From the Acts of the Apostles:
The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 13:44-45 – September 10, 2012)
“Average Sunday Attendance” – also known as “ASA” – has become a hot topic in church circles. It’s how we gauge the health of congregations, not that it’s a very good measure of that, but what other easily accessed metric to governing boards and denominational judicatories have? If the parish priest, pastor, senior minister, whatever he/she may be called is doing a good job, the assumption is, the pews are going to be full. So if we count the number of seats in the seats, voila! we know if things are good.
Well, maybe. I’m not convinced that attendance figures are that good a metric of clergy performance; I’m not even sure there is a metric that measures the effectiveness of pastoral ministry. But here’s an interesting observation. Go to Google. Put in “Average Sunday Attendance” as your search term. In the first several pages of search results, the majority of websites will be Episcopal Church related! We are obsessed with this measurement!
So, it’s a hot topic and one way it pops up is when folks compare attendance in traditional, so-called mainstream churches with the numbers who throng to revival-type events offered by popular evangelists. It’s one thing to compare our mainline, denominational parish ASA to the weekly attendance of a non-denominational evangelical congregation; there may even be some validity to such a comparison (though probably not as a measure of clergy competence). But comparing our weekly numbers to the crowds at a one-off rally-type event strikes me as less than legitimate.
That is what the Jewish synagogue leaders are doing in today’s lesson from the Book of Acts! Here in Chapter 13, Paul and Barnabas have come to the city of Antioch in Pisidia on what is basically a preaching mission. They are offering something new, something out of the ordinary, something which diverts from everyday run-of-the-mill existence, so they get big crowds. (Yes, I know that Luke ascribes the big numbers to the work of the Holy Spirit, but let’s just look at the story as secularists for a moment; the new thing gets a lot of attention.) The synagogue leaders, comparing their weekly sabbath attendance to the crowds coming to see the missionaries, are jealous. In their envy, the Jewish leaders impugn Paul’s and Barnabas’s message and are condemned here by Luke as blasphemers.
But Luke is making the same mistake the synagogue leaders are making, the same mistake we make when look to ASA as a metric of performance. Attendance figures don’t measure message; attendance figures don’t estimate effectiveness; attendance figures don’t rank repentance; attendance figures don’t calculate commitment. Attendance figures measure . . . attendance, that’s all! High attendance is good, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that people’s lives are being impacted. Personal lives are at least as important as the size of the crowds, if not more so! When we see only the aggregate numbers, the individuals get lost.
The focus on ASA blinds us to other measures, other metrics. It raises blood-pressure; it raises blinders; it raises barriers. Have you ever noticed something like this? – When I am angry or upset about something and my blood pressure goes up, my sense of hearing is affected. I don’t know what it is, but I hear something like a rushing wind inside my ears (maybe that’s the blood pressure) and it interferes with my hearing. That’s maybe what happened with the Jewish leaders. The synagogue leaders couldn’t hear the message preached by Paul and Barnabas because their of anger over the attendance figures; it interfered with their perception. To switch to visual metaphor, they couldn’t see the trees for the forest. Seems it’s the same today.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.