In light of growth initiatives here in the Palo Alto congregation, I’ve been considering the following passage from Twelve Keys to an Effective Church by Kennon L. Callahan, the classic congregational growth book:
“…It is worth noting that there is a direct correlation between worship attendance and membership growth and income. Those churches that have increased their worship attendance tend also to discover that their membership grows and their financial resources increase as well. Frankly, those churches whose primary objectives are increasing their membership and improving their giving are working on the wrong strategic objectives. As a matter of fact, they would do better to work on the objective of increasing worship attendance. The by-products of that alone would be an increase in membership and an increase in giving. … We do not work to increase worship attendance as a means to the ends of more members and more giving. Rather, we genuinely and thoughtfully share corporate, dynamic worship in outreaching and outgoing ways for the help and hope it delivers in people’s lives….” [p. 32]
In my experience, Callahan is generally correct: an increase worship attendance correlates to an increase in membership growth and giving. I once saw growth in worship attendance that was couple with a decline in membership, but that was in a congregation where there were many members who were members on paper only and had no real connection to the congregation; since that increase in worship attendance led to an overall gain in giving, I did not worry about the decline in membership.
I believe Callahan is also correct in saying that increasing worship attendance is a worthy strategic objective, but increasing membership and giving are not good strategic objectives. Over and over again, I have seen congregations state that they are going to increase membership and giving — and then fail to do so, because increasing membership and giving are not worthy ends in themselves. But when we say that we’re going to increase worship attendance, it’s immediately clear why we want to do so: we know in our guts that having more people at worship will feel better, not only because there will be more energy in the room, not only because attending religious services makes me feel better and I want to share that with other people — but also because if there’s hardly anyone at the worship service I attend, I feel like a chump for having gotten out of bed on Sunday to go to something that no one else is going to.
Having more people at worship makes me feel like I’m not a chump. Having more people at worship makes worship more exciting for me. Having more people at worship makes me feel good because I know more people are sharing in something I think is worth sharing in. It is a worthy end in and of itself.