Another Inconvenient Question – How Much to win a Soul

As the standard Sunday-Centric churches emerge from Covid 19 lockdown(s) and consider future directions, it may be a good time to engage in some health checks. Such exercises, to be really useful, must involve asking some tough, rigorous, and even ‘Inconvenient’ questions.

One such ‘Inconvenient’ question I have written about previously (See here) is-

‘How many in our congregation had not attended another congregation for a long time (the de-churched), or have ever attended another congregation (the unchurched), before joining ours?’

The number revealed by such a question is a measure of what the 5 yearly National Church Life Survey (NCLS) calls ‘Newcomers’. While this is not a perfect measure, it is I think the best metric we have for, and can serve as a Proxy for, assessing a congregation’s missional fruitfulness. If asked and answered honestly, the results will generally be very sobering for the majority of congregational leaderships, because the average Newcomer proportion per congregation across Australia is less than 10%; in fact in the largest denominational network is less than 8%. That figure represents Newcomer gains over 5 years, so the annual rate is less than 2%. It should be noted that there are some Sunday congregations which will report Newcomer percentage figures in the teens and some even higher, however they are very few and in most cases there are special circumstances involved.

With missional effectiveness like that there is not even a remote possibility of the Australian church even stabilizing, let alone reversing, the now 50 year long decline in Sunday-church membership and in the degree of Christian affiliation in society as measured by the ABS National Census.

However, while relevant, that is not the main point of this article which is the need to ask a second ‘Inconvenient’ question, namely-

‘What is the Cost of a Soul?’

Of course, the theological answer to that question is ‘the cost is infinite’ because every Soul is purchased by the blood of Christ on the Cross. However, the above question is more a health Diagnostic one, and it should be noted that Diagnostic questions are generally not very popular with church leaderships because they have a nasty habit of exposing ‘Inconvenient’ realities! However, the intention of this one is indeed to do just that, and to reveal what proportion of a congregation’s resources are being consumed in the process of gaining one ‘Newcomer’ (Proxy Soul) by that congregation. This we might call the ‘Newcomer Cost’ (NC).

The ‘NC’ can be calculated by dividing the total annual church budget, including usually costly buildings, whether bought, built or rented (BBR), staff (usually expensively trained and paid), utilities, maintenance etc by the number of Newcomers per year. That will give the ‘NC’ in terms of a dollars per Newcomer.

God the Investor

One thing that the Bible makes very clear is that God is an Investor who expects profit, that is fruit, from His investments. This is well illustrated by the Parable of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7 which illustrates God’s investment in His people Israel (the Vineyard). In that song we see God’s response when He doesn’t get the fruit He is entitled to, which is-

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah

In the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20), Jesus expands on the ‘expectation of fruit theme’ and indicates that not only does God expect fruit, but much fruit, indeed 30, 60 and 100 times His investment. Further, Jesus reminds us that, while there is Kingdom fruit that Christians can and should produce in the earthy realm, Jesus also specifies that He expects a more specific kind of fruit from His followers, namely ‘Fruit that lasts’ (John 15:16), and the only fruit that lasts for eternity are new Disciples.

However, from today’s Australian church, He is not getting a great deal of the ‘Fruit that lasts’, for the average ‘Newcomer’ percentage in Australian churches is only in single digits, and less than 2% on an annual basis. Certainly the 5-year Newcomer percentage of better performing churches can get into the teens; and some church plants will initially do better still, but usually come back to the pack after the first three or four years.

                                                      ******

While God is incredibly patient that patience is not unending, as we see in His response when the assets he has invested in chronically under perform. For example, as well as Isaiah’s parable above, we see it in the fate of the fruitless Figtree illustration in (Luke 13:6-9), where the gardener is ultimately ordered to cut the tree down if it remains fruitless. Could this be relevant to the hundreds of Sunday Centric-model ‘churches’ (including many Church Plants) that have closed or are closing across the country?

Then again, in the parable of the True Vine (John 15:1-5) Jesus talks about pruning (cutting the dead wood from) the Vine in order to produce more fruit. This raises the question as to what ‘dead wood’ in the ‘Church’ today is He expecting us to cut out? How often I wonder, do church leaderships even ask that question?

