Most Christians in mainline denominations know that attendance and giving patterns are in trouble. But they are less mindful that churches are also experiencing declining levels of lay participation in spiritual practices. Why are these trends significant—and worth keeping an eye on?
The church Tom’s parents attended, First Baptist in Burlingame, California, failed to monitor these trends and paid a high price. In about a seven-year window, First Baptist went from being a wealthy church to one that could scarcely pay the pastor’s salary, as a consequence of deaths among its most affluent members.
Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney in American Mainline Religion state, “The churches of the Protestant establishment, long in a state of relative decline, will continue to lose ground in numbers and in social power and influence.”1 Since that book was published in 1987, the prediction has remained on target. The drop is likely to become more precipitous in coming years, with a double whammy—the graying of mainline churches and the declining participation of young people. For example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has double the proportion of members over 75 as the population at large.2 The “youth” in many mainline churches are the 40- and 50-year-olds. Between 2010 and 2030 the baby boomers in our churches will retire, contributing to the plummeting attendance and the drop in giving.
Research by Empty Tomb, Inc., indicates that from 1968 to 1998 U.S. per capita income increased 91 percent, but in the same period per capita giving declined 19 percent.3 Most disturbing are data showing benevolence giving to be in free fall: “If the giving patterns of the past 28 years continue in an uninterrupted fashion, then per member giving as a portion of income to the category of Benevolence will reach 0% [of] income . . . in 2045.”4 Our current recession is likely to exacerbate this trend.
Documenting Spiritual Practices
Significantly less research has been conducted on levels of lay involvement in spiritual practices. But the available information is not encouraging. The American Bible Society documents a steady decline in Christians’ use of Scripture in daily life. Barna Research reports decreasing use of Scripture as well as downward trends in regular prayer and volunteer work. Barna says that Christians “spend an average of seven times more hours each week watching television than participating in spiritual pursuits such as Bible reading, prayer, and worship.”5
Since these trends will directly determine the size, influence, and vitality of tomorrow’s church, doesn’t it make sense for congregations to monitor these trends so we’ll have the ammunition to reverse them? For 30 years I have urged the church to take the future seriously and to monitor trends in both society and church. But most churches live as though the future will hold a continuation of past attendance and giving patterns. Even those who see their denomination in decline make little effort to discover the trends in their own congregation.
We propose the construction and use of both lay and congregational audits that monitor not only the direction of these trends but also the rate of growth or decline. This practice will enable local-church leaders not only to understand the urgency with which a response is needed, but also help them to target areas that require immediate attention. It is especially important that congregations working with restricted resources be able to make informed decisions to focus resources on efforts to increase growth in spiritual practices and lay involvement.
Two Ways to Monitor Trends
These proposed questions are offered not for immediate use but for discussion. They are intended to provide a beginning model of an audit, so that leaders can design their own questions to monitor trends in lay and congregational priorities and investment. I believe that if we create thoughtful ways to monitor these trends, we will have a clearer sense of how effectively we are stewarding the resources God has entrusted to us. If we diligently gather this kind of information, we will have lead time to create ways to increase lay involvement or to refocus the use of congregational resources to revitalize our lives and communities of faith.
The following questions will not answer all concerns about the quality of congregational life. But they may provide important information about levels of lay participation and the focus and use of congregational resources. Discuss these questions with your church’s leadership team, and devise your own questions to monitor patterns of involvement. These questions will have a higher value if the audit is administered every year so that, over time, patterns emerge.
Questionaire for Lay Involvement
1. Where would you place yourself in the following age ranges? 21–30, 31–40, 41–50, 51–60, 61–70, 71–80, 81+? It is important to respect the anonymity of the respondent, but defining the age profile is critical to the research.
2. What is your sense of vocation or calling as a member of your community of faith? To the extent that people can answer this question, it can provide insight into how they see their sense of Christian purpose and their role in the congregation.
3. How many times did you attend worship at your church last month? This question helps to begin to monitor regular attendance patterns.
4. How much time did you spend in prayer, Bible reading, or spiritual exercises on average each day last week? This question can help leaders determine whether members have time for spiritual practices and, if so, how much time they invest in an average week. It can help clergy determine whether their encouragement and instructions for spiritual disciplines are being taken seriously, and allow them to gain an impression of the spiritual vitality of the respondents’ lives.
5. How much money did you contribute to your church last month? What percentage of your income for that month did your contribution represent? The answers to these questions will give leaders a baseline sense of congregational giving and indicate whether members might be challenged to increase their percentage of contribution.
6. How much money did you contribute to other charities last month? This response enables leaders to identify members’ total giving profile and learn what percentages of member giving go to the church and to other charities.
7. How much time did you invest in ministries within your church last week, such as teaching Sunday school or serving on a board or committee? Responses to this question will help you learn how broadly your members participate in congregational life.
