A 500 Million Dollar Mistake

In the previous rAVe HOW article, we discussed the value and application of acoustical treatment(s) to almost any existing house of worship (HOW) facility. Unless acoustics was considered and incorporated when the building was created, it is very likely that acoustical issues were not properly dealt with or solved. This is especially true for the subject of this article — the enormous number of small worship spaces (congregations under 400) that make up the vast majority of HOWs in North America.

Our industry has, as a kind of unwritten rule, largely either ignored or failed to consider this group of worship spaces as a viable market for services, hardware, support, retrofit or almost anything else, based on the greatly mistaken belief that, because they are small, they do not have any financial resources. Couple that with the accurate perception that the technical cadre for these worship spaces is more than likely 99 percent volunteer and you have a mix that seems to be a powerful repellent for integrators.

And just to exacerbate this situation, our industry’s trade press (of all types) has chosen to not cover this multi-hundred thousand group of facilities with any level of focus. The published stories, based on our non-scientific look back though the last five years of available online archives for most of the publications, show that 90+ percent of the articles and other coverage centered on the large, glamorous, high dollar showcase HOW spaces.

The rise of the megachurch (see below) only made this coverage gap worse as those large, complex, high-technology facilities made for what seems to be “better” stories, at least based on the number of articles which covered that small subset of the much larger HOW market.

If you think this analysis is unfair or the information is wrong, let me offer some independent research and statistics to back it up.

Let’s Do the Math

There is no official directory for all the congregations in the country, so sociologists of religion have to rely on statistical estimates extrapolated from surveys (sources used in this article are listed at the end).

These estimates are often disputed and to complicate matters, thousands of new churches open each year, while thousands of others close.

The Hartford Institute estimates there are roughly 350,000 religious congregations in the United States. This estimate relies on the RCMS 2010 Religious Congregations Census. Of those, about 314,000 are Protestant and other Christian churches, and 24,000 are Catholic and Orthodox churches. Non-Christian religious congregations are estimated at about 12,000.

The Largest 25 Denominations/Communions from the 2012 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches are below.

Notes:

  1. Excludes Orthodox denominations.
  2. Non-denominational/independent-evangelical (summed estimated total) is the second largest Protestant group in the country with over 35,000 congregations and over 12,200,000 adherents. This group represents almost 80 percent of the mega-churches listed in the database, the balance of mega-churches were from various Baptist denominations.
  3. If the available estimates of the non-reporting denominations and non-Christian congregations are included, the total exceeded 165 million or roughly 45 percent of the total North American 2017 population estimate of 367 million.
  4. Nine of the 25 largest churches did not report updated figures: the Church of God in Christ; the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.; the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America; Churches of Christ; the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.; the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; and Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.

Data courtesy of: The 2012 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches

Factoring in the adjusted growth rate for worship locations (2 percent median growth, minus 1.7 percent median dissolution) produces an annual growth rate of around 0.4 percent

This accumulated growth over the five years since the last hard-data survey was conducted and released would produce a total number of congregations approaching 400,000. This is a statistically valid but non-verified estimate. For the purposes of this article we have adjusted the working total downward by 10 percent to account for potential inaccuracies in the databases, and the uneven growth rates shown by the top 25 denominations over time.

The Mega-Church

While the total number of mega-churches is somewhat fluid, overall they represent about 0.6 percent or about 2,000 congregations out of the total North American worship congregations. Yet they garner a level of attention, press and influence that far outweighs their small number, because they showcase the big, powerful, high technology side of the HOW market. For reference, here is a breakdown of the mega-church space.

The Mega-Church Breakdown

According to this definition, a mega-church is any congregation which regularly has at least 2,000 congregants
The same study cited above also showed that:

  • Average attendance of all mega-churches: 3,943 persons
  • Median attendance of all mega-churches: 2,770 persons
  • 1,846 churches — total average weekly attendance (estimated) = 7,100,000 people*

Denominational Distribution:

These top 10 affiliations account for nearly 82 percent of all mega-churches (as of the 2015 date of the Study).

*NOTE: Life.Church (formerly known as LifeChurch.tv, Life Covenant Church and Life Church), an American evangelical multi-site church with multiple locations. As of August 2017, there were 27 Life.Church locations in eight states across the United States. Life.Church is officially linked denominationally to the Evangelical Covenant Church and did not report numbers, and is not included in the totals.

DATA Courtesy of Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research

For a reasonably complete listing of the mega-churches in the United States, go here.

The “Small” House of Worship

Based on the data above we have a working total of >360,000 congregations in North America.

