Every good, or should I say, surviving pilot watches their altimeter. The very definition of flying involves being above the ground, and the very definition of being a church involves having a number of people in the pew. In an airplane, the number of feet above sea level is a statistic, a number which we are glad someone is watching. In the church, the number of people actively in worship, is also an important statistic. Some airplanes have a smaller gauge beside the altimeter labeled “rate of climb” (it also measures how fast you are falling). Churches, especially small churches, need to be aware of how quickly they are gaining or losing worshipers.
But, what is important is not just absolute altitude, but the altitude relative to the terrain. 10,000 feet seems like a safe cruising height, unless you are flying over the Andes. How many people are enough people? Well that depends upon where you are being a church. Every church has a context and that context determines the number of people who are needed to be in worship in order for that church to fly.
If that church is ministering in the context of a growing suburb with rising home values, then that number is likely to be quite high. Why? The people of that upwardly mobile setting will tend to place a high value on quality music, ministerial credentials, as well as, upon the church’s appearance. When the choir is a few struggling voices, and the preacher looks homespun, and the building lacks functioning air-conditioning, these same neighbors people who by-pass the dollar store, will by-pass the church.
Not every congregation is located in an upwardly mobile suburban context. Some are in rural contexts that high altitude churches can’t fly. A congregation in a prison or nursing home only needs two or three worshipers. Ultra small churches are like crop dusting planes. They are used to low altitudes and small worship attendances. Worship statistics always need to be viewed in context.