Should we evangelize children?

This tweet has received a lot of attention this week.

Should we evangelize children? Our own? Others?

The most recited words in all of history would disagree with Cindy Wang Brandt. You’ll find those words in Deuteronomy 6, in what’s known as the Shema. It begins with “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”[note]Deut 6:4[/note] Young boys would learn these words as soon as they could speak.[note]See Sukkah 42a of the Babylonian Talmud: “If he is able to speak, his father must teach him Torah and the reading of the Shema.”  “What [in this context] is meant by the Shema? The first verse.”[/note] Jews from ancient times to the present have recited this verse and those that follow twice a day, morning and evening.[note]The recited Shema includes three parts—Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41[/note] And these are the traditional final words of Jewish believers as they die. From earliest speech to final words: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD, our God, the LORD is one.”

Some of the greatest and most important implications for our faith come from this simple declaration. There is one God! Nothing that follows would make sense or have the same sense of urgency attached if there were more gods than one, or if the true God were not this particular God.

But if God is one—if this God is truly the God of all the earth—then what we’re about to consider is much more than a set of commands. It’s life according to reality. It’s life lived the only way we would choose to live it if we truly believed these words.

The charge that follows gives the most important statement about home life in Israel:

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:6-9

Do you hear the urgency in these instructions? If God alone is God, pass this faith down to the next generations! Teach it at home and on the road, as you’re going to bed and as you’re waking. These words, on hands and foreheads and doorframes and gates, serve as a witness not only to the children in the household but to everyone around. Pass this faith along!

Cindy Wang Brandt wouldn’t like this. And some parenting philosophies today would reject this idea, as well. Parents talk about raising their children to “decide for themselves” when it comes to faith. Parents don’t want to force their faith on their children. And when it comes to those outside our own families, we claim even less right. Who are we to tell others how to live? And so we choose not to meddle, to “live and let live” or “think and let think.” We may have chosen to follow the God of Christianity, but that was a personal decision, one we shouldn’t expect of others.

When we say things like this, we’re acknowledging something that’s a reality, regardless of our wishes: Others will make this choice for themselves. Our children will one day choose for themselves when it comes to their faith (and all else, as well). We can’t force these decisions. Not forever, anyway.

But let’s acknowledge something else, too: we pass down many loves. We pass down to our children our love for certain sports and sports teams. We pass down political stances and important traditions. We try to impress upon our children values like integrity and respect and gratitude, and we train them with certain life skills that we think are essential. Some parents require their children to know how to change a tire or jumpstart a battery before they can get their driver’s license. Others have insisted that their children learn to do laundry and cook before they move out of the house.

And we do the same with others besides our children. Have you ever convinced someone to watch a certain show or movie, or read a certain book, because it was so good? Because you believed that it would improve their lives—or give the two of you something good to share together?

If any of this applies, you could call yourself an evangelist. You’ve attempted to convert someone, to get them to believe a certain way or do a certain thing. Why do we do this? Because we believe in the cause. We believe enough in the sports team or the political stance or the book that we want others to share in it with us. Or we believe that life skills like jumpstarting a car or cooking are important enough that our children must have them to do well in life. So long as these are honest pursuits to improve someone’s life (or even more, our world), they’re good pursuits.

And if God alone is God, wouldn’t our greatest pursuit be to impress this faith on others? Sports teams, political views, traditions, good movies and books will all pass away. But if God alone is God, nothing is more important to pass down than this faith. If we say “God is one,” that statement carries a great urgency to share it.

To be sure, this doesn’t justify any tactic. It doesn’t justify force or threats. It doesn’t justify rude or self-righteous badgering. And it doesn’t justify intolerance for those who don’t conform, whether about faith or any of the other things here. (Have you met someone who can’t have a happy friendship with a fan of the “wrong” sports team? It’s miserable and silly.)

We cannot, we must not, treat anyone with less respect or dignity because they have different beliefs than we do. But this doesn’t mean we should treat them with indifference, as if faith in God would do anything less than radically transform their lives.

