Recognizing Stagnation

One of the challenges of large church leadership is learning to recognize stagnation before it drags you down. The large church is often likened to the ocean liner; slow to respond and slow to turn. The large congregation is capable of maintaining momentum over long periods of time, but when stagnation seeps in and the rate of growth slows or declines (however you define growth) it’s difficult to recognize and react in a timely manner. Once decline has begun it’s terribly hard to reverse that loss of momentum. Identifying and responding to stagnation early is critical to large church vitality. 

I’ve worked in several congregations over the last year where stagnation has reared its ugly head, and I’ve noticed something peculiar in each situation. Leadership refuses to acknowledge that the stagnation is real. The key numerical indicators of the church show stagnation or decline in key areas; worship attendance is off, Sunday school attendance is flat, there is zero growth in pledging units. But leadership dismisses these indicators by focusing on their own lived experience of vitality; worship feels energetic, there are lots of people in the hallways on Sunday mornings, we see lots of children everywhere, the overall operating budget keeps getting larger.

So, here’s what I’m coming to understand about this experience. When the data that we collect to evaluate the health of the congregation is in conflict with the lived experience of leaders, leaders will usually rely on their lived experience and find reasons to dismiss the data. “Perhaps we aren’t getting accurate data now, or maybe the data from a few years back was overstated”. The problem with relying on our lived experience of vitality is that no one can experience the whole congregation at any point in time. We each have our own lens on vitality, viewed through a particular window of participation. In the large congregation, nobody can see or grasp the collective experience from their singular vantage point, not even the senior clergy person.  The very fact that we are hosting four different worship experiences in various parts of the building on a Sunday morning lends an air of busyness and vitality that can mislead. Pockets of vitality and energy prevent us from seeing a larger picture of slowed growth or gradual decline. That’s why the numbers are so important to get right and to pay attention to.

The problem with numbers is that they are hard to gather correctly and it’s hard to figure out what the meaningful indicators are that would give us a better feel for vitality and health. Sunday morning worship and Sunday school attendance only tell part of the picture in the large church that makes extensive use of the building for programming throughout the week. And what about the congregation that hosts a significant part of its ministries outside the four walls of the building?

So what numerical indicators are churches paying attention to these days? Increasingly, I’m hearing congregations talk about measuring touch points in the life of the congregation. Touch points are individual moments in time when someone serves, or is served by, the ministry of the congregation.  More and more congregations are trying to collect better data on small group involvement and participation in mission and service projects. Some congregations are even trying to measure self reported attention to spiritual disciplines in the life of congregants.

I’d love to hear more about the ways and means that you are using to measure vitality and health in your congregations. Post a response and let me know what you are trying to measure and why.

Photo Credit: WezSmith at


2 Responses to “Recognizing Stagnation”

  1. Christine Robinson Says:

    I think that a variety of statistics always gives a better picture. But…have you ever run into a situation in which overall attendance of adults and children at worship/sunday school was stagnant or declining but the rest of the church’s life was vibrant and growing?

  2. Susan Says:

    In fact, I think this is very common phenomenon today. Reserach is showing us that people are not attending worship as frequently as they used to. Many would say that this is an indicator of decline in a congregation, but I think it is more cultural than anything else. People today, who claim to be active participants in a congregation, are attending worship less frequently than ten years ago. The result is that a church may look vibrant everywhere else (memberhsip roles, giving patterns, mid-week participation) but worship attendance is stagnant.

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