The research data shows that approximately 65 percent of these congregations would be classified as “small,” which is under 400 members, with most of those in the 100 to 200 member range. (The median attendance reported in the studies we examined for the small congregations was 98, which means 50 percent were below that number and 50 percent were above it.)

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The 500 Million Dollar Bank Account

If we take the total of 360,000 congregations and calculate 65 percent of that number it produces the 234,000 shown in the table below.

If we then take that 230,000+ total and multiply it by the median attendance (rounded up to 100 for mathematical convenience), we get an average of 23,400,000 congregants attending these small churches on any given primary worship day (denominationally dependent).

If we then project that each of those 23+ million congregants can contribute $2 per month (the mean average as reported by a 2015 analysis of fiscal support for the worship service and included in some of the Hartford Institute findings) to their worship location, we produce an estimated potential revenue stream of just under $47 million per monthly cycle. Multiply that monthly revenue estimate by 12 calendar months and you get $560+ million dollars flowing into the assets of these “small” worship facilities every year. (See the table above for the math).

Even if the mathematical calculations are off by a bit, there is still A LOT of money flowing into these worship spaces every year. This should definitively put the kibosh to the assumption that there is no potential budget in the small HOW markets.

The available capital may not be large per location, but remember there are 200K-plus locations, which means there are a number in any given geographic area (even remote rural areas — historically sidelined by our industry). Collectively, these locations represent a potential market for a wide range of services and products that is largely being forgotten or deliberately ignored.

The Problem

The “small” HOW, by its very nature, is usually lacking in access to the training, development, ideas and support they need to sustain and grow healthy ministries. They are not often able to attend the large national HOW events, seminars, workshops or other gatherings where they could garner such information, support and help. The largely part-time volunteer base that supports their services and uses the technology available is also not as well trained or knowledgeable as their counter-parts in the larger more affluent HOW locations and facilities.

Does this mean they should be ignored or left to fend for themselves?

A Modest Proposal

With apologies to the 18th century legendary writer Jonathan Swift, I hereby offer a modest proposal to change the way we deal with this segment of the HOW market, and all small businesses in general for that matter.

For decade upon decade we have always approached potential clients/customer/buyers/end-users from a hardware perspective. That is to say we look at their situation, and immediately gravitate towards looking for a technical/hardware/software based solution, rather than actually doing a proper needs assessment and analysis. It’s almost biologically ingrained into the industry by now to come at any project from this angle.

The problem this presents when approaching the small HOW market is that we also instinctively ‘believe’ that we know they don’t have a real budget and thus cannot really afford to solve their problem with technology. To quote the original sub-head for this whole series of article for rAVe “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Samuel Clemens.

And that assumption and mistake is precisely what is causing the lack of attention to, and services provided for, the small HOW facilities. Just because they can’t spring for a multi-thousand dollar high-technology digital console should not relegate them to the servants entrance into our world.

Instead of focusing on hardware, technology and dollars, what if we focused on what we used to do best — building relationships by offering service and support? This approach is exactly what will open the doors to these congregations, and give you a chance to develop fulfilling long term growth-based relationships that may easily prove more fruitful than that one-time, big-bucks sale of two 40K consoles to a mega-church.

Sell Help and Support, Not Hardware

As noted earlier, and in the previous article in this series, the biggest problem faced by, but not solved for, these small congregations is the acoustics of their worship space, and all the concomitant problems it can create.

This is a golden opportunity to open a door to these congregations. Acoustic materials for a 3,000-square-foot space are a very low cost item (probably less than $1,000-$2,000 dollars) and can be self-installed under your supervision and direction.

All it would take is some 1×3 framing lumber, some wire to attach and hang the framed panels and their volunteer labor.

Rather than leaving the congregation on its own, offer to provide advice, counsel and guidance to help them improve their acoustics, and thus their quality of service. True it’s not a big profit item, or a large sale, but it gives you the chance to establish contact, develop a working relationship and become their go-to provider as they grow and experience other needs. It also shows that you’re not in it just for the money, and are not looking for a quick sale and a ride into the sunset.

Maybe it’s not acoustics. Maybe it’s a simple re-wire and cable replacement to solve that 60Hz hum they’ve had for years, or that intermittent microphone connector. It doesn’t matter which small but significant problem you solve, it’s the fact that you helped them solve it that counts.

Try it — let me know what happens.

____________________

Author’s Note: The data used for this article was aggregated from four primary sources:

  1. The Religious Congregations Membership Study (RCMS) – the 2010 US Religion Census report
  2. Religious Congregations and Membership Study, 2000
  3. The American Mosque
  4. The Hartford Institute for Religious research