Stop Worrying About Worship Attendance-Thrive Instead!

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

For a long time, clergy have taken credit when attendance rose and felt guilty when it fell. Most people assume that the best measure of a congregation’s spiritual vitality is the headcount at weekly worship. But some congregations have begun to think beyond that metric and focus more broadly about how their ministry transforms lives. As a result, they’re finding new ways to think about worship, vitality and effectiveness.

What if worship attendance is no longer the best measure of the spiritual vitality of a congregation? What if it never was? Can a community that is declining in worship attendance still be a growing and thriving congregation?

Clearly, if worship attendance is declining along with every other benchmark indicator of health, a congregation is not doing well. However, some congregations are making the following observations: “Our budget is growing, our average pledge is increasing, membership is growing, and our programs are thriving. We haven’t lost members. People are simply worshiping with less frequency than they used to. How much of a problem is this? What kind of a problem is this?”

Stating the Problem

Let’s begin with the assumption that declining worship attendance is a problem. An adage by inventor and business leader Charles Kettering reminds us, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” The way we frame a problem either limits or empowers our diagnosis and idea generation. An effective problem statement follows several rules of thumb:

  • Avoid problem statements that are either too narrow or too broad. “People aren’t coming to worship as frequently as they used to” is a simple and direct statement, but it doesn’t indicate what’s wrong with low attendance. On the other hand, observing that “There is a 20% decrease in attendance among millennials who grew up in the church and claim to be believers,” may be too narrow to help frame a larger conversation about the health of our worshiping community.
  • Don’t create a problem statement that includes implied assumptions or solutions. “The problem is that we need to offer more worship options and venues.” Or, “The problem is that people today like more contemporary musical styles than we offer.” Each of these problem statements sends us chasing down rabbit holes before we fully understand the issues at hand.
  • Don’t confuse symptoms of a problem with the problem itself. Simply stating, “Worship attendance numbers are down 10% from the same time last year” describes a symptom, not a problem. What condition does declining attendance point towards?

There isn’t a universal problem statement that applies to all congregations struggling with declining worship attendance. The statement you frame must address the specific issues relevant in your context. One congregation framed its problem statement this way:

“We are a congregation with a reputation for excellence in traditional worship. Average worship attendance is down ten percent from last year. Some of the people who are no longer worshiping with us now attend neighboring congregations that offer contemporary expressions of worship.”

Discovering the Root Causes

Once we have crafted a problem statement we turn to examining the causes of the problem. We can’t craft solutions until we better understand what is driving behavior. It is too easy to blame trends in the larger culture and to identify possible causes outside our control. We need to dig deeper.

Declining attendance may be an indicator that something is wrong, or it may point to an emerging unmet need. It could be that worship feels less relevant to people, so they attend less. It could mean we are more mobile as a culture or that people have more options to be elsewhere Sunday mornings. It may be a sign of how pressured people’s lives feel. Does it mean our people are less committed to their faith or their congregation? Does it mean our spiritual vitality has decreased? We don’t know until we research and ask.

One congregation discovered that many of their young families were skipping worship because the Sunday morning experience at church separated family members. The adults stayed in worship while the children attended Young Church and Sunday school. Young families were staying at home to create much needed family time.

Once leaders understood this, they resourced young families with worship materials that could be used at home. Those gathered in communal worship prayed for those worshiping at home, and vice versa. The church also initiated a “children in church” service once each month. Families stayed together in church on those special Sundays.

Invention or Innovation?

Once the problem has been articulated and the root causes have been clarified, we are ready to move into the generation of possible solutions. A mistake that many leaders make at this stage is failing to differentiate between invention and innovation.

Innovation theorists Peter Denning and Robert Dunham define an invention as the creation of a new idea, artifact, process or method. We invent a new worship service with a different musical style. We add a worship service on an alternative day of the week. We channel new resources into technology.

Innovation, on the other hand, focuses on the adoption of new practices. Invention is important, but creating new ideas is fundamentally different from getting people to adopt them. If you want a new thing to succeed, you must focus time and attention on getting people to commit to the new practices.

In the church that provided resources to young families for worshiping at home, the educator on staff made home visits to help families access and use the resources. She asked participating families to evaluate the resources and collected stories of home worship to share with the congregation. All this helped with adoption of the invention.

Finding Better Metrics

Increasingly, congregations are finding new ways to tend the spiritual vitality of the congregation. These new practices may or may not impact weekly worship attendance. If we continue to place all our emphasis on counting bodies in the seats on Sunday morning, we’ll miss opportunities for innovation. If we evaluate our clergy leaders only or primarily on what happens inside the sanctuary, we’ll miss other measures of vitality.

The relationship between worship and vitality is complicated. There is certainly some correlation between the two, but we need to be careful not to presume causation. We need to foster innovation and encourage progress that may not reflect itself in who shows up to be counted.

This article was originally featured at congregationalconsulting.org on 3/20/2017.

How to Have a Better Conversation

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Board leaders long for meaningful meetings. Instead, many participate in mind-numbing meetings that repetitively chase topics, with little forward momentum. Agendas are rigidly structured around the receipt of reports, with little work that actually impacts the future of the congregation. What would it take to foster more fruitful board conversations?