8. Were you involved in any ministry in your community last week? If “yes,” how much time did you spend, and where? We find that less that 10 percent of laity in most churches take time weekly to volunteer in their communities. This information can indicate members’ levels of involvement in their own community.
9. Where are you experiencing the greatest pressure in your use of time and money? We find that the majority of church members are overcommitted and overbooked; they receive little practical help from their church in balancing the pressures in their lives. The data might inspire leaders to provide practical resources for laity in this area.
10. In what practical ways might your church help you deal with these pressures and develop priorities that more fully reflect the ways you want to focus your Christian life? Responses to this question may provide ideas for how to help members deal creatively with life pressures.
Questions for the Congregation
ing the input from the lay audit above, we suggest that leaders ask themselves questions about congregational stewardship similar to those outlined below:
1. How many people attended your church last month, as reported by the lay audit? By asking this question annually, you will be able to determine over time if your congregation is growing or declining and at what rate.
2. What is the age profile of those who attend? The response to the lay audit should make clear the urgency of finding ways to reach new and probably younger members.
3. What is the per capita giving rate of members in your church by age, according to feedback on the lay audit? If you examine this information in the context of insurance actuarial tables on longevity, you can do what Tom’s parents’ church failed to do—anticipate the date that you will no longer have the resources to maintain your present operation.
4. What ministries does your church sponsor in your immediate community? A surprising number of churches in North America don’t sponsor any ministries in their own communities. With the combination of growing social needs and cutbacks in government aid to the poor during this recession, all churches need to do more.
5. From the data in the lay audit, what percentage of members report involvement in serving in your church or in volunteering in ministries in the community each week? The lay audit data will give you a clearer picture of how many people are involved in serving in the church or the community so that you can decide whether to call members to a greater lay involvement in witness and service.
6. What percentage of your church’s budget leaves the church building to address the growing needs of those in your own community or in U.S. or world mission projects? The response to this question is an indicator of your church’s commitment to mission. We have found a surprising number of churches in which the money invested in mission at home or abroad is below 10 percent. Once many churches identify this figure, they set the goal to increase their investment in mission by a specific percentage each year.
Again, these two audits are offered not for immediate implementation but for discussion, to help you develop questionnaires that fit the needs of your congregation. Those who adopt the annual discipline of asking questions like these of congregation members will have a clearer idea of how to focus congregational ministries, education, and limited resources. It isn’t enough to monitor congregational trends. The information needs to inspire leaders to create new strategies and resources to enable members to reorder their private worlds.
For example, we contend that one major reason for declining levels of lay involvement and investment is that the laity have little idea of how to connect Sunday morning to the way they steward their time and money seven days a week. We believe it is essential to explore ways to help people make that connection.
Put First Things First
In parallel track to the questionnaires, we recommend steps to help church members begin to work on putting first things first. One way to help people begin the journey to a less harried, more focused life is found in the eight-week curriculum for Living on Purpose.6 Week 1 of this curriculum provides an opportunity for people to explore why they are suffering from high-pressure lives so that they can begin moving toward a liturgy of life that more directly reflects the impulses of faith instead of the addictions of culture. Week 2 is devoted to reawakening our biblical imagination to the creator God’s purposes for a people and a world. The material for weeks 3 and 4 encourages participants to discern, in community with others, how they feel called to work for God’s purposes in their own lives, congregations, and community. The intent is that each participant write a beginning mission statement for his or her life and family. The remaining weeks are an invitation to unleash participants’ creativity and reinvent how they steward their time and resources in a way that genuinely puts wings on their mission statement.
Since we have introduced this process in churches, we have seen a number of people who not only have discovered a clearer sense of vocation, but also have created a way of life that is more jubilant and less harried. Numbers of them have also discovered the enormous gift whereby God can use their lives to make a difference in the lives of others. For example, a layman named Paul attending one of our seminars drafted a mission statement that read, “To be God’s jubilee in both our home and community.” He and his family implemented this mission statement, hosting an annual neighborhood block party and starting a modest credit union through their church to help the poor in their community start small businesses.
In light of the events of September 11, 2001, a resurgent interest in vital faith and a desire to put first things first have surfaced all over the country. We can’t imagine a better time to monitor trends that affect the vitality and witness of the church and to help the laity reorder their priorities in a way that enables them to give greater expression to their faith.
1. Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 233.
2. “Trends Affecting the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” ELCA Department of Research and Evaluation (December 27, 1996), 1.
3. John L. Ronsvalle and Sylvia Ronsvalle, “The State of Church Giving through 1998,” Empty Tomb, Inc., November 2000, 7.
4. John L. Ronsvalle and Sylvia Ronsvalle, “The State of Church Giving through 1995,” Empty Tomb, Inc., November 1997, 42-45.
5. “Christians Embrace Technology,” Barna Research, 2001, www.barna.org.
6. Tom and Christine Sine, Living on Purpose (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2002).