I am not one to typically write blogs. We are inundated with ideas and concepts and information. Certainly there are many church consultants who blog and tweet on various formats better than I could or honestly would want to. We are a boots-on-the- ground kind of organization so I often leave the high level conjecture to others. However, I think it is important to share what we are experiencing at Holy Cow! Consulting and how we are seeing this in churches and regional associations across the country that we work with each year. 

Before COVID, we heard a lot about ‘scarcity.’ It was truly on every church’s mind. We, as church, have learned over many, many decades that we must measure our successes in count data. Simply put- how many people, how much money is the church measure of vitality. This mindset has amplified in this current season while we live into the post-pandemic era. I would describe it as a fever pitch. If you Google “mainstream Christianity,” you will see those words coupled with “decline,” “dying” and “unchurched.” I am sure this doesn’t surprise you.

If you talk with congregations you will hear about how people are home in pajamas and with coffee comfortably streaming their worship experience. The concept of “they are never coming back to church” has truly rooted itself into church culture and it has caused high levels of anxiety.  Not to mention how judgmental we have become of pajamas and coffee during worship.

Our love of count data as a measure of success could be because it is easy to measure. Numbers are easy and clear  (we like them too because we work in data). Or it could be because we truly believe if we do not have the most people or the most money then indeed we are not living out the Great Commission. Or maybe it is our societal culture telling us that bigger is always better. I cannot fully comprehend it because we find that even churches with the largest attendance and largest budgets still tell us they do not have enough people or money. This always leaves me with the question:  How much or what is enough?  At what number can we stop focusing on scarcity?

The problem with count data is its limit in scope, it stifles creativity and risk-taking, and, ultimately, when it becomes how we singularly determine our health as churches, it fails us miserably. Count data does not tell you how deeply you are experiencing God in your day to day life, or the ministry that your church does for those in need in your community, or how the congregation has experienced transformation. It does not take into account the people who give their time to lead your congregation or visit members in their lowest moments, when someone sitting with us is exactly what is needed. It does not tell us about the joy of meaningful relationships or the moving music that connects members to God in one space together. Count data just tells us simply that you have people and money. It just does not tell us how healthy you are as a church or the great work you can do together. And where is God in it anyway?

The scarcity narrative is dangerous for the church because it has led us to survival mode. Having meeting after meeting about what we don’t have, we become continually more anxious as a congregational system. We cannot imagine a way out.  We seek quick fixes that are not imaginative, creative, or truly meaningful. We want younger people so we don’t die as a church. We need money to keep our buildings. We can’t agree on a path forward and often find our congregation in debilitating conflict. We set aside connecting with each other both spiritually and relationally to make way for faster meetings and avoid important things that truly need our attention. Because when we only look at count data it will never be enough. 

Our churches must move to an abundance narrative. What is it that we do have? Do we appreciate it? How are we fulfilling God’s mission?  What difference are we here to make and for whom? If we are only 30 people doing good work together in Christ’s love; then we are enough! What are the things we can do exceptionally well with what we already have?  What can we let go of to do even more good in the world?  Because we are not called to tightly hold onto what we have. We are called to be in the world sharing what we have with our time, gifts and treasures. We have to measure our success by the legacy our churches carry forward in love, joy and abundance. 

We are desperately being called to try new things, to imagine different ways of looking at what it means to be church, and how we use the many gifts and resources we have. 

This does not mean that we go into an abundance narrative without a clear understanding of our limitations. This is not meant to ignore issues that congregations face that are real and daunting. But truly, church leaders in every meeting I have ever been in are always quickly and seamlessly able to tell me what those daunting issues are. It is when I ask where do you see God working in this congregation that people truly have to stop and think. The silence can be deafening.  Obviously, this is a narrative we are not in the habit of sharing.

It is time to create new habits, believing that we are the beloved who can breath new life into our gifts and our ministries. Let the count data be what it truly is – just numbers.

Emily Swanson

Owner, Holy Cow! Consulting