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How do we define “thriving”?

How do we define “thriving”?

Tiny church photo by John Menard of a small church in Romania

The Faith Communities Today 2015 survey finds that small churches are in danger of failing, working with low numbers of attendees and limited resources, but some remain stable and vibrant despite having scarce resources. This includes many Episcopal churches, which often have weekend attendance below 100 members.

Religion News Service has published analysis and details, focusing on the optimism that many small churches express, despite the odds against them. “Thriving” seems to indicate growth, especially among younger church members, who are the least represented age demographic in church attendance.

Perhaps the gap between the optimism and the numbers is best understood by questioning the assumption that a ‘thriving’ church is one which has a high and growing attendance on Sunday; some of the churches that seem the most satisfied in the article were not necessarily large, but were financially stable and had innovative services and outreach, including pub theology nights and empanada giveaways. One church holds a ‘prayer walk’, where members walk the city, and ask others if they can pray for them.

How do you define ‘thriving’? Is there a future for small churches where membership numbers stay static or even decline? If your church has a low Sunday attendance, do you fear for the future, or are you confident that your church can thrive and remain healthy despite low numbers?


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Virginia Gilbert

I’ll answer that question of how to define “thriving” with a story. The tiny urban church (weekly attendance 45) where I teach Sunday School has no elementary school age children at the moment, and we decided not to draft our few teenagers to present the traditional Christmas pageant.
Instead, we took Christmas to our Wednesday free breakfast program, which serves an average 80 neighbors and marginally housed folks every week. (Five suburban partner churches pay for, cook and serve the food). School was out the Wednesday before Christmas, so we invited neighbors to bring their kids for a special Christmas for kids program, which included story time (the Christmas story) and crafts — making a manger scene to take home. A dozen children came, and their parents and grandparents say, two weeks later, they are still talking about it.
So along with asking for the definition of “thrive” perhaps we should be expanding the definition of “attendance.”

Sandra Koenig

My thought on this is that as long as we continue to define the church as a building or an institution, the church will continue on the road it is currently on. Poor churches will fail, rich churches will thrive and those in the middle will be afraid. We have churches with obscene wealth in the midst of poverty. We have seminaries that lock out the poor. We have nice white churches that occasionally do ministry to or for but rarely with those they consider other. Christ is here among us, but we fail to see him.

This is why I am, at the moment, unchurched. I choose the congregation I find in parks and parking lots.

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