Why I Stopped Taking Attendance at My Church for a While

Man in prayerNumbers matter. Because people matter.

If we keep track of them correctly, the right numbers can give us a lot of helpful information about a church and its ministries.

For many years, I kept track of church attendance numbers very carefully. As the church grew, I calculated growth patterns, percentages, demographics, you name it. I found that counting wasn’t just important and helpful, it was fun. When we were growing.

Then we stopped growing.

Soon we started shrinking.

And we kept shrinking. No matter what we did to correct the downward slide.

Eventually we lost over half, maybe two-thirds of the congregation from its peak size. I don’t know the exact numbers, because I stopped counting. But we ended up smaller than when the growth spurt had started.

I felt guilty about the decline. And I felt guilty that I didn’t keep attendance records any more. But I just couldn’t take it.


When Knowing the Numbers Doesn’t Fix the Problems

I didn’t need attendance records to tell me what my eyes could see. 

I knew what some of the problems were, including demographic shifts, inadequate facilities and my own underdeveloped management system. So we worked to correct what we could. But many of the problems remained a mystery.

I know that keeping accurate records can help you see problems early and tweak issues before they get out of hand. Sometimes. But when the whole thing is going up in flames, knowing the precise temperature of the fire doesn’t help put it out. That was the case at our church. Getting more precise numbers wasn’t going to fix the obvious problems or identify the undiscovered ones.

So we stopped counting and did what we could to douse the fire before we lost everything.

And we didn’t start counting again for a long time after we corrected the slide and got things stabilized. By then, I was just grateful to be balanced and healthy. The numbers didn’t matter any more.

Have you ever been there? Maybe you and your church are there now?

Maybe you’ve lost some people. Maybe you’ve never had a growth spurt to lose. Either way, the numbers aren’t increasing the way you think they should. And they haven’t been for quite a while. So you’ve stopped counting. Or someone still counts, but you don’t look at the numbers. And you feel guilty about it.


The Most Important Words You May Hear Today

The purpose of this short post isn’t to give you a magic bullet or a list of steps that will fix everything.

And I’m not saying that taking church attendance is wrong. Or that not counting people is some sign of holiness or whatever. And I’m fully aware of the mantra “we count people because people count.” This isn’t about any of that.

But if my story feels familiar to you –  if the numbers are hard to take right now –  I want to encourage you with two truths you may really need to hear today.

First, you’re not alone.

I get it. I’ve been there.

In fact, there are a lot of us who get it.

Sometimes we don’t want to know the numbers.

We know our churches are small. We’ve got eyes. We don’t need to add to our feelings of guilt and failure by poring through statistics that confirm it.

The second thing I want to say is…

It’s OK. You’re allowed to take your eyes off the numbers for a while. Maybe for a very long while.

Just don’t take your eyes off Jesus.

He’s not wondering or worrying about your numbers. He’s burdened about where your heart is. And he wants to ease that burden, not add to it. Jesus never said “count my sheep.” He said “feed my sheep.”

Stay faithful. To Jesus, the church and to your own personal spiritual health and growth.

Leave the results in God’s hands.

After all, it’s Jesus’ church, not ours. And he knows what he’s doing.


Please Pass this On

I almost never ask people to re-post or retweet what I write. But if you know a church leader who might need to read this message, please send them the link.

That simple act might help them more than you know.

Let them know you’re praying for them today. Then actually pray for them.

Sometimes it’s not about finding answers. It’s about knowing that someone else feels what we feel.

And knowing that we’re going to be OK.


So what do you think? Has the weight of not reaching expected numbers been weighing on you?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Prayer photo from Sang You • Flickr • Creative Commons)


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7 thoughts on “Why I Stopped Taking Attendance at My Church for a While”

  1. Excellent thoughts. I have certain;y been there. My church when I first began as their pastor grew across the board in every area including finances at 25% each year and I really didn’t know why. Then it began to decline and dropped more than 50% and has only shown brief times of recovery. Because of the denomination I am in I can’t stop counting but as you noted I don’t need to count because I can see. I just continue to strive to be faithful and let God build the church as He will.

  2. Ralph Juthman

    Been there as well. I have a gentleman in my church who makes it his habit of letting me know every Monday how many were in church. However he never counted the children, youth our any of the workers in the nursery ( when we had one ) . I challenged him to count the kids, youth and workers, and take note of who as not in church, and give them a call. It was his new ministry.

    Now that I have become become part time, counting numbers has taken on a new dimension as each of the board members now have been given the ministry of overseeing specific families to pray and contact. Being a real small chrch also helps with knowing exactly who is there or not.

  3. I ‘m going through this now. We baptized one yesterday. You would have thought 25 people were baptized the way we acted. The congregation and myself have grown to appreciate who we have. Today a Chinese couple expressed a desire to attend our church, but there is on one to interpret the word. Also two people conveyed that they would attend our church if we had a van. We have no van. It is an honor to be considered. Maybe someday we will be able to do things like the above. The greatest strain I ‘m dealing with like many Pastors is working full time and pastoring. As of late I feel depleted. I know I’m not by myself. I know many of you understand. I ‘m a clinical therapist. It’s quite draining mentally. I know this article is about attendance, but I needed to get some things off my mind. When it is all said and done I love my work for The Lord and I thank God for the faithful few. I have some wonderful people. I wish I could give them more time.

    Thanks Brothers

  4. We still track total worship attendance, but we’re giving more attention now to frequency of attendance. Right now, it’s about 56 percent, meaning that the average attendee is present just over half the time. That’s the number I really want to affect.

    1. That’s the big challenge for the American church right now, Lawrence. Frequency of attendance is way down. Thom Rainer did a good post on this phenomenon a while ago. I’m working on a new blog post about this subject based on Thom’s post. I’ll probably run it next week.

  5. It’s hard not to count sometimes, but I’ve had to tell my congregation of 20 (and myself) that God is more concerned with our spiritual growth than our numerical growth. And I have seen a great deal of spiritual growth in these faithful few.

  6. You want a flourishing church? You want a church with standing room only? Install a concession stand in your lobby, put cup holders in the pews or between the chairs. Advertise for the first 100 people who come through the doors will get a gift certificate for a free pizza or a free movie ticket. These gimmicks will work but I’m not one for gimmicks. I too have a member of my church who counts people every service and makes sure he lets me know. I too have had a great falling away because of pride or envy or something stupid. BUT, the Bible says in the end times there will be a great falling away, I believe many churches are experiencing this as well. If we only look around and listen to the news, we are in those end times. YES, our eyes need to focused on Jesus and let Him take care of the numbers.

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