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Written by Gradye Parsons

Each month the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Moderator or Vice Moderator of the 220th General Assembly write a column of general interest for the church-at-large.

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June 2, 2015

June 2015 - 815

The Confession of 1967 says:

The church disperses to serve God wherever its members are, at work or play, in private or in the life of society. Their prayer and Bible study are part of the church’s worship and theological reflection. Their witness is the church’s evangelism. Their daily action in the world is the church in mission to the world. The quality of their relation with other persons is the measure of the church’s fidelity. (Book of Confessions, 9.37, emphasis added)

People like to use numbers to measure. Your doctor wants to know your blood pressure, your dentist wants to know how many times you floss, and your spouse wants to know on what temperature the thermostat is set. In the church we tend to count two things: how many members and how much money. In some sense we are counting how much have we gathered in our fold. But what if we counted a different measurement?

In the 2014 annual congregational survey, we asked this question: The Office of the General Assembly asks these questions to estimate how many non-members are being served or reached by congregations.

“During 2014, how many different individuals would you estimate that the members of your congregation served or ministered among as they carried out the various activities, programs, and outreach of the congregation including visitors?”

In other words, how many people did your congregation impact beyond its’ membership.

With 40 percent of congregations responding, the grand number was 3,462,288, or an average of 815 per congregation. Now considering that the average size Presbyterian congregation is 170 people, this is a pretty amazing measurement. If we were to multiply the 815 times all of the PC(USA) congregations, it would equal more than 8 million people. Roughly 1.7 million people serving 8 million people.

I don’t know what the drafters of the Confession of 1967 were thinking when they wrote the quote above. But I am guessing they were thinking that our true size is not how many people sit in our pews each Sunday, but what impact that worshipping community has on the world. By that measure it would seem we are being abundantly faithful.

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Tags: 815, confession of 1967, gradye parsons, monthly column, service, stated clerk

  1. This is helpful, and it speaks to the work of large and small congregations. In my studies, I marveled at the witness of Presbyterian congregations-- even ones under stress because of their numbers and resources for ministry. We cannot "undo" the idea of "membership," but it may have been a weak point as the Presbyterians and others invented "denominations" in the early years of the new USA. The Bible does speak of "belonging to Christ" but not of low threshold membership in a church body. Thanks, Gradye for helping us imagine other ways of determining our results of Christian discipleship.

    by Louis Weeks

    June 4, 2015

  2. Well, I guess this kind of estimate is one way of ignoring the fact that our church is losing hundreds of thousands of members, as well as whole congregations. I do like to look on the bright side of things, but this is kind of ridiculous. We might just as well ask how many lives our local grocery store, or elementary school, or police department, etc. impact in a positive way. The difficult to accept answer is, "probably more than our churches." 3 cheers for our "church mission impact estimate" - yes. But if we're going to use statistics, we must look at the facts and come to grips with our unacceptable losses. Will we ever learn how to work for justice in a positive way? A way that does not destroy our voice, our influence, our membership, our church?

    by John White

    June 3, 2015

  3. Gradye, You have identified a key point, both in our vision of who we are and what we already do, and what more we are called to do. Plus, this is a key point in our morale and self-identity. What we count is what matters to us (in households, congregations, businesses, schools, and denominations). While counting how many card-carrying members we have provides vital insights, so would counting "constituents" and "lives touched". Any chance that THAT could be included in our annual statistical reports?

    by Greg Gillispie

    June 3, 2015

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