Regular church attendance doesn’t mean what it used to mean.
Thirty years ago, the average fully committed church member attended three times a week. Twenty years ago, that dropped to three a month. Ten years ago, it was two a month. Now, according to ChurchAnswers.com, there’s strong anecdotal evidence suggesting that the once-a-month attender is the “fastest-growing segment of church life.”
What does that mean for the average pastor?
Here are eight realities to be aware of:
1. You May Be Pastoring More People Than You Think
When you ask a typical pastor how many people attend their church, they’ll often say, “about 75 on an average Sunday, but if everyone showed up it could be about 100.”
I have two responses to that answer.
First, we need to stop framing our attendance that way, because (spoiler alert!) they will never all show up.
Second, the attendance range has widened. Today, if a church averages 75 in attendance, you’re probably pastoring 130-150 people, not 100.
Because of this . . .
2. What Seems Like Decline May Not Be Decline
If your attendance has dipped by less than 20 percent in the last decade (Covid aside), you probably haven’t declined in the total number of congregants. It’s likely you’ve held steady. Likewise, if you’ve maintained steady attendance numbers it probably means an uptick in total congregants.
Decline isn’t what it used to be, and “stuck” may not be stuck at all.
3. “Committed” Looks Different Now
We need to adjust our expectations about what it means to be committed to the church. Starting with our volunteers.
With more absences, we need more workers on rotation for every church position, from greeters, to Sunday School teachers, and more. If the church requires them to be present for nine out of ten Sundays, you’re severely limiting your volunteer pool.
But if you adapt and allow for more absences you may get more volunteers to fill in those extra spots.
4. Prepare For A Wider Range Of High/Low Attendance Days
Since “regular” is less consistent, your high Sundays and low Sundays will be further apart than they used to be. A range of 55-95 might have been typical for a church of 75 a decade ago. Now the range may be 45-105. That can play with your head and your planning if you’re not prepared for it.
We need to plan for smaller and bigger at the same time.
For instance, if you have portable seating, put fewer chairs out, but have a plan to add them mid-service if you have a higher Sunday. If you serve food, prepare less, but have quick back-up food ready to go.
5. Emphasize Short And Heavy Commitments Over Long And Steady
Don’t just change your expectations for volunteers, adjust the church’s overall schedule.
Certainly, the Sunday (or weekend) service must be set in place. Meeting weekly is a scriptural mandate, both from the Sabbath commandment and the New Testament Lord’s Day pattern. But everything else needs an adjustment.
For instance, our church no longer has Wednesday night Bible studies. Yes, we still study the Bible, and we sometimes have it on Wednesdays, be we no longer expect people to show up just because it’s Wednesday.
Most of our events happen in short spurts of time, with rests in between. Bible studies, for instance, might meet five Wednesdays in a row to study Ephesians, then that study ends. The next one might be ten Sunday evenings, then it ends.
The old schedule of showing up on the same night every week is over. Instead, if people can get advance notice that a study or a group will start and end within a specific time range they’ll adjust their calendar for that commitment.
6. The Infrequent Attender Needs More Deliberate Follow-up
When people attended three times a week, a two-week illness meant they missed six services, so we noticed it. Now, with attendance at two or three a month, they can be sick for a month without anyone knowing.
This requires us to pay better attention to following up.
7. Guilt Will Backfire
Making people feel guilty for not showing up will more likely keep them away than bring them in.
The reason for their absence may not be laziness or apathy, like it used to be. Today it can be a combination of odd work hours, blended families with kids, and more.
Our churches need to help people adjust to their new lives and schedules, not guilt them for something they’re trying to come to grips with.
8. Going To Church Still Matters – Being The Church Matters More
It matters that we go to church. Regular absences are not good for the church or for the absent member. But the solution isn’t to increase attendance, it’s to increase discipleship.
When people are discipled they will give attendance a higher priority, and when they’re not at church, they’ll still know how to be the church.
That’s what makes the difference.
(Photo by Seth Sawyers | Flickr)