Inter-religious faith gatherings are becoming more common. In some of these, people who represent different religions come to share about their faith. Tim Tennent, a world Christianity scholar and now president of Asbury Theological Seminary, writes about his experiences at these gatherings. He describes people of various faiths who come with a whole-hearted belief in their faith, even a hope to convert him. We should expect nothing less from anyone who believes that they know God, the true and only God. Look at what he says about when these go wrong:

What is heart-breaking is when I arrive at an inter-religious dialogue event and meet these full-orbed Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists all beautifully representing their faith and the millions of followers who stand in these traditions, and then the Christian stands up and blathers on endless nonsense about how we are all really the same and how all religions lead to God and we are all really saying the same thing.

from “Two Kinds of Pluralism,” posted on February 19, 2015, at

Can you see the difference between tolerance and respect, on the one hand, and indifference and apathy on the other? We can respect others’ beliefs and opinions, but this is far from conceding that they’re unimportant. We aren’t all really saying the same thing.

Pass these down—at home and on the road, at dawn and at dusk! Impress them on your children! If we truly believe that God alone is God, we can do nothing less.

Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places – Mike Mather interview, pt. II

I shared part I of my interview with Mike Mather last week. Here’s part II.

Take this as a short teaser for his outstanding new book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places. I highly recommend that you buy it, read it, and if you are part of a church leadership team, consider reading it together.

Also, if you’d like to listen to the full interview, here’s the audio for streaming or download:


Teddy: So (in the first part of the interview) you mentioned DeAmon and you mentioned young people asking questions. Say a bit more about this whole roving listener, how long you’ve been having roving listeners and how this came about.

Mike: So the local development corporation contacted us from our neighborhood and said they were going to do a strategic plan and they wanted us to partner with them, which meant they wanted money. And we said, “Well, we’ll partner with you on this, but we have three conditions. One is you won’t do it by doing a need survey. You’ll do it by doing a survey of what people have, not what’s missing from people. The second thing is we get to choose the person who leads it. And the third is we get to supervise that person, because though their lips said, “yes, yes, yes,” their eyes said, what are you talking about? 

And so we went to DeAmon, who lives in our neighborhood and would walk down and see me every day. And he was a member of our church and he would talk to me about, “Oh, I just met this guy who lives at the corner of 32nd and Park. And he plays chess on his porch every afternoon and all the kids gather around and he’s teaching them about life when he does this.” Or, “I just ran into the Buddha boys, this local gang at the corner of 31st and Broadway and one of them’s a poet and one of them is a mechanic and one of them loves science.” And he would tell me these things.

So we went to DeAmon and said, “How’d you like to get paid for what you already do?”

Teddy: That’s a good deal.

Mike: Yeah, and he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, you seem to recognize the giftedness of people, and so we need you to do that for this strategic planning process.” So he began to do that. So again, when I had come back to Broadway, we had been running the summer program the same way as when I left at the end of ’91. So now it’s 2004 or ‘05. We’re still running the summer program basically the same way. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t doing anything destructive. But from my perspective and from a really practical perspective, it wasn’t really changing anything.

Somebody once talked about discernment by nausea, where you know something has to change and it’s not going to be fun…  So we took a couple of days off, we prayed together, we talked with one another. And what we decided to do out of that was to build on the work DeAmon had been doing by hiring young people who live in our neighborhood and paying them to meet their neighbors.

They do three things. They name the gifts, talents, dreams, and passions they see in the lives of their neighbors. They lay hands on them and bless them. And they connect them to other people who care about the same thing. So if they find gardeners, they connect them to other gardeners. If they find cooks, they connect them with other cooks… people who love business. And then the gift of the church is that we can connect them to people who are outside of the neighborhood and care about the same things.

But then people aren’t meeting about needs. They’re meeting about, “Oh, we all cook,” or “We all garden.” So when they get together, they’re not talking about “what can I do to help you?” They’re talking about, “So what’s your favorite recipe? What kind of flour do you use for this? What are the tools you use in this gardening project? How did you start your business? Let me tell you how I started mine.” And then people are meeting each other, as we would say in the church, as sisters and brothers. 

Teddy:  Oh, that’s great! Mike, was it you who had the tee shirts or the signs that said, “I See You.” Or am I thinking of someone else?

Mike: And we also had the sign that said, “I am more than you see.” Is that what you’re thinking of?

Teddy: I think so. 

Mike: We did have “I see you” stuff, too, and we talk about that a lot. It’s a greeting in South Africa when people greet one another. They say, “I see you.” And the response is something along the lines of, “It is good to be seen.”

It is good!

