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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Deep & Wide
February 24, 2011

As a kid I joined with gusto in a church action-song that went, “Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.” That was it, the whole song. I never considered what the fountain might be – Blessing? Salvation? Love? All of the above, surely.

A few years ago our General Assembly’s Evangelism office launched a national initiative with the tag line, “Growing Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” The slogan rightly reminds us that there are more ways to measure growth than counting noses. The church is always in the business of growing disciples as well as of bringing in new people.

Our presbytery motto, “Vital congregations bringing people to Christ,” brings these two understandings of growth together. Congregational vitality is directly correlated with bringing people to Christ. That’s the burden of the GA evangelism program too – growing Christ’s church deeper and wider are two sides of one coin.

In preparation for our Council retreat next weekend, I have pulled together some fifteen-year statistical trends for our presbytery. Among them are figures that show a drop of 33% in membership and 31% in attendance since 1995. In our most recent data, we now have 37,933 members with a weekly attendance of 16,150. Worship attendance runs at 43% of our membership, compared with the national PCUSA average of 51%.

Steve Salyards has been tracking and commenting on statistics for the PCUSA as well as the wider church for a number of years, and this week published a comparative trend analysis of many denominations based on two recent national surveys. He discovered that the strongest correlation for denominational growth is the percentage of members that are part of church life more than once a week. The more time members give to nurturing their faith together, the more likely the church will be to grow.

There are other markers of church vitality, notably financial support, mission engagement, and effective evangelism. But perhaps nothing better indicates that the church is growing “deep” than whether the faith it proclaims matters enough to its members that they participate vigorously in its extended life. Sunday morning attendance is not an adequate measure of “deep” involvement; people deeply invested in the church are more than Sunday worshipers.

In the five denominations that grew “wide” last year* – that is, their membership increased – an average of 46.5% of members were part of a church event each week beyond Sunday morning worship. For the PCUSA, that number is 11.1%.

If we are to grow wider, we must grow deeper. In terms of our presbytery motto, we cannot expect to be effective in bringing people to Christ if we are not truly vital as congregations.

When I pastored a congregation, I asked the session to set a goal that everyone in the church be involved in one regular church activity beyond Sunday morning worship. Anecdotal evidence led me to believe that such involvement may be crucial to being a truly vital church. Sunday worship certainly matters, but serious discipleship requires deeper engagement in study, fellowship, and mission. Now that I’m pastoring a presbytery, might I ask our congregations to consider the same challenge?

Among his conclusions, Salyards suggests that if we really want to grow the church wider our strongest efforts ought to focus not on getting more of our members to church on Sunday morning (thought that would be great), but on getting the members who already do come to worship more deeply engaged in the life of faith during the other 167 hours of the week. What are we doing to deepen the faith and life of Jesus’ disciples in our congregation?

Going deeper,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

*Even though it is numerically growing in the U.S., I exclude the Roman Catholic church in these figures, because its growth is almost entirely due to immigration.

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