The Numbers Game

If you’re the pastor of a mainline Protestant congregation, one of the things that you do a lot of is obesess over numbers.

 

We are always paying attention to the attendance on Sunday mornings during worship.  We wonder how many folks will attend Christmas Eve or Maundy Thursday.  We wonder how many will come to our Bible Study.  We judge the effectivenss of a new church by how many folks become part of the core group by a certain time.

Of course, there’s a reason we are so fixated on numbers: we are dealing with declining denominatins and congregations and so we worry all the time about numbers. 

Along with all the worrying is this sense of being haunted by the past.  We look back at the 1950s, as the golden age when our churches were full.  First Christian in Minneapolis had its heyday back in that era.  The church had nearly 2000 members, and the sanctuary was filled at both services.  The Sunday School was bursting with people.  For the Senior Pastor and I, it’s hard not to look back and wonder what we are doing wrong and even to have a fleeting thought of going back to that era.

It’s only a fleeting thought, though.  I have wondered if that era was as good as we like to think it was and Richard Floyd reminds me that the good ol’ days weren’t always so good:

 

Here in New England we have many historic (often downtown) churches that hit their numerical high water mark in both members and dollars somewhere between the late 1950’s and mid 1960’s.

Those numbers without interpretation might lead one to believe that those times of plenty were a golden age of the church, and in the minds of many older members they were.  But to use them as the template for what is normative makes everything that has followed appear to be failure.

A deeper look tells a more complicated story.  There was a boom in church life in the years after World War Two.  I call it a boom and not a revival, because it lacked many of the features of earlier religious awakenings, and that is part of the story of the subsequent decline.

It was a heady time of great optimism. America and its allies had won the war at great cost of people and treasure. There was an atmosphere of thanksgiving that the war was over.  The returning troops settled down, got married and created the great “Baby Boom” of the late forties into the fifties.

But it was not all optimism. The new Cold War with the Soviet Union and the specter of a nuclear exchange put fear into the mix.  And because the religiosity of America stood in stark contrast to the official atheism of the Soviets church-going seemed patriotic.

Many returning troops went to college on the GI bill and made their way into a rising middle class that fueled a housing boom.

These demographic and cultural factors grew churches.  Many new churches were built, new additions were added, and Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams with the young boomers.

Although there was some robust theology in the academy (the Niebuhrs, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich come to mind) that theology hadn’t made its way to the congregations.  The life of the church was largely a pretty generic Culture Protestantism which identified itself with the American way of life.  There were Catholic and Jewish versions of this identity as Will Herberg described in his important book of the time Protestant, Catholic, Jew.

This (necessarily) simplistic sketch sets the stage for what happened in the 1960’s.  The Boomers grew up and out of the church.  Their mostly inadequate Christian education had not prepared them for the profound cultural changes that took place during this time.  The Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and the rise of the Boomer counter-culture all called into question the moral legitimacy of established authority, including the church.

 

 

What Floyd notes is that the theological blandness of the 1950s didn’t prepare the children of that era for the challenges they would face a decade later. So, when the winds of change blew, they blew out of the church. The era of the full church wasn’t necessarily the era of dedicated disciples.

 

I know that I need to tread carefully here, our older members have a far more fond view of that era than I do and we shouldn’t dismiss their memories.  But I also think there was a downside to that era as well.

 

Floyd does note that the 1950s high-water mark was more of a boom, than a revival, which I think could also be interpreted as an asterisk rather than the norm.  I don’t think First Christian will ever get back to the membership levels it had in 1955.  I think the congregation will grow in the coming years, but it will never grow in the way it once did. 

But while First won’t ever get back to the fifties, there is growth take place in how the people see themselves.  A few years ago, the church was waiting to die.  These days, there seems to be a happiness among the folk, a sense of things coming back to life.  Numbers-wise we have grown slowly, but in the hearts of the people, in how they worship and live as disciples, well, I think that’s has us bursting at the seams.

That’s better than any big number in my book.

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