Teddy: And that seems just the premise that runs through all of this – bringing people together in those settings where they can really see and be seen.

That’s not just an unconventional approach to your neighborhood. It’s in the rest of the ministry, too. I was just telling someone a few weeks ago as we were talking about youth ministry that I talked to a guy who hired a youth minister and said, “If you create a youth program, you’re fired.” That’s one of my favorite quotes from you, because I think it illustrates how this mentality is something within your church’s ministry, too.

Mike: That’s right. Inside the walls and outside the walls.

Teddy: So what does that mean, “If you create a youth program, you’re fired”?

Mike: One of the things is—studies have shown this—that youth groups don’t do a good job of developing people who then are part of the faith later on in life. So one thing is we keep doing something that we know practically doesn’t work. But the other thing is how does it reflect what we really believe? So I can’t remember if I told this story in the book. Did I tell the story about how Methodist Hospital started in Indianapolis?

Teddy: I’m not sure.

Mike: So over 100 years ago… Again, let me stress this, over 100 years ago, a group of young people from around the city who were Methodist came to the Methodist conference and said, “There is not a hospital for poor people in this city. So give us $1 million. [This is over 100 years ago!] And we’re going to start one.” And they did! I mean, they were young people, like 17 to 29 years old.

Now, what we ask for our young people these days is to go on the stage at Annual Conference and jump up and down and clap!

But we believe that… In most cultures in the world, when you’re 12 years old, you’re expected to be making a contribution. So we believe people have something to offer and that God’s at work in people.

So one of the things that we did with that was we would organize individual meals around each young person. (We do this for young people, both in the church and outside the church.) We would go to the young person’s home or in some cases, very few, but in some cases, the young person didn’t have a home, so we would go to a restaurant. The young person’s family had to be there. The young person could invite whoever they wanted to be there. 

And then we would invite a couple of extra people. We’d eat together, and then when the meal was over, we’d ask everybody there to tell the young person what gifts they see in that young person’s life. And so people go around the room and do that. And then we ask the young person to speak to us about what he or she thinks their calling in this life is going to be and is. And then after that young person speaks about that, we turn to everybody there and say, “Does anybody here have anything to offer to the gifts of this young person, to what this young person thinks they’re going to do with their life?”

Now how many of us are doing what we thought we’d be doing at 15? Not very many of us. But that isn’t the point. The point is people recognizing and affirming that God is moving in our lives. That we have particular uniqueness and a call and a giftedness. So the first couple of young people that we did this with, we had them come and talk to the Governing Council of the church and after they left, the people in the Governing Council asked, “Why are we just doing this for young people?”

So you know, actually the most recent thing we’ve done with that is we’ve started doing it for shut-ins. And we did that because somebody felt the call to be with older folks, and we said, “Okay, well how about doing this?” And it’s been great! It’s the church caring for each other and doing what we can do like that.

Teddy: And you’re beginning to answer one of the other questions that I had for you, because you’re in a different setting from a lot of folks who will read this book. You’re sitting in a neighborhood that’s considered impoverished by the city around it and has different groups coming in all the time to try to improve it. I wanted to talk some about if a church in the middle-class suburbs asked you, “How do we change what we do?” What would you tell them? And I think you’ve answered at least a part of that. I wonder if there’s anything else you would say.

Mike: We do a couple things with that because we do get this question. And one of the things we’ve come to say to people is, take one of the things that you’re already doing and try an experiment.

So let me give you a couple of examples. One was a church that comes in and does a meal every Sunday for people in the inner city. So they said, “How could we do something different with this?” I said, “Well why don’t you try and make this as easy as possible? Don’t make it really complicated.” So you have somebody in your group who listens well. I’m sure there is. Because in every group there is somebody. So for the next two months, just ask that person to hang out with people who come to the meal and listen. And then at the end of that two months, have that person come and talk to your whole group and ask them, “What did you hear? What did you notice? Is there something we can build off of here?” So that’s one thing.

Another thing is, say you’ve got some program you’re doing in the inner city. One of the things we’d like you to do is try and identify one or two people who you’re serving who have similar interests as the people in your group. If you have people in your group who like to knit or if you have people in your group who like to do carpentry, what you’re looking for is somebody who you meet who has that same love for that. And then do something together. First of all, just get together for a meal and talk together about that. And then what we ask the pastor to do is to show up and listen and not say anything, which is sometimes hard for them.