BetterConversationRecently, I observed a board conversation about declining worship attendance. The decline followed three years of slow, but steady growth. The topic appeared on the agenda as “worship attendance.” The conversation was introduced by the pastor as part of her regular monthly report. The pastor pointed out that every other indicator of church health looked positive; membership was up, the budget was growing, more people were serving in volunteer positions, and new programs were well attended. The pastor wondered aloud what the dip in attendance meant, and whether or not the dip was a foreboding indicator of future decline.

Immediately, the gathered leaders plunged into frenzied dialogue with a lot of “worrying about” attendance numbers. There was some brainstorming about cause, some speculation about how to solve “the problem”, and lots of worrying about long term budget implications. The conversation lasted twenty minutes, without any clear consensus as to whether the congregation actually had a problem, and no plan of approach as to what should happen next. Leaders agreed to watch the situation, and the conversation was tabled until the following month, where it was re-introduced again, with much the same outcome.

During my visit with the board, I asked the leaders if they would humor me in an experiment. The leaders agreed and I introduced the language of Richard Chait, et al., in their book Governance as Leadership. We discussed the differences between fiduciary, strategic and generative modes of governance, all of which must be nurtured within the life of a board. I introduced the following distinctions.

The fiduciary mode of governance focuses on the effective use of assets. It concerns itself with preventing theft, waste or misuse. It explores issues related to budgets, assets, compensation, facilities, fundraising and staff team performance. It considers the ethics of a situation, the safety of the constituency, the legality of things and appropriate boundary setting.

I asked the board to talk about the dip in worship attendance, purely through the lens of fiduciary governance. They talked about possible budgetary impact, and the long term correlation between attendance and giving patterns. They engaged in some worrying behaviors, but their overall conversation was directed towards specific asset areas. They asked themselves if giving patterns were historically correlated with attendance patterns. They wondered what a plateau in growth would mean for long overdue salary increases anticipated at the end of the year. They asked themselves what percentage of the operating budget was actually allocated to the production of the Sunday worship service. If people were changing the way that they participated in the life of the congregation (by worshiping less), should the assets devoted to worship attendance be re-allocated?

Next, I introduced the language of strategic governance. A board is operating in strategic mode when it explores the long-term impact on identity and future of the congregation. It examines the topic for its intersection with the questions: Who are we? Who are we here to serve? What is God calling us to do or become? Strategic governance builds authority, responsibility and accountability into the system by empowering others to act in pursuit of an agreed upon strategy.

I invited the board to wade into the conversation about attendance again, this time purely through the lens of strategic governance.

They had a rich conversation about the link between worship attendance and their identity as a disciple-making congregation. The wondered if less face time in worship actually reduced spiritual growth and relationship building within the congregation. They explored whether or not their mission suggested a particular sized worshiping community. They wondered aloud how they would know if they were being successful in worship, and whether or not worship attendance was an appropriate indicator of discipleship success.

The group decided that they needed better information to determine if the dip was problematic or not. Had some people dropped out of worship entirely, and if so, who were they? Or, was the dip reflective of a stable but growing body of worshippers that were attending with less frequency. The board decided to assign the research of these questions to the Director of Membership and asked for a more complete reporting, by demographic group, at the next scheduled meeting.

Finally, I introduced the mode of generative governance. This mode of governance seeks to unleash the power of creative thinking. Generative thinking invites meaning making about the knowledge, information and data. It involves re-framing problems/challenges so that the congregation can understand and approach them in new ways, by introducing paradigm shifts. Generative thinking typically requires noticing cues and clues, choosing and using new frames of reference, and intentionally constructing a dominant narrative.

Board leaders began their conversation again, this time adopting the generative lens. They began with open brainstorming about all of the challenges, problems and opportunities that might contribute to worship decline. They discussed the busy lifestyles of the congregants, the increase in competing activities on Sunday mornings, and the presence of a new mega-church across town. Someone suggested that members might be experiencing more authentic Sabbath by staying home on Sunday mornings. They talked about a recent article from ABPnews/Herald on national trends in reported worship attendance, and they explored whether or not the article had anything to do with this congregation. They brainstormed possible ways to infuse more energy into the existing worship experience, and they suggested potential new worship venues to better meet the needs of congregants. They wondered what qualified as meaningful worship. Ultimately, they decided that they weren’t ready to create a narrative about worship attendance. They wanted to see more information first.

At the end of our experiment, leaders agreed that this conversation had been more meaningful and future focused than previous attempts. The board agreed that they wanted to delegate more of their fiduciary work, so that their future conversations could take on more generative and strategic overtones. They agreed that artificially separating the three modes of governance was an interesting experiment that they would adopt from time to time moving forward.

Most importantly, the board chair and pastor realized that they had important work to do in framing agenda items before bringing them to the board. The framing of an agenda item influences the mode of governance that the board assumes as it enters a conversation. The board chair decided that the agenda item for the following month’s meeting would read, “Changing patterns in worship attendance, by demographic group.”

And the conversation moved forward from there.