Your Attendance is Declining: Here is One Big Idea to Keep in Mind

If you track attendance at your church (and who doesn’t), the vast majority of church leaders are tracking numbers that probably bother them.

That can lead into a death spiral of trying to drive greater attendance, only to discover more disappointment down the road.

The mission of the church is the same in every generation. But the methods we use—our strategy—has to change, as I outlined here.

So what’s one of the biggest changes we’re going to see?

Simple. If you want to see your church grow, stop trying to attract people and start trying to engage people.

In the future church, engagement is the new attendance.

If church leaders put as much effort into trying to engage people in the mission of the church as they used to (or still) put into trying to drive attendance, they would see a huge spike in both engagement and attendance.

Conversely, leaders who focused solely on attendance or misconstrue what engagement is will continue to see declining attendance.

At Connexus Church, where I serve as Founding and Teaching pastor, we’re seeing encouraging spikes in physical and online attendance (the two are not mutually exclusive) at established locations, our online campus and our new location.

The growth in the number of new unchurched people has come for sure by the grace of God, but also after almost five years of focusing on increasing engagement in these 7 ways. I also outlined why we made the shift and many people have made the shift in my book, Lasting Impact.

Church leaders, if you cared as much about engagement as you did about attendance, you’d likely see a spike in attendance as your mission grows and expands.

So why is engagement the new attendance?

Here are 5 reasons.

1. Attendance Was Never The Goal

When did we get the idea that church attendance was the ultimate goal?

Flip back to New Testament days.

Jesus never said ‘Attend me.’ He said ‘Follow me.’

The only reason you would follow Jesus (in Jesus’ day) is because you were either intrigued by who he was and what he did, or because you had come to believe that he was who he said he was.

In other words, you were engaged.

You didn’t attend Jesus. You followed him.

A similar dynamic emerged in the first-century church.

Early Christians didn’t attend church. They were the church.

If you look back at the genesis of the Jesus movement, the idea of attendance as a hallmark would have been completely foreign.

You only attended because you were engaged. Period.

2. Attendance Grows Out Of Engagement Anyway

As the Christian movement grew and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, mere church ‘attendance’ became an option.

Fast forward to our lifetime, and even in growing, effective churches,  attendance had become an established path to engagement.

The big idea was this: come, and eventually you’ll get engaged.

That worked (quite effectively, actually) when people used to flock to church.

But in an era when the number of unchurched is constantly on the rise and even Christians don’t attend church as often anymore (here are 10 reasons for that), that strategy is becoming less and less effective.

Yet, many churches (even growing churches) are still counting on getting people to attend, hoping it drives engagement.

The shelf life of that strategy is limited because the number of people who want to attend church drops every year.

To say it clearly one more time, in the future church attendance won’t drive engagement; engagement will drive attendance.

The new gooal is to get people engaged faster and to engage people more deeply in the true mission of the church.

In the future, the engaged will attend because, in large measure, only the engaged will remain.

3. Trying To Attract People In A Post-Christian Culture Can Work Against The Mission

I am all for making church as attractive and accessible as possible.

But in the future if that’s your only approach (better lights, cooler vibe, hoping people will come), you will get diminishing results. (I wrote on the death and rebirth of cool church here.)

Why is that?

Well, as outlined above, when attendance was more normative and in some senses ‘automatic’ in our culture, attraction was a decent strategy.

Because people would go to church, creating a better church was a good approach.

But (and here’s the underbelly), it also fed into consumerism.

Consumerism has defined the last century of North American and Western culture.

To some extent, the attractional church has played into consumerism. Build something attractive and people will come.

Again, that strategy was very effective when people instinctively flocked to churches, not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of baptisms and authentic faith-building. And you shouldn’t make your church inaccessible or unattractive on purpose. That’s just…weird.

But in the process, building attractive, relevant churches has had an unintended side-effect: people have come to evaluate church by what they get out of it, not by what they put into it.

That’s a mistake.

Along the way, discipleship has even been redefined in many circles to mean consumption of knowledge. The more you know, the more mature you are. I believe that’s a flawed approach (here’s why).

Authentic discipleship has always been about dying to self.  It’s about giving far more than it is about getting.

Again, I’m not slamming the attractional church. I’m all for building bridges to the culture, not erecting barriers.

Anyone who knows church knows that at the heart of every attractional church is a core of Christians who sacrifice—who give, who serve and who invite.

What’s exciting is that selflessness will move to the forefront in the future church because those who remain will be engaged in the mission.

4. Our Culture Is Ripe For An Alternative To Consuming

One of the frequent criticisms non-Christians levy at Christians is that we’re self-indulgent and hypocritical.

Those critiques are not without warrant.

As a more selfless church emerges (even excellent, selfless churches), that will drive more curiosity and interest from unchurched people.

While you can debate what Millennials really want out of life, there appears to be a growing attraction in our culture to rebel against consumerism,

People are longing for an alternative to life as they know it. The church is that alternative.

In the future church, Christians obsessed with giving away their lives will eclipse Christians obsessed with themselves and their preferences.

