender" status, they would also be removed from membership (that sounds a bit abrupt – trust me, there's a deeply caring pastoral process – but membership must be a verb). As of the time of this writing, we have well over a thousand adult members (not counting their families). They are the equivalent of our church's Navy SEALs or Army Rangers. They are, without a doubt, an elite and important group. But while they are the core of the church and are, themselves, active attenders, they do not constitute all of the church.
Right now, Meck has around 10,000 active attenders of all ages. Our "2020 Vision" is to be a church of 20,000 active attenders with ministry in 20 countries by the year 2020. As mentioned, membership is less than this, but for us, that is how it should be. We always want more people coming, more people active, than those who are members, because to us, that is a sign that we are continually reaching out. In fact, the other metric that is critical to our thinking are the number of people being moved into active attender status and then membership who were previously unchurched. For us, around 70 percent of our total membership growth comes from that category.
We track other metrics, to be sure: baptisms, overall database numbers, seasonal attendance patterns, small group participation, Institute participation (our discipleship program), and more. But if someone asked me the typical "How big are you?" question, we'd fall to active attenders.
Because that is how big we are.
Do we have all 10,000 every weekend across all of our campuses? Of course not. On the weekend of July 4th, we'd have substantially fewer. But on Easter, we've had to hold services at 20,000 seat outdoor amphitheaters. But that's the point. We don't look to either date for "who we are." We look to a larger span of time (six-months), and much more than weekend attendance. Meck "is" a church of 10,000 active attenders. That is our metric. It's who we are.
And the good news about that number, for us, is that you don't even have to cut it in half to get to the people who are still alive.
James Emery White
This article first appeared in Leadership Journal, 2014.