St Gertrudes

To illustrate the point, let us carry out a critical analysis of a fictional St Gertrudes.

St Gert’s owns a building worth a $1Million which at an assumed (currently optimistic) 5% annual interest rate is equivalent to an Opportunity Cost of $50,000 a year; the single minister’s remuneration package is $100,000 and there is about another $ 50,000 per annum of other outgoings. Thus, the annual running cost is about $200,000 per year. (Note. The ‘Opportunity cost’ is the value of the opportunity to do other things with the $1Million that is lost because it is invested in the building)

St Gert’s has an average congregation of 100 members and, so using the approximate Australian average Newcomer percentage of 10% (being generous) over 5 years, will gain about 2 Newcomers per year.

That is a yearly investment of $100,000 per Newcomer, again the term Newcomer serving as a Proxy for a Soul.

The Pushback

Of course, when this sort of argument is made there is always pushback which is expressed in a number of ways.

  1. “Yes, but the ‘church’ is not just about mission, it’s about caring for and discipling the Saints’. Indeed it is, but that is an argument that ignores the fact that the Saints are getting fewer and older year by year, and the fact is that Christian affiliation in society as measured by the National Census indicates that by mid century there will be precious few ‘Saints’ to look after! While the timescale varies to some extent, a quote from a 2019 report to the Anglican Synod of Canada highlights the problem in the Western Church generally-

“Projections from our data indicate that there will be no members, attenders or givers in the Anglican Church of Canada by approximately 2040.”

  1. It is often the case that when the cost of the building is discussed the comment is made that ‘our building was paid off years ago and so doesn’t cost anything’. Not so! For that is ignoring the ‘Opportunity cost’. Let us say a church building is valued at $1million. It represents an asset, sadly in many cases a missionally non-performing asset, that has the potential to be used in more missionally effective ways.

The Opportunity Cost aspect of any response to the ‘What is the Cost of A Soul’ question applies to buildings – whether bought, built or rented.

  1. Another objection frequently raised in this sort of discussion, is that anything other than the familiar Building (whether B,B or R), paid staff, Sunday centric model of ‘our tradition’ is just not ‘Church’.

While common, this is in fact nothing less than a spiritual bondage to ‘our model’, that simply ignores the New Testament-voiced principles for Christian community, as well as the wide range of expressions of those principles in various times and places down the centuries.

The Alternative

There is however an alternative approach that holds out a genuine possibility of fulfilling Jesus’ mandate to ‘go and bear (much) fruit’. To most Church members this will seem like some new radical idea, however it is not. In fact, it involves a ‘Back to the Future’ approach; that is to return to and reinvent the successful missionary strategies for Pagan mission of the past. For that is indeed the, sadly little recognised, challenge now facing the Australian Church. Examples of such strategies are those of the Apostle Paul; of the 5th and 6th century Celtic missionaries; of John Wesley and of the missionaries to 19th century China etc. Such strategies involve ‘Going’ and establishing and embedding small Christian fellowships in the neo-Pagan ‘Live, Work and Play’ micro-cultures comprising society today.

Such small Christian fellowships (an often used term is Missional Communities) are low to often almost zero cost but disproportionally higher fruit. Australian ones I am aware of have 50% plus ‘Newcomer’ percentage. In England the Church Army Research Unit analyses indicate that the ‘Newcomer’ component of such fellowships ranges upwards of 60%.

To summarize. Standard, expensive building, paid staff (Sunday-Centric, Attractional, Christendom-Form model) churches have a very high Newcomer Cost that should not be minimized. Further, as any honest analysis shows, they are both unaffordable and unsustainable in the medium to long term. They represent a financial asset, the Opportunity Cost of which is usually conveniently ignored.

In contrast, ‘Back to the Future’ small Christian fellowships generally have a low to very low Newcomer Cost.

So as we assess our missional strategy, if we are serious about how we use the resources God has given us, will we continue to ‘fudge it’ or be honest in how we answer the second ‘Inconvenient Question’-

                                    ‘What is the Cost of a Soul?’

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