By Eddie Pipkin

I recently had a friend who offered to help out with an aspect of worship leadership at his local church.  It was a church he had been a part of for many years (involving leadership in multiple ministries, including worship), but he had been transitioning in his career and hadn’t been physically present very often on Sundays in the past year.  He saw something upcoming in a new worship series that caught his interest and for which he thought he was especially skilled, so he called the pastor and volunteered.  The pastor responded by saying that since my friend “hadn’t been around” for a while, an appearance in worship would be awkward, and my friend said, okay, maybe another time.

This sequence got me to thinking about the way we count ministry participation.  First off, we certainly do count.  We count all sorts of things all sorts of ways (averaging upwards on attendance and rounding down on deficits).  We often don’t have a scientific method for what we count and how, and our data is sketchy as a result.  We often bend the numbers in favor of the case we are trying to make (bringing to mind Mark Twain’s thoughts on counting things).  As ministry leaders, if we agree on what we are counting, why that data is important, and how we are collecting it, it can be a great tool for making rational decisions.

But that’s not what this blog is about.  In a world in which the ways people connect with faith communities continue to evolve, and the old model of Sunday morning as the be-all-and-end-all of church life is fading, my friend’s story got me to thinking about how we register “full participation” in the life of the church.

Looking at Sunday morning worship attendance records – assuming those are being regularly and accurately kept, which would, in itself, be a big assumption in many churches – my friend had gone from being an “every Sunday” kind of guy to a “once-a-monther.”  This, of course, would put him well within the statistical model for changing attendance patterns within most mainline denominations.  So, that becomes an initial question: do we count people who drop in once-a-month as regular attendees?  (According to all of the available surveys, they certainly seem themselves that way.)

In my friend’s case, however, he had lots of other statistical evidence to back up his claim as a regular participant in the life of the church:

  • He listens to the Facebook live feed of the Sunday worship service when he isn’t there in person.
  • He reads the weekly e-newsletter and keeps up to date with ministry opportunities.
  • He faithfully reads the daily devotions, written by fellow congregation members and delivered to his inbox.
  • He attends a small group book and Bible study every week.
  • He participates occasionally in ministry opportunities.
  • He receives the prayer request list and prays for expressed needs of the congregation.
  • He occasionally attends a midweek pub group that discusses spiritual issues.
  • He lunches or does coffee occasionally with ministry leaders to share ideas.
  • He checks in on members he knows are struggling with health or other issues.
  • He gives (sporadically, but with intention) financial gifts to support ministry efforts.

Given a binary choice of “active participant” or “inactive participant,” this person clearly is active in the life of the church.  But our traditional ways of counting people do not accommodate non-traditional modes of participation.  This attitude on behalf of ministry leaders can be a real turn-off to people who seek connections that fit their lifestyles and wiring:

  • People whose work schedules preclude Sunday morning worship schedules.
  • People who travel frequently on the weekends.
  • People who are more comfortable with the kinds of engagement made possible by emerging technologies (and less so in face-to-face situations).
  • People inhibited by transportation issues or physical issues.
  • People who just feel engaged spiritually in ways other than large, traditional worship gatherings.

In our local churches with strong technology portfolios and lots of options for small groups and hands-on ministry beyond Sundays, there are still many ways to grow spiritually and support the work of the church.  Our call as leaders is to encourage these non-traditional connections and empower these non-traditional connectees to pursue ministry by following their own unique pathways.

There are ways to count people participating in non-Sunday-worship ways.  It is easy to periodically check on who is opening and reading church-distributed emails.  It is simple to check who is making donations to ministry.  Robust data collection can include details on who is attending small groups and volunteering for hands-on ministry.

At base, however, this topic is another reminder about the power of relationships and conversation.  If we are having regular conversations with people who come our way, one-on-one conversations between ministry leaders and the people who are part of ministry, we build strong, personalized relationships that take into account the unique situations and opportunities for each uniquely created vessel of the Holy Spirit.

It is this movement away from “one-size-fits-all” ministry to customized possibilities that is one of the exciting aspects of the evolving church, and each of these non-traditional outlets (or better phrased, inlets) to ministry is fertile ground for welcoming new talent and new perspectives.  We should be thinking about how to leverage those opportunities for the ultimate goal of transforming the communities in which we live:

  • How do we communicate the value of those partnering with us in non-traditional ways?
  • How do we bridge our various “mini-communities’ within our larger faith community, so that all family members, regardless of how and when they participate, are sharing the same vision and growing together?
  • How do we allocate resources so that what happens on Sunday mornings (critical though it is) does not completely soak up resources? How we can spread more of our focus and budget to support new forms of engagement?

What has been your own experience with how people are counted and how people are connected?  What exciting new ideas do you have to share about expanding the range of engagement?  How have you seen people unconventionally – yet powerfully – engaged in the life of your local church?

Share your ideas and questions in our comments section.  And thanks for being here.  You count!