The 80/20 Rule Strikes Again

Do you remember church business meetings?

If not, here’s the deal. Everyone sits in the sanctuary, the same place we sing about Jesus, grace, and salvation, while the same guy who preached to us about those very topics leads a meeting about church operations, budgets, and events.

Most churches I know use Robert’s Rules of Order, similar to a board meeting or wine club. During these meetings, there are only three observable emotions at any given time: inescapable boredom, mumbling annoyance, and I’m-going-to-stab-someone-in-the-face anger. I’ve been to hundreds of these Sunday night meetings in my lifetime, and I don’t recall ever seeing an emotion outside these three.

That is, except my own. I am still the only person I know who likes these meetings. I find them fascinating. If anything, I point to meetings like these as the truest expression of church identity. We all sing together about what we believe and listen to sermons about what our lives should be like, but when we get together to decide what we’re actually going to do about those things–that’s really who we are.

Those decision-making processes, whether they look like the business meetings I grew up with in the Baptist church or completely different, say a great deal about who we are, what we want, and what we actually believe about our faith.

Take budgeting, for example. James Frick famously said, “Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.” I know of no one who seriously disagrees with that, and it’s perhaps at its truest in churches, where our priorities are so commonly discussed and are predicated on millennia of precedent.

Churches have long established that they prioritize one thing above all others: converting new believers. One would suspect, therefore, that this would be a visible priority in most church budgets.

It’s not. Not even close.

If you divide the total dollars of church budgets in the United States by the total number of believer baptisms or similar spiritual confirmations in those churches, the average conversion of an American Christian costed $1.55 million in 2010. In the same year, the average church budget was just shy of $300 thousand. Assuming the numbers spread evenly (they don’t, but let’s start there), that means that 4 out of 5 American churches didn’t convert anyone, and the ones that did only baptized one new believer.

Out of 320,000 churches in the United States, there were only 64,000 new believers. There were far more American Christians who died in the last ten years than were born again; our population growth rate has declined every year for decades.

When you think about church populations, the numbers are similarly grim. The estimated Sunday church attendance nationwide is roughly 24 million, meaning that the average convert takes 375 church members, which is again roughly 5 churches worth of Christians.

The 80/20 rule strikes again.

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