If You Don’t Believe Me – Believe Jan (Again)

Introduction by Lisa Allgood, Executive Presbyter

This blog was authored by the Reverend Dr. Jan Edmiston, General Presbyter for the Presbytery of Charlotte, as part of her daily blog, A Church for Starving Artists (https://achurchforstarvingartists.blog/ ) – and I asked her permission to reprise it here, since it echoes so many of the conversations I’ve had over the past two-and-a-half years.  She graciously agreed.  She’s cool like that.

We Love Big Numbers (And Smaller Numbers Worry Us)

Sunday morning worship numbers are down. There’s no denying it, my friends.

With COVID protocols relaxing a bit, some congregations have “come back” to in-person services but most have not returned. Not yet.

Since late spring, I’ve worshipped with twenty people, with ten people, and with eight people in three different congregations although their memberships are officially much larger. I’ve also worshipped in groups of 100+ people with distancing and in all those cases, the people sitting in church sanctuaries are just a fraction of those on the church rolls.

Most churches are also offering virtual worship and there’s no definitive way to count virtual participants. Some people note their “attendance” in Facebook comments. Some offer a thumbs up on Youtube. But all in all, the numbers are down. More are worshipping online than in person, but still, the numbers are down.

Why is this important? Because big numbers = success to most of us. Numbers = viability for a congregation. Numbers = Financial Security.

Again I quote Yancey Strickler:

“Today the world is dominated by an idea I call ‘financial maximization.’ The belief is that in any decision, the right choice is whichever option makes the most money. This is the default setting that runs much of the world.”

If people at the top who already have lots of money can make even more money by laying off workers, or giving the job of two people to one person, or razing affordable housing to build expensive housing, or eliminating the last of a community’s green space to development – great. Good for them IF making more money is what matters the most.

And also, if making more money is what matters most, then other sweet things like our love lives, our family lives, our health, our community relationships, our sense of safety, our spiritual lives, and pretty much everything else, might suffer.

What I’m not saying: That money is bad and profits are bad.

Yay for money and profits because they allow us to have tools to do great things like have homes and cars and education and healthcare and vacations and impactful non-profits like houses of worship. It’s just that when making the most money regardless of who gets hurt or left behind is the most important thing, we find ourselves living lives that don’t look like the lives we were created to live.

And this brings me to Church and numbers again.

I wrote before that The Mother of All Culture Shifts is the shift from doing ministry to gain new members to doing ministry to serve our neighbors. For example, some church leaders believe that the success of a church preschool or a church after school program or a church clothing closet can be measured in terms of “how many people joined” as a result of those ministries. We want people to join so that our numbers will increase and subsequently our financial donations will increase.

This is the opposite of what Jesus taught.

If a church member ever asks you, “Why are we distributing free food to people who live in the next county? They are never going to join our church” please 1) slap your forehead and then 2) remind them about The Great Commission of Jesus’ Disciples and the Shema and The Golden Rule and Matthew 25.

A world whose first priority is financial maximization will not get it. Why should I give my COVID tax relief check to my congregation to fill a food pantry for the neighbors when I could enjoy a fancy meal? Why should this business make a generous donation to the men’s shelter so that they can replace the roof? Why should we work for teacher salary increases when we don’t have children in public schools? Why should we keep driving our old car and increase our pledge to our church for a capital campaign to expand our preschool?

Again financial stability is good. In fact, it is a basic right for all God’s people. But the divide in our country between the very rich and the very poor along with the financial stresses of everyone in between will destroy this country if we let it continue. And it will destroy our souls.

I sound really preachy today, don’t I? But what I love about Yancey Strickler’s work is that he believes we can be a more generous people – both in terms of money and priorities. This is a huge issue for the Church which doesn’t need money for doing ministry in a survival mode. Money is a tool we can use to expand the reign of God and bring resurrection to those seeking life’s meaning.

Life’s meaning is about love. Money and people are two ways to spread that love.