By Allen White
Every once in a while in my life as a small group coach and trainer, I run into a senior pastor who insists on weekly attendance numbers from their groups. This is not so much for the purposes of discerning how the group is doing and isn’t even for the purpose of member care.
These pastors hearken back to the day of the old attendance board in the front of the auditorium. You remember those:
Last Sunday’s Attendance: 267
One Year Ago: 263
Sunday School Attendance: 56
While megachurches are often accused of being “only about the numbers,” it seems like others have a little number-envy going on themselves.
Small group pastors ask me, “Is weekly attendance really important?” To which, I refer them to Good Reasons to Take Group Attendance [LINK]. While the small group pastor acknowledges those benefits, he or she soon confesses the pressure for attendance numbers is coming from outside – from a tote board -obsessed senior pastor. They don’t care who’s signed up for a group. They want to know on a weekly basis who’s actually attending the group. Here is why this recordkeeping might be a bad idea.
Small Groups Are More Like Families Than Classes
Let’s say you have a family of five. Your son has a late practice so he can’t make dinner tonight. Sitting around the dinner table, do you have a family of four or a family of five? Small groups are more like families than classes.
Groups are built on community around a Bible study. Classes are based on a course of study. If you skip too many classes, then you miss the content – the class is really of no benefit to you. But, a group is not a class.
Yes, there are group rosters. And, yes, attendance may vary. But, what happens not only during group meetings, but also in group life is what causes small groups to stand apart. Whether you attend the meeting or not, you’re a part of the group.
Years ago, we had a neighbor who attended our church and wanted to join our small group. She lived right around the corner, so our group was convenient for her. She also wanted her husband to attend the group. He came once, but obviously didn’t want to be there.
They had busy lives, so rather than spending an evening apart with her at group and him at home, she opted to stay home as well, but we kept her on our roster. She never attended a meeting, but my wife would check in on her regularly, go for walks, and once in a while, she would show up for group.
She wasn’t a part of anybody else’s group. This was her group, whether she was there or not. Attendance records would report her as “inactive,” but we connected with her every week outside of the group meeting. See where record keeping can go a little haywire?
Small Group Attendance Alone Is a Poor Measure of Church Health
While it’s important to know over all how many people are connected to groups, ministries and classes, numbers should never be an end in themselves. What do those numbers mean? “Well, we have 80 percent in groups, so our small group pastor can keep his job.” “We’ve gone up and down with group attendance. Small groups aren’t working in our church.” That may be, but are you really getting the information you need?
Here are better metrics for group and congregational health:
How many leaders have you developed?
Every believer is called to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20). There are no exemptions from the Great Commission. How are you empowering and equipping your members to gather a circle and make disciples? For many churches, an easy-to-use DVD curriculum is the answer. The person doesn’t need to be a leader or a Bible scholar. They just need to invite some friends. What makes this even better is if you create the video teaching yourself.
How’s the load of pastoral care?
When numbers go up, care goes down. I believe Pastor Rick Warren said that. This is why even though Saddleback Church has well over 25,000 in attendance, they also have well over 4,700 small groups.
A church will never be able to hire all of the staff it needs – mini-church or megachurch – it’s the same case for everybody. But, there are gifted people sitting in our pews every Sunday. If we encouraged them, and they said, “God use me,” we shouldn’t be surprised, but God uses them.
As people care for each other in groups, the need for pastoral care goes down. The Body is encouraging and serving one another.
Now, every church culture is a little different. Some church members are well trained in calling the church office for every little thing they need. Others simply feel out rightly entitled. But, when care goes up in groups, phone calls to the church office will go down.
How has assimilation improved?
When people start attending your church, how easy is it for them to make friends? How are they connecting? Groups are a great place for people to start.
In most churches, everyone can’t know everybody. But, everybody needs to know somebody. Statistically, that number is around 6-7 people. That’s all it takes for a person to stick. And, that sounds like a small group to me!
People who feel the connection and care of the church body outside of the Sunday morning service are more likely to stick around. A few months ago, our family started attending the Greenville, SC campus of NewSpring Church. Our kids where actually invited first and loved it. My oldest son would like to go to church twice per week!
My wife and I joined a small group – not because we had to – but because we were invited. Here’s the interesting thing – even though over 3,000 people attend the Greenville campus, we run into members of our small group on a regular basis. We just pick each other out of the crowd. There’s just something really great about seeing a smiling, familiar face in a large crowd. [Begin Cheers theme song…]
Other than our small group and our children’s teachers, we don’t know anybody else at NewSpring. We’ve never met our pastor. We don’t know the staff. But, we do know our group, and that’s all we really need.
What’s more important: attendance or relationship?
If attendance supersedes relationship, then if you lose a member here or there, you just replace them to keep your numbers up. After all, if you’re posting numbers on a tote board, a decline is sending a bad message.
But, if relationship is valued over attendance, people will invest in each other and build into each others’ lives. Whether members are present at each meeting or not, they are loved, valued, encouraged and supported. These are harder things to measure, but are far more meaningful.
Good Reasons for Taking Group Attendance
When Counting Doesn’t Add Up