On the front edge of a summer I know many are looking forward to after such a long winter, I am thinking about something we preachers have conditioned ourselves to expect during the summer: low church attendance. I ran across a blog the other day by Len Wilson called “the top 25 Annual Conferences” In the article, the author first shows the top American United Methodist Conferences by worship attendance and also includes the ranking based on membership. The top conferences in that list are the “usual suspects” if you know much about demographics in the UMC. Florida, the fourth largest conference by membership (289,755) has the largest average weekly worship attendance (141,838). That conference is followed by North Georgia, which is the largest in membership, Western North Carolina, Indiana, West Ohio, Virginia and Texas (that’s one conference in southeast Texas around Houston). Most of these conference, in order of worship attendance and all over 100,000 people in worship each week, are also in the top 10 in church membership. (One that is notably absent from the list (the only in the top ten in membership ranked #7 (237,698) which is ranked #23 in worship attendance (57,571) is Oklahoma.
It gets worse. When the author inverts the list by ranking the conferences in order of worship attendance as a percentage of church membership, some of the “less respected” conferences rise to the top. Many in the church characterize the Western Jurisdiction (the whole Western Half of the country beginning at the Oklahoma border) as a “church wasteland.” They talk about how much of a drain these areas are since they have such little numbers. It is a quadrennial point of embarrassment when the General Conference delegations are announced and you see that one singe conference in the Congo has a larger delegation to General Conference than the whole Western Jurisdiction of the United states, containing several of the largest urban areas in our country. However, when showing the percentage of worship attendance in relation to church membership a hidden strength becomes apparent. The West may not have the sheer numbers of people, but the people who are counted as members are committed to being there. The Desert Southwest Conference (Arizona and a little bit of California and Nevada) leads the list with 68% (26,555 attendance compared to 38,961 membership), Alaska, and California-Pacific follow suit. Two conferences that are ranked highly on both lists are Indiana (119,800 to 201,497) and West Ohio (115,611 to 205,889). This time, Oklahoma falls to the very last on the list, since our average worship attendance is the smallest percentage value when compared to our church membership. (24.22%)
I share this information in part because I know Oklahomans don’t like coming in last (heck, one of our state universities is named after people who were willing to cheat in order to be first), and wondered if letting you know we currently ARE last would prompt you to be here in worship over the summer to help us gain a foothold on those pesky Central Texans who are right ahead of us in the rankings (I threw in another little incentive, now didn’t I?) While it’s not my job to make worship fun and entertaining to try to lure you to choose church attendance over back-porch attendance, (It is instead your job as a being created by God to worship your Creator.) I do my best anyway to come up with some themes and subjects you might find compelling enough to come back again and again over the summer. During June, we have come up with a little “Kids’ Connections” format in the courtyard after worship is finished to try and connect the theme presented in worship to some kind of play activity. I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of fun is “launched” by the Waldorfs to connect with the worship theme of Ascension Sunday. In mid-June, I’m going to use some of the sections of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran to flesh out the themes in worship. Then in July, I’ll start a 6 week series on “The Line Between Good and Evil.” Some on the church council are already looking forward to my Dana Carvey Church Lady impression, “Could it be…….Satan?” After that series is done, the remainder of August will be devoted to exploring the Wisdom literature of our scriptures as a way for us t prepare for another year of education, and then we’ll begin our “Season of Creation” in September. I hope to see you in worship! Last place isn’t any fun.