Leader to Leader, Leadership

Understanding Church Attendance Patterns

August 11, 2016 | Posted by Todd Jones

At one time we simply accepted as obvious that regular worship attendance meant that a person missed only when they were forced to by unforeseen circumstances. Like gentle waves on the ocean, attendance would rise and fall ever so slightly. Rather than the calm seas of the past, we live in times of rough seas. Today, regular worship attendance often means attending once or twice a month. The number of worshippers can vary dramatically from one Sunday to the next. Unfortunately, this turbulence is often accepted as a simple fact of our increasingly un-Christian culture.

While we cannot change our culture, I believe we could do a better job of encouraging more regular worship attendance among our membership. The first place to begin this process is with an evaluation of your current Sunday morning activities.

The evaluation process involves answering some tough questions:

  1. Do we, pastors and church members, act as if the worship gathering is the most important event of the week? Part of demonstrating our priority on the worship gathering is the effort that is invested to make the music, the liturgy and the preaching the best that it can be. However, that is just a part of the answer. We also demonstrate our value of worship through our conversations. When we share the blessings we receive from the worship service, you inspire greater worship attendance. This gets us to another question.
  2. Why is the worship gathering important to you? I routinely ask this question when I am called to lead a consultation with a congregation. Here are the most common answers: good music, loving fellowship, caring people, accepting people, meaningful preaching.

These are all good and important parts of the Sunday gathering. Many congregations work to execute these aspects with excellence to attract and retain worshippers. However, there is a dark side to this list. While each of these items is intended to be part of a positive experience in church, for many, they embody the very thing they like least about church. For example, you might love traditional hymns and the next person might love contemporary praise music.  Your congregation’s use of traditional hymnody might engage some while at the same time it might disengage others. Loving fellowship and caring people certainly are hallmarks of the Christian church. However, what some people see as loving, other people might see as being nosey. You can get the idea. The five answers listed above are answers from people who are regular in worship attendance and are from the church culture. It is important to continue do these things well to encourage regular worship attendance among that group. However, they don’t do anything for the group that is not attending church regularly. What do they value? From a variety of surveys, we know that they have a pretty consistent list:

  • They want a church that helps them grow in their relationship with Jesus.
  • They want a church that encourages open and authentic community.
  • They want a church that applies the Bible to life.
  • They want a church that does not judge the culture.
  • They want a church that is making a difference in their community.
  • They want a church that encourages them to draw conclusions from God’s Word.

As you evaluate your congregation’s Sunday morning activities, how are you doing in addressing both lists? If we ignore the first list, we will dampen the enthusiasm your current, active attendees have for your church. If we ignore the second list, we will fail to engage newer and younger members for a strong commitment to worship.

Todd Jones
Todd Jones is an assistant professor in the practical department of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO. He teaches a variety of core courses in the curriculum, as well as, elective courses in church planting and congregational revitalization. He assists congregations as a consultant focusing on staff development, strategic planning, and church planting. He has been married for 33 years to an amazing wife, Susan, and has two adult children.
  • This is a very, very helpful post. However, I have one question. Could you expound on: “They want a church that does not judge the culture”? Would that be in regard to preaching and teaching against things like abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, etc.? If so, how would you suggest churches deal with that issue. Thanks for a great and thoughtful post! It’s got me thinking!

    • joanne jensen

      “A church that does not judge the culture”.
      Should we strive for being that church, or the one that draws conclusions from God’s Word? I believe a chirch that does not judge the culture is…a lukewarm church.

    • Tom,

      Thank you for the challenging questions. If this was easy, we would not be struggling to connect with the younger culture. First, the operative word in your quote is “judge.” There is a clear distinction between taking a stand for a truth and being judgmental. Millennials actually do want churches to stand for something. They actually do want to know what God’s Word says about the issues with which we all struggle. What is a turn-off is the judgments that can come with the statement of truths. I find it interesting that even Jesus warned his disciples about the dangers of judging others. Certainly, there could be a time when our stance for something makes people uncomfortable and they might say that we are judging them. We can do our best to speak the truth in love, but we cannot forsake the truth. Second, the answer to your question about churches dealing with issues such as abortