article “Going Mega” in the current issue of The Christian Century, John Dart reports some figures from the United Methodist Church. He states that the UMC’s overall membership dropped 1.01 percent in 2008, its largest annual decline in decades. He goes on to explain that UMC churches with 3000 or more adherents increased their membership during this period by 1.9 percent, while congregations with 100 or fewer members reported a 2.25 percent decline that same year.
Dart argues that this shows, “Larger churches tend to weather economic downturns better.” No, it doesn’t. It simply shows that bigger churches are growing while smaller congregations are declining. This can be due to a number of factors, but part of it is certainly related to demographics.
The smaller churches in most denominations are made up primarily of older adults who tend to die off! These smaller churches are not replenishing their numbers with young adults with school age children. Our church runs 450 to 500 on a Sunday, but this trend is beginning to impact us as well. When our church has quarterly business meeting, I check the number of new members by baptism or transfer of membership over against the loss of members due to death or transfer of membership. Deaths of members often accounts for 50 percent of the losses. About 25 percent of the losses are transfers of membership to larger congregations. (We generally break even, so there is no net gain.) The bottom line is that we are impacted both by demographics and the appeal of larger churches.
So the challenge for the traditional church is two fold—have children and keep them! I won’t comment on the first, but traditional churches must realize that a first class children’s program keeps both children and their parents on board. I do not want to downplay the importance of youth ministry in a church, but if we want to grow our youth program, we must have a strong children’s ministry first.
One place where most megachurches excel is in their children’s ministry. When I talk to young parents who move to larger churches, the reported reason is usually, “We did it for the kids.”
Your church may not be able to provide all the bells and whistles of a megachurch children’s program, but it can provide acceptance, quality, and commitment. Nurturing the next generation of children is a priority for any congregation, no matter the size.