Teddy: No doubt.

Mike: But then try to figure out, where did you see the spirit moving in that, and how can I invest in that? Asking people to change the ways completely they do things is crazy. It’s impossible. But asking people to begin to look at this and try to do it step by step… try to connect, get the gardeners together, get the cooks together, get people who love poetry together. It doesn’t matter what it is, and it’s idiosyncratic to every group of human beings you have.

But just one step at a time.

Teddy: It’s humbling to listen to you talk and to read your book because, like I said near the beginning of this conversation, so much of it feels like it should be intuitive. But it’s only when I hear you say it that I go, “Oh, this shouldn’t be that difficult!” It’s really just taking small steps.

Mike: Well, again, the reason it isn’t difficult is because it’s the way we already believe. The difficult thing is figuring out what it looks like to actually do it. Because all our practices are built around scarcity.

Teddy:  Say another word about that. Is there anything about this work that you’re talking about that’s unique to the gospel? That is, there’s a lot of it that we could call humanitarian, even spiritual, but is there anything that you would say makes it unique to the Christian faith?

Mike: Well, I would say a couple things about that. One is that I have what people would consider a realized eschatology. In Matthew 11, John the Baptist is in prison and he sends his disciples to go talk to Jesus and say, “Are you the one?” And Jesus says, “Go back and tell John, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news, and blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” I believe those things are already true. I think the poor have good news. And I think what’s uniquely Christian is that we can see this when nobody else will.

I think that Jesus heals more people of blindness than he heals of anything else because that’s our biggest problem. Think about the story of the man born blind in John 9. That’s a really long story, and we know if we read the story, at the end Jesus is talking about the blindness of the religious leaders. But early in the thing, he heals the guy born blind and the guy goes back to his village, and it says that many did not recognize him. He was blind! He wasn’t disfigured. But they could only see him for what he was missing, for what was wrong with him.

And so I just think over and over again…  Blind Bartimaeus! There are more stories in particular about Jesus healing someone of blindness than of any other particular thing. There’s like nine instances of Jesus healing somebody from blindness in the gospels.

Paul talks about this in Corinthians when he says, “Now remember who you were dear sisters and brothers, for from a human point of view, few of you were wise or powerful, from high social standing, but God purposely chose what the world considers foolish in order to shame the wise, and God purposely chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the strong, and God purposely chose what the world looks down on and despises and thinks of as nothing in order to destroy what the world thinks of as important.”

I think what is uniquely Christian here is this recognition that God in Christ has done these things and has changed the world unalterably and forever, and we can act like it, or we cannot. 

And it doesn’t change what God in Christ has done. What it changes is, are we entering into that joy that Jesus talks about in John 15 when he says, “I came that you may have joy and that your joy may be full.” I think it’s that! And I think it’s over and over again. I think I wrote in the book that in John 6 at the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus tells the disciples to gather up the scraps. And it says, “They gathered up baskets full.” When he says to them to gather up the fragments, it’s the same language, it’s the same word that he uses in John 10:10 to say, “I came that you may have life abundant.” These fragments are the abundance. It’s all these pieces that are present right now. That’s what I think is uniquely Christian about this.

Teddy: That’s a great realized eschatology laid out in full.

Mike, I could talk to you all day. I hope you keep writing, because you’ve just shared a lot that didn’t make the cut in this book. I think there’s a lot more to go. Thank you. I really appreciate this.

Mike: Thanks for having me, Teddy. 

Teddy: Having Nothing, Possessing Everything. I especially loved your subtitle, “Finding abundant communities in unexpected places.” That’s just right.

Thank you so much for this time. I told you earlier I’ve already bought a good half dozen of your books, and I’m probably planning to buy another half dozen more to send to different people. And that’s the first time I’ve done that in a few years. I don’t do this often, but I really think this is valuable, and I appreciate you writing it and doing what you’re doing. So thank you, Mike.

That’s all for my interview with Mike. Now go buy his book. Get a copy for yourself and a copy for a friend. And consider sharing this interview so some other people can be exposed to it, too.

HOW we need to plant churches: How to NOT squander church resources (pt. III)

In the coming years, the church must find a way to maximize its resources. The United Methodist Church serves as an excellent experimental lab, with thousands of ongoing experiments running in different local churches and Annual Conferences. What can we learn from those experiments? In the last part of this series, I detailed why we need to focus on church planting. This part will focus on the how.

