More Than Numbers: Church As Positive Culture Impact…

churchBy Phil Wyman

I’ve known Phil for many years. In fact, about 30 years ago, he was one of the first English speaking pastors who invited me to speak at his church. These past a few years, we both have had our share of woes, which mostly steamed out of being misunderstood. So, a couple of weeks ago, when talking on the phone, he mentioned some of the the stuff in the following post, I knew I had to have in prints–SHAH

In almost 29 years of pastoring, I have lived through the worst of capitalist success markers being the measures of church success. Numbers, numbers, numbers…. In the 80’s church growth conferences pushed numerical growth as a marker of New Testament blessing. In Acts 2 we read that, “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” So the marker of blessing was numerical increase. Denominational district reports asked for nothing much more than numbers: money numbers, attendance numbers, salvation numbers, rededication numbers, baptism numbers, and baptism in the Holy Spirit numbers. In such a success driven culture, people around us become paper people. They were numbers on a page, and some cases they began to feel that way.

I have always been a rebel against creating paper people, and so very early I became known as the “small church guy” in my district because I defended the benefits, and blessings of small churches. I also pastored small church pastors – no one else seemed to care about them, except maybe to encourage their deliverance from pastoring small churches.

Years later, we look back at the Church Growth Movement, and wonder what went wrong. How come denominations are still struggling as franchises of small groups, instead of numerically victorious bastions of Super Walmart-sized compounds? Does this mean, that the blessing of God is not upon denominations and churches if they don’t cover the earth in building programs like the waters cover the sea? (I am hoping the irony of utilizing that language does not evade you.)

It should be obvious in our quickly developing post-colonialist, anti-capitalist surroundings (which is another huge topic filled with both benefit and entrapment), that numbers are not God’s measurement of a pastor’s success and faithful service to the community. If we consider the position of a pastor to be a shepherd of a community, I want to suggest measurements, which might better serve us in determining the success of a church in its community.

Now, my examples will seem more extreme than the average church experience, but then I live in the extremely crazy city of Salem, MA (aka The Witch City)

1) Are outsiders thankful for your presence? Our small church got involved in the month long Halloween celebrations from the first year we were here. In 1999, churches were battling an impossible battle to shut the city events down, and failing miserably, as well as making enemies among the city’s Witches, local businesses, and even government leaders. I thought it made sense to befriend the people involved, and help make the 31 days of Halloween a family-friendly experience. After much struggle, and ridiculous accusations from other churches, 10 years later people were telling us how much of an impact our presence had been on the streets of Salem. The season was more peaceful, the local Pagans and local Christians weren’t fighting like they were in the 90’s. Not that these things do not rise again from time to time, but the local churches stay mostly out of the fray, while working on relationships with the city people.

2) Do outsiders support your mission? Typically, it is those in our congregations who support the work our churches attempt to accomplish in the community. Our little church found itself on the opposite side of this equation last year. Due to financial struggles, we were moving out of the facility we had been renting for 7 years. We put out a plea for help, and the help came in surprising numbers. In the first two days of our campaign, Witches and atheists out-gave the Christians. I realized that we had friends among people with whom we significantly differed on so many basic philosophical issues of faith, and life, but this friendship made itself evident in dollars and cents.

3) Are you able to stand in the space between the community arguments and provide a voice of peace? We have run confessional booths (ala Blue Like Jazz) and have seen people cry as we offered an apology for the historic wrongs the church has committed. In the Boston area, shortly after the breaking news of the priest abuse scandal, this was momentous for many people.

4) Does the community come to you for help? We invested in items, which we knew could be a benefit to the City of Salem. A good portable sound system, outdoor chairs for outdoor events, 10 by 10 outdoor tents, and other event-based supplies. We have run sound for the Mayor’s inauguration, for visiting congressmen, and for community pizza and ice cream events. We paint the faces of hundreds of children on the 4th of July, and supply hot cocoa at Fall and Winter events every year. The community calls and asks for our help, because they trust us to help and to be a blessing, without having to preach a salvation message every time we encounter them.

5) Is your impact disproportionate to your size? (It was my friend, John Amstutz, who first asked this question of the small church I pastored in Carlsbad, CA) I can call out the Holy Grail of national impact here, but it is not because we were so perfect an example of church success. Our fame came through trial, and persecution by other churches, and even our own denomination, but even negative experiences will reveal the success of your mission. Our little church hit the front page of the Wall Street Journal on October 31st, 2006, and for those Warholian 15 minutes we were famous. We gained friends across the world, and that impact, which is far disproportionate than our actual numbers continues to this day. 

You will notice these markers are based in how outsiders feel about the church. If we truly want to bless our communities, then how our communities feel about us is one critical gauge of our success. This is not to say that churches are going to be accepted in every community, but in the United States there are so few impossible communities. If a church can find a way to beneficially impact The Witch City, then just about any community in the US ought to be accessible. Find a way to serve, and keep at that service going until it gives the payouts, which are not measured in numbers.

If you’re interested to know more about Phil, these are some useful links.

Christianity Today article about Burning Man: http://www.salemgathering.org/images/news/CT_Burning_Man.pdf

Church website: http://www.salemgathering.org

His book project website: http://www.burningreligion.com

Personal Website: http://www.philwyman.org