Declining Attendance


Traditionally, those who study the health and vitality of congregations have used average weekend worship as the pivotal evaluator of congregational well-being. The average number of people who participate in weekend worship (including children in the Sunday school program and their teachers/care providers) has long been viewed as the best indicator of the active number of people participating in the life of the congregation. Declines in attendance and giving have been the bellwether indicators that something is amiss in the life of a congregation. When average attendance numbers begin to decline, congregational leaders get nervous.

Lately, I’m noticing that at every event where I teach or speak I am approached by large church leaders who say, “Our average weekend worship attendance is falling, but every other indicator of church health is on the rise. Membership is up. Giving is up. Midweek programming is up. What does that mean? Should we be worried?” In fact, I’m hearing this so frequently that it has really grabbed my attention. What is the decline in worship attendance trying to tell us?

Lovett Weems published an article in the October 5, 2010 Christian Century titled, “No Shows”. Here’s what Lovett said:

            “One feature of the recent downturn in attendance is the changing pattern in large churches. In the United Methodist Church, large churches (those averaging 350 or more in attendance) showed steady attendance growth during the 1980s and significant growth during the 1990s, reaching a high point in 2001.  Their decline in attendance began in 2002 and has continued every year since.  If the large churches had held their attendance numbers at previous levels, there would still have been denominational decline, but much less. In essence, the smaller churches continued and somewhat accelerated their decades long decline while the large churches for the first time joined the decline.”

If we adopt Weems’ interpretation as our own, we can’t help but be worried. Things are not looking good. I have worked with a number of clients in recent years whose experiences validate Weems’ concern. They are declining according to every possible measure of congregational vitality. However, I don’t think that the simple statistics presented here tell the whole story. I’m seeing too many congregations with declining weekend attendance that are thriving by every other measure of church health. Something else seems to be at work.

Increasingly I’m convinced that weekend worship attendance isn’t the best indicator of health in large congregations (or at least not the sole indicator). I can identify a variety of factors that explain why attendance might be waning in the large church, without necessarily indicating a major health problem.

  • Worshipers are attending less frequently. Weems article talked about the many pastors who are sensing that the same individuals are worshiping throughout the year, but that they worship less often. The cultural shift in Sunday morning activity places increasing time demands on congregants, demands that often interfere with a regular Sunday morning worship experience. Jobs, sports and scheduled recreation often keep people away on the weekend. These conflicts don’t necessarily mean that people are any less committed to their discipleship or their membership responsibilities…or do they?
  • Younger worshipers (under the age of 40) don’t necessarily treat the Sunday morning experience as the focal point of their involvement in the life of the church. They may not even be particularly attached to ministries that take place within the church building, preferring to identify with small groups and the social justice ministries that take place out in the neighborhoods served by the church. This doesn’t make their attachment to the church any less relevant or important…or does it?
  • The large church offers so many programming options that the Sunday morning experience is declining in importance as the primary feeder system of the church. People who are attached to the church school, a fine arts program, a recovery program or support group, may not be particularly drawn to the weekend worship experience. Nevertheless, these people believe that they are active participants in the life of the church, and they expect that the community will care for them, educate them and tend to their spiritual needs. They may not be formal members of the church, but they often describe the church as their own.

So, how big of a problem is this really? If the importance of corporate worship in the life of the congregation is diminishing, are we in danger of losing something that has no substitute? Can discipleship and spirituality thrive with corporate worship attendance on the decline?  And if average weekend attendance isn’t the best health indicator in the large church, what is? 

Photo Credit: theqspeaks at flickr.com

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