Church Planting

Over the past 200 years, Methodists planted over 800 self-sustaining churches in the state of Kentucky. Those churches have been places of care for their members, mission outposts in their communities, and contributors to a mission far beyond their own.

How can we continue to create places like these for future generations?

I’ve read numerous studies on church planting and conducted some of my own research over the past few years. The most slap-you-in-the-face clear findings: (1) more churches reach more people [see previous post]; (2) initiatives sponsored by local churches usually succeed; the rest usually fail; (3) disproportionate outside funding harms long-term sustainability.

Local Initiatives

One of the best quantitative studies I’ve found analyzes the Christian Reformed Church’s planting success. It compares local initiatives to denominational initiatives. Of the 43 locally sponsored initiatives, 31 were successful, a 72% success rate. Of the 36 other initiatives, 2 were successful, a 94% failure rate!

The author of the study, David Snapper, discusses advances in church growth research and training for church planters. Many people expected good training in church growth techniques would lead to success. However, the denominational-initiative pastors––the 94% failure rate pastors––had received heavy training in church growth techniques. Snapper concludes, “[G]ood technique cannot, by itself, overcome the enormous difficulties imposed by isolation, lack of support, diminished name-recognition, and similar realities of many NCDs.”

Of course, this study was conducted on congregations organized between 1987 and 1994.[note]See “Unfulfilled Expectations of Church Planting” by David Snapper in the Calvin Theological Journal 31 (1996): 464:86.[/note] A lot has changed since the 90’s. Is this data still relevant? Results from recent Kentucky church plants suggest that it is.

I wish our team in Kentucky had come across Snapper’s research study and heeded its warnings fourteen years ago. A study of UMC church planting in Kentucky from 2004-2018 showed similar results. We looked at all plants that had received denominational funding in the past 14 years and have since gone off funding. We categorized them as no longer existent, sustaining,[note]exists, but is not paying denominational apportionments, a sign of continuing financial challenges[/note] and thriving.[note]financially self-sustaining + paying apportionments[/note]

Out of fourteen attempts at independent plants, eleven no longer exist and three are sustaining. None were categorized as thriving. That makes for a 21% somewhat-success rate.

Out of ten attempts at local-initiative plants––multi-sites or plants from a founding church––two no longer exist, three are sustaining, and five are thriving. That makes for an 80% success rate for at least sustaining, 50% success rate for thriving. The two that no longer exist represent one idea that received limited funding and never actually began and one congregation that left the UMC denomination (so they do still exist, just not in the UMC).[note]I’m not including other kinds of plants that were a part of the larger study––multi-language plants (new language, same location), church restarts, and church-within-a-church. Our sample size was too small and results too inconclusive to be of much help. The early results from all of those did not look good.[/note]

Every piece of our findings confirms what that earlier study of the Reformed Christian Church demonstrated: Initiatives sponsored by local churches are likely to succeed, the rest are likely to fail.

As with frequent moving of pastors, the independent plant model of church planting seems to defy basic biology. A church plant is much more likely to succeed as an organic outgrowth from an existing church than as an isolated strategic initiative. God can create ex nihilo. The rest of us will do better with the strong base of support a local church provides.

Disproportionate Funding

Another question we asked about church plants over the past 14 years: How did the amount of denominational funding they received impact their long-term success?

Specifically, we asked, “For every dollar given by church members during a new church’s first year, how many dollars of denominational support did they receive?” Many of us expected an easy answer: the more financial support, the better. That was wrong.

We categorized them into churches that received <$3 in total from the denomination for every dollar contributed by members in the first year (e.g. If a new church’s giving was $50,000 in its first year, the total denominational support was $150,000 or less), churches that received $3 – $9 for every dollar contributed by members, and those that received over $9. Look at the success rates:

The more disproportionate the denominational support, the less likely a new church was to succeed.

Even more revealing is a look at attendance, giving, and contributions back to the denomination (“apportionments” in the UMC) for each of these categories. We asked, “For every $10,000 our denomination invested, what is the average worship attendance––or annual giving, or annual apportionments paid––today?”

