Welcome back IM First Officer Michael Bell as the guest blogger today.
You may have heard people say that the “average” sized church in the U.S. or Canada is about 75 people. You also may have heard someone say that the “average” sized church in North America is about 185 people. Who is right? It all depends how you define “average”.
Statisticians use three terms when describing populations. “Mean”, “Median”, and a third term that won’t really enter our discussion today called “Mode”.
I have borrowed, and expanded upon, an analogy from the The National Congregations Study that was released last month, to help us understand the differences in these terms and why they are important to our understanding of churches in North America. What you will read here is U.S. data, but the numbers are very similar for the Canadian situation as well.
Imagine you are looking down a very, very long street, and all the churches of U.S. are lined up along the left side of the street from smallest to largest. In behind each church are all their Sunday morning attenders.
If you counted the grand total of everyone standing behind each church and then divided this number by the total number of churches that you see on this very long street, you would come up with a “mean” or “average” size of 184. “Mean” is usually what we mean of when we think of “average”. But this number of 184 is a very misleading number.
Lets say you start walking down the street, passing the churches with 5 people on a Sunday morning, 10 people, 15 people, 20 people. You continue walking until you have passed half of all the churches in America. Half of the churches in the U.S. are now behind you, half are still in front. The “average” church that you are standing in front of is called the “median” church. You look to see how many people are lined up behind it, and you see 75 people. That is right, half the churches in the United States have less than 75 people.
The average or “mean” church at 184 is 2.45 times the size of the average median church at 75. Why is this so? If you continue walking, you will get a better understanding of how skewed church numbers are within the United States.
So, you continue walking, past the churches of 80, 90, 100, 110. You walk until you have passed 90% of all the churches. You look to your left and you see 350 people lined up behind this church. Much to your surprise, although you have passed 90% of all the churches, over half of the churchgoers are still in front of you! This is why the “mean” is so much higher than the “median”. While most of the churches in the United States are small, most of the attenders go to large churches.
You keep walking, past the churches of 360, 370, 380. It isn’t until you reach a church of size 400 that you will have the same number of people behind you as in front of you. This means that half of church attenders in the U.S. go to churches larger than 400. If we were to use the word “average” again, we would see that the “average” or “median” churchgoer was in a church of 400. Not only that, but this means that half of all those who attend church are in less that 10% of the churches!
So know we know the “median” and “mean” of the average church, along with the “median” of the average churchgoer. What about the “mean” of the average attender? Let me mess with your mind a little bit more now. Imagine that you can interview everyone, standing behind each church, and ask them what size church they go to. You then “average” their responses. The “average” or “mean” response from the perspective of an attender is… drum roll please… 1169! Just to help us understand this number, let me give you an example. If you have 1000 people attending churches of 75 in size, then you would also have 1000 people attending churches whose sizes averaged out to 2263 people each. If you average out their responses you get the average or “mean” number of 1169. ((2263+75)/2=1169)
To see what this looks like graphically I created a graph of 100 representative churches. If you took a cross section of 100 churches from all the churches across America, the graph of those churches would look something like this. The churches are along the bottom of the graph. Their attendance ranges from 10 for the smallest church to 4000 for the largest. In reality, we do have churches much larger that than 4000, but out of every 100 churches, you might have 1 megachurch of about 4000 in size. As you can see, most church attenders in America (and the same holds true for Canada), attend big churches. Half of them attend churches larger than 400 and many of these are experiencing church many times that size. In fact, out of every 100 churches, the one largest church (in my example 4000 attenders) would have as many attenders as the lowest 70 churches combined!
This has huge implications for denomination structures and for Pastors.
Lets take an extreme example, the case of the Brethren in Christ in Canada (not to be confused with the Christian and Plymouth Brethren). For those not familiar with the Brethren in Christ, their theological heritage and influences are Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan. Right now, as I understand it, they are part of a North American Conference for decision making. What would happen if the Canadian churches, for whatever reasons, needed to go their own way? In Canada, half of the attenders of Brethren in Christ churches are in associated with a single church, The Meeting House, which has experienced significant numerical growth over the past 10 years. Currently it has over 50 staff, spread over 9 locations, with most meeting in movie theaters. If half your denomination goes to one church, what do you do when it comes to denominational decision making? One church, one vote? You are then saying that half your people don’t really have any say. One person, one vote, or one pastor, one vote? Then one church wields an inordinate amount of influence within the denomination. And what happens if that one church doesn’t like the direction that the denomination is headed? If it leaves, you lose half of your denomination, half your support for you national office, half of your support for your missionaries, half your support for your educational institutions. (Note that I am using the B.I.C. as a hypothetical example of a separate Canadian entity which does not currently exist.) Such a disproportionate split between numbers of churches and numbers of attenders that are seen throughout the U.S. and Canada, cannot be healthy for denominations. But what should we do about it, if anything? I am interested in hearing your responses.
There is a potentially a greater problem when it comes to bible college and seminary graduates, most of whom will eventually aspire to become solo or senior pastors. As previously shown, if these students come from churches in the same proportions as church attenders, then 50% of seminary students, come from roughly 8% to 9% of the churches. Their life experience in church is with larger churches. If they are initially placed as an associate, they will be building on their experience in other large churches. Yet, 90 percent of senior pastoral positions are in churches less than 350 people, and 50 percent of senior pastoral positions are in churches less than 75 people.
So they get placed in inappropriate situations: In places where people enjoy their church of 50 and don’t really want it to change. In places where power-point is a dirty word. In places where words like “missional” and “emerging” don’t really compute. In places where three piece suits still rule the day on Sunday morning. In places where you still can hear, “If the King James was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me.” So the church gets frustrated, and the Pastor gets frustrated, and unless there is some give and take, it is a relationship that doesn’t last long. Some Pastor’s will get so frustrated that they will be out of ministry within a relatively short time frame.
Has this been your experience, either from the perspective of the church or the Pastor? What are the solutions? What can we do to prepare our Pastors and our churches better? I would love to hear some of your ideas?
I have just touched upon one aspect of the The National Congregations Study. I would also encourage you to follow the link to the original report and read some of the other interesting information that they have gathered about American congregations. Compared to most statistical studies that I read, this one is particularly well written.