“My Deaf Church Is Dying!” Part 1
Or The “Numbers Are Important” Fallacy
Recently I talked with one of my church members (hereafter CM for “church member”) about a group discussion in which CM took part. CM was telling me about an issue they were discussing, in which apparently “church growth factors” or some such nonsense was being discussed.
Long story short, once it was disclosed to the group that our church (Louisville Baptist Deaf Church) has a membership of about 35, with an average attendance of 25, CM was in no uncertain terms immediately told by CM’s peers (all of whom were hearing), “Your church is dying! It may already be dead!”
Needless to say, CM was upset by such an assertion. This was, quite honestly, an assertion made from ignorance. Moreover, this assertion assumed that numbers is a valid judge of the “health” of a church.
First of all, these people failed to understand the unique ministry setting of the church. They failed to understand that not all churches are the same. Deaf ministry is a totally different paradigm from hearing ministry. Ed Stetzer (author of Planting Missional Churches and Breaking the Missional Code) would say that CM’s classmates failed to break the missional code. In Deaf ministry, numbers is the #1 most insignificant factor. A Deaf ministry which focuses on numbers will soon die.
Why? Because numbers are dangerous in a Deaf church. For example, when a certain number of Deaf people begin congregating regularly, gossip will not be far behind. It is difficult to convey the impact of such a concept to a hearing person. Usually such a person dismisses this phenomenon without taking the time to understand it. The most common dismissal I have been met with is “Oh, every church has to deal with gossip!” Gossip destroys Deaf churches faster and more destructively than just about anything. For a person to fail to take the issue of gossip seriously in Deaf culture is to immediately remove any hint of credibility from that person.
Not only that, a Deaf ministry focused on numbers makes a ministry’s true health irrelevant. Deaf people tend to be guilty of this error more egregiously than their hearing counterparts. (Another way of saying egregious is the common Deaf expression, “Deaf FAMOUS for.”) Often you will find Deaf people asking the question, “How many?” regarding social and church events, wanting to know the numbers that showed. If the number is “disappointing,” it will not matter if that event/ministry/etc. is exactly what that Deaf person needs.
The reality is that very few Deaf churches have memberships greater than 30 to 50. Ours is pretty large, comparatively. Deaf “mega churches” like Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church in Nashville, TN (membership reportedly about 150) are rare. The average Deaf church likely has 15 to 25 members. Why don’t more Deaf attend Deaf churches? Probably because, as a rule, many like to go to interpreted ministries. They want to go to the local mega church or to a church with an interpreted ministry located close to their homes, or close to their social network. Or they may go to church with their hearing families, especially if their church has an interpreted ministry. They like being around numbers. Deaf-led churches are more commonly the exception to the rule. Our church could be considered a “Deaf mega church” here in Kentucky. Would that were the case!
A Deaf church focused on numbers is — as was skillfully put by a Deaf minister friend — “an inch deep and a mile wide.” In other words, numbers are unhealthy.