To help make sense of this chart –– The churches that received a total of <$3 from the denomination for every dollar of first-year giving are averaging nearly ten people in worship per $10,000 invested by the denomination. If the UMC invested $100,000 in one of these churches, attendance today is likely around 100 today. By comparison, if the UMC invested $100,000 in a more disproportionate way –– if it was in the middle category, that church is likely to have 20 in worship today.

I think what we’re seeing here is that with more disproportionate denominational investment, new churches become dependent on that funding. They are unable to mature into churches that can become self-sustaining.

This runs against much of the logic used in new church development circles. If a church has more internal funding, we support them less, supposing that they have enough already. If a church is struggling financially, we often rush to their aid with more denominational funding, trying to prop them up. Those efforts to prop up will probably be wasted money, keeping a new congregation dependent on the denomination, when it would be better to allow them to either rise to the challenge or close.

Putting it all together

What if we asked only two questions for supporting new faith communities: (1) Is it an initiative coming out of a strong founding church? (2) Can we support it with proportionate denominational funding? In this case, I’ve identified proportionate as matching funding from the denomination that would put a church in that <$3 category above.

In the past 14 years, 12% of Kentucky investments in new church planting have fit those two categories. Look at how those investments have done:


I think we have enough evidence to make a change. We should re-focus our church planting resources. Can a good idea + a charismatic leader + massive denominational funding lead to a successful church plant? Of course! But it will be the rare exception to the rule. We’ve spent millions on parachutes for charismatic leaders with good ideas, and we have little to show for it.[note]This should actually provide some reassurance to any of those discouraged leaders. If you tried to start a church without the strong backing of a local church and were unsuccessful, we shouldn’t first assume it’s a reflection on your leadership. The odds were stacked against you.[/note]

Denominations need to keep a focus on church planting, but their role needs to be about inspiring and incentivizing local churches to plant new churches. Denominations should invest in those new plants as partners, not as their primary benefactors. We need to get out of the business of investing in ideas––even ones with exciting, well-crafted plans. We need to run from any notions of centrally-planned initiatives. If we continue investing in initiatives that aren’t based out of a local church or where denominational funding makes up most of a new church’s budget, we need to ask whether we’re squandering our resources.

I don’t want you to miss the next post, and neither do you. To be sure you don’t miss it, JOIN my e-mail update list.

Why we need more churches: How to NOT squander church resources (pt. II)

In the coming years, the church must find a way to maximize its resources. The United Methodist Church serves as an excellent experimental lab, with thousands of ongoing experiments running in different local churches and Annual Conferences. What can we learn from those experiments? I wrote part I of this series on pastoral tenure and transition. The next two parts will focus on church growth and church planting.

Two charts that should change how we think about church growth

I’m going to share two charts with you that should make us reconsider how we typically think about church growth.

These are based on my research of the United Methodist Church in Kentucky. This is obviously a limited data set. One denomination, one state.[note]Not even a full state. Just my conference. A handful of our counties are in another conference.[/note] Nevertheless, it gives us over 800 churches in 105 counties, so there’s a lot to work with here. I suspect that it would hold true if we went beyond my denomination and state.[note]Preliminary research on the North Carolina Conference of the UMC shows similar results.[/note]

An easy first question: Is there a relationship between the number of churches in a county and the percentage of that county’s population in worship?

If you said yes, you were right. More churches = more people in worship. The chart below plots each county based on its number of UMC churches per capita and the average percentage of the population in worship attendance at UMC churches.

churches-and-attendanceLook at that beautiful direct relationship. More churches = more people in worship.

For people who like math and statistics, the correlation here is 0.884.

If you’re unfamiliar with correlations, they show you how closely related two variables are.

A 1 signifies a perfect positive relationship. Things with high positive correlations: ice cream sales vs. the outdoor temperature, your waist size vs. the amount of junk food you eat.

A -1 signifies a perfect negative relationship. Things with high negative correlations: hot chocolate sales vs. the outdoor temperature, your waist size vs. the amount you exercise.

A 0 signifies no relationship. Things with a near-0 correlation: the temperature outside vs. the amount of money in your bank account.