5. People Become The Most Passionate About The Things With Which They’re Most Involved

A final reason that engagement will drive future church growth is simply this: people become most passionate about the things with which they’re most involved.

Just talk to a football dad or a baseball mom. Or your foodie friend who just found yet another recipe. Or your triathlete friend who set another personal best.

Engagement fuels involvement. Involvement fuels passion. Passion fuels invitation.

That’s why your friend wants you to try that recipe, to watch the game with them and at least attempt a 5k.

Engagement leads to invitation. Invitation leads to unchurched people following Jesus.

In many ways, this can only be a good thing.

> Read more from Carey.


 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is lead pastor of Connexus Community Church and author of the best selling books, Leading Change Without Losing It and Parenting Beyond Your Capacity. Carey speaks to North American and global church leaders about change, leadership, and parenting.

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Four Ways Your Church Can Break Attendance Barriers

Almost anytime I mention numbers related to church life, I anticipate some responses about the value of numbers and congregations. In the 1980s, this type of discussion came primarily from more liberal churches that weren’t growing. Some of these leaders felt that declining membership and attendance was likely a sign of health. The members who really cared about the church were the ones who remained. They could make the biggest difference without the more nominal members remaining as obstacles.

Today, it is not unusual for me to hear from more conservative church leaders that declining church numbers may be a good sign because it is an indication that the numbers reflect true regenerate members. But, for the purpose of this brief article, let’s assume that attendance growth is a positive indicator. Presumably more people are hearing the gospel and being discipled when a church is growing.

It is in that context that I hear almost every week from church leaders whose churches seem stuck at some level of attendance: 100, 200, 500, 800, and so on. I even got a call a year ago from a church where the pastor was concerned that attendance was stuck at 7,000!

After 25 years of consulting and researching local congregations, I have found four common approaches churches take to break attendance barriers regardless of size. There are certainly more than four possibilities, but allow me to evaluate these four more common approaches.

1. Create new groups.

These groups may be home groups, small groups that meet in coffee houses, Sunday school classes, ministry groups, and others. Church leaders are intentional about creating groups on an ongoing basis. They typically have goals for the number of groups they start.

Evaluation: Frankly, I have seen great success with this strategy (and recently wrote about this strategy). I would speculate that as many as eight out of ten churches that strategically create new groups grow to new attendance levels. The mystery to me is why most churches don’t have this strategy.

2. Create new worship services.

A church moves from one service to two, or from two to three, or even more. The move is typically precipitated by one or more services running out of space.

Evaluation: Most of the time the new service does aid the church in breaking attendance barriers. But, keep in mind, the church was most likely growing already until it ran out of space. The new service simply takes the lid off so the church can continue to grow. I would caution a church, however, about moving to an additional worship service if it’s not already in a growth mode. The worship center can seem vacuous if one non-growing group is split into two non-growing groups.

3. Create new venues.

This principle is similar to adding worship services, but the church uses a different facility for the new service. That new facility may actually be a new campus. It may be an ethnic service meeting in the church facilities in a different room than the worship center. It may be a merged church from another location. The possibilities are many.

Evaluation: The results thus far are positive. As a church adds a new venue, there is a natural increase in attendance. The multi-campus form of this new venue is growing in use and popularity with mostly good results. We are still a few years away from being able to measure the mid-term impact of new venues on growth. I would be willing to speculate that the results will be very positive.

4. Have a major event.

The church’s strategy is to have one or more events that will create sufficient excitement for members to invite those who aren’t attending church. That event may be tied to a major holiday such as Easter, Fourth of July, or Christmas. It may be tied to a significant tradition in a church. The plan is to get people to attend who would not regularly attend.

Evaluation: I have studied a few hundred churches that use the big event as their major growth strategy, and the results are not good. Attendance tends to rise for a few weeks on and after the event, but then it settles down to previous patterns. Churches can spend a lot of money on big events, but I hardly ever see a church break an attendance barrier consistently, even with those large amounts of resources dedicated to it.

What successful approaches have you seen to break attendance barriers? What do you think of these approaches I have highlighted? Why do churches not create new groups regularly and strategically when it has proven to be the most effective method for growth and for breaking attendance barriers?

Read more from Thom here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer

Thom S. Rainer is the founder and CEO of Church Answers, an online community and resource for church leaders. Prior to founding Church Answers, Rainer served as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Before coming to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism. He is a 1977 graduate of the University of Alabama and earned his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Wes — 07/11/13 10:11 am

Thank you for sharing this wonderful article. It is both interesting and timely for our congregation. We are a congregation that has hovered around the 600 attendance mark for many years. Our worship center was at about 80% capacity (but it had been for a long time). We finally made the decision to split into two services. The problem was, however, that we were not already in the growth mode. We created two non-growing services. We moved back to one service for the summer, because of the travel schedules of so many folks, but now we are wondering how to proceed. Should we create a smaller simulcast service within our existing building instead of going back to a second service? Should we explore off campus venues? We are struggling with these questions right now. In other words, we are butting up against that ceiling, and we are searching for a way through.

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— Dennis Whiterock
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
— Mike Taylor
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I loved this presentation. It helped greatly as I organized an Outreach Ministry of The Shepherds Care. Thank you. Esther Callaham Mahgoube Emmanuel Pentecostal Church New Jersey
 
— Esther Mahgoube
 

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Measuring Ministry Progress in Your Church, Part 2: Attendance

Numbers matter to God, because people matter to God.

 

In a previous post I introduced the importance of measuring progress in ministry. Today we look at the measurement of attendance.

Measuring weekly attendance at church is the perhaps the easiest measurement to make, because it’s as easy as doing a head count.

From week to week, you can see if more or less people are coming to church, and compare these numbers over time.

Although there is a reluctance in some circles to talk about attendance numbers, more people coming to church and hearing the gospel is a good thing. (Perhaps this speaks more to the Australian culture than other cultures, but a church that is growing doesn’t feel to be ashamed, nor do others need to assume that a church that is growing has compromised and ceased preaching the gospel).

As Perry Noble explains:

“Every number has a name, every name has a story, every story matters to God.”

Numbers matter to God, because people matter to God. You only need to look at the parable of the lost sheep to see that individuals matter to God (and particularly those who are lost).

Of course, small attendance in and of itself doesn’t indicate a problem. Likewise, declining attending church doesn’t necessarily raise alarm bells – perhaps you’re preaching the gospel more clearly and it’s offending people and they’re leaving.

Why aren’t more people coming to church?

However, if fewer people are coming to church, it’s worth asking the question – why?

  • Has the church stopped praying for growth and for people to be saved?
  • Have people stopped inviting their friends?
  • Is the preacher getting lazy and preparing poorly?
  • Is the preaching addressing only a certain group of people (I recall a pastor at a previous church who only gave illustrations about his children – not great when the majority of the church were teenagers!).
  • Is the church building so full that people don’t think there’s room for them?.

There are good questions to ask when attendance starts to decline.

3 reasons to be cautious about increased attendance

On the flip side, increasing numbers in attendance need to be viewed with caution for at least 3 reasons:

  1. Transfer growth. Church attendance can increase as Christians migrate from another church. There are good reasons for church migration (moved to the area, no kids ministry in their church, etc.), but if this is the primary reason a church is growing, it’s not healthy. At the heart of church growth should be new people (the unchurched and the dechurched) coming to hear the good news about Jesus. An increase in attendance because of transfer growth isn’t necessarily a reason to celebrate.
  2. Back door departures. The number of people in attendance needs to be considered along with the number of people leaving. If attendance levels are high, but there is also a large number of people leaving the church, the church is obviously attracting new people, but failing to keep them (or attracting at the expense of longer-term members). In this case, an increase in attendance isn’t necessarily a reason to celebrate either, if the back door is just as wide as the front door.
  3. Frequency of attendance. Similar to the point above, attendance levels can be increasing if lots of new people are coming, but this must be considered along with the frequency with which members are attending church. On average, are members coming more regularly – 2 out of 4 Sundays, 3 out of 4 Sundays, or even 4 out of 4 Sundays? Or are they attending less frequently? High attendance from newcomers can mask a problem of members not being committed to church.

That said, attendance is a great starting measurement, and one that every pastor I have spoken with is using. I suggest breaking down this measure into the following:

  • Measurement #1. The number of adults and children at church this weekend.
  • Measurement #2.  The number of adults and children who attended church this weekend, who aren’t currently attending another church.
  • Measurement #3. The frequency of attendance of members (how many Sundays in a month the average member is at church). To measure this, you need to be using a church member database that enables you to mark the ‘roll’ each week. We use Elvanto at Church by the Bridge.
  • Measurement #4. The number of people who were attending, but aren’t any more (i.e. have been officially removed from the church roll).
  • Measurement #5. The number of unidentified regular attenders. This is helpful for putting on the agenda follow up of people who have been coming for a while, but who are unknown and not yet connected.

Reviewing these numbers over time is more helpful than comparing from week to week. Like political polls, the numbers go up and down, but its the trends over time that are worth looking at.

As Al Stewart explains:

“You don’t grow week to week, you grow year by year…comparing the same months of different years, will give you a proper picture of what is happening”.

Read Part 1 of this series here.

Read more from Steve here.

 
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Kryger

Steve Kryger

I don’t deserve it, but I’ve been redeemed by Jesus. I can’t begin to express how thankful I am for all God has done for me, and it’s my privilege to serve Him. I am the Executive Pastor at Church by the Bridge in Kirribilli, Australia. Prior to serving at Church by the Bridge, I worked as a marketing manager in Canberra, as well as a social media specialist.

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Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I agree 100%, you can tell if a church is doing this it grows, if there's no growth there's poor leadership..
 
— Dennis Whiterock
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
— Mike Taylor
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I loved this presentation. It helped greatly as I organized an Outreach Ministry of The Shepherds Care. Thank you. Esther Callaham Mahgoube Emmanuel Pentecostal Church New Jersey
 
— Esther Mahgoube
 

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.