So a 0.884 correlation suggests a strong relationship between these two things.[note]There’s an important reminder in statistics: correlation does not imply causation. The number of people who drowned by falling into a swimming-pool correlates with the number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in during the year. Nevertheless, I think we have reason to believe that some causation is happening here. A few people might argue that the number of people in worship is causing the number of churches in that county. I don’t think that argument would find much support.[/note] I took this data to a team of MBA students at UK to be sure I hadn’t mishandled my data or misunderstood my results. They came back to me amazed that the data showed such a strong one-variable relationship.[note]For statistical analysis nerds, there’s much more here to discuss re: regression analyses. A regression analysis using county size and churches per capita shows a p-value of 4.4*10^-37 for churches per capita. A regression analysis using county size and average church size shows a p-value of .97 for average church size. I’m happy to continue the conversation and get your help and input for any next steps of study. Email me.[/note]

Let’s ask a next question. Is there a relationship between the size of churches in a county and the percentage of the population in worship?

This seems as intuitive as the first question. Bigger churches should equal more people in worship.

If you said yes… you were wrong. Bigger churches = nothing as far as total reach. The chart below plots each county based on the average size of its UMC churches and the percentage of the population in worship attendance.

size-and-attendanceNo relationship. The correlation is -0.12. This doesn’t change significantly even if we separate our counties by size. Even among our large counties––where churches are likely to grow larger––the number of churches per capita relates to how many people we’re reaching, the average size of the churches in that county does not.

More churches, more people

Tell me the number of UMC churches in your county, and I can tell you with decent accuracy what percentage of the county you’re reaching. Tell me the average size of UMC churches in your county, and I can tell you… nothing.

More churches = more people. Bigger churches = no difference.

In the data points above, you might see that the UMC has nearly 8% of one county in worship each Sunday. That’s Cumberland County. That county doesn’t have a single church with more than 100 people in attendance. But it has 17 of them![note]Some people will argue that Cumberland County is an outlier. Except that it’s not. Remove it, and the correlation doesn’t change. It is not an exception to the rule. It’s an extreme data point that proves the rule.[/note] For comparisons’ sake, that’s four more UMC churches than Fayette County has, even though Fayette is 46x larger.

If the Church really believes in reaching more people, it should be locked-in focused on starting more churches. Instead, we seem much more focused on growing churches. We celebrate church growth more than anything. Which people do we put in the spotlight? The ones who grow big churches! “The next speaker grew his[note]Let’s face it, it’s almost always “his.” I don’t celebrate that.[/note] church to ___ thousand in just ___ years!” The not-so-subtle suggestion: we all want to be like that guy and grow massive churches. Or at least grow larger than we are. Because we’ve all been convinced, if not consciously then subconsciously, that bigger churches are better.

We reveal that disposition when we refer to the church down the street as competition instead of as an ally. We reveal it when we say [insert your city name] has enough churches already, or when we advocate for church mergers. (“Do we really need one more church down the street? Why not combine into one bigger church?”)

About those mergers

When we look at our merger products, we see more evidence that our bigger is better thinking is flawed. Analysis of Kentucky’s merger product churches over the past decade shows them as the single worst-performing category of churches we found. We had eleven merger product churches. Nine declined in their combined attendance and averaged a 33% loss. Five of them were among our top 20 attendance decreases across the conference during this period. (A category of churches that makes up only 1.4% of the Conference represented 25% of our churches with worst worship attendance losses.)

Two of those merger products actually grew. Those two exceptions are telling. One maintained separate geographic locations. The other maintained worship services in different languages. Neither merger included getting all the people under one roof.

Why we prefer bigger, why we need more

Bigger affords more. Specifically, it affords pastors a bigger pulpit, paycheck, parsonage and pension. (I’ve heard about the 4 P’s more than a few times. So long as they’re prized, our decisions will be based more on pastor preferences than kingdom impact.) So there’s a baked-in incentive for pastors to favor bigger rather than more. If you send people out to start something new, it means that your pulpit will stay smaller. And probably the paycheck and pension, since people will take their money with them. One church of 400 can pay a pastor much more than five churches of 100 can each pay their pastor. But we reach more people the second way.

Bigger affords more, but bigger doesn’t reach more. More reaches more. How can we flip the script in the church to start celebrating more churches more than we celebrate bigger churches?

This post deals with our why. Why plant churches? Because we reach more people. The why isn’t enough, though. How do we plant churches effectively? Next week’s post [now available] will suggest that we already know… but often ignore it. To be sure you don’t miss it, JOIN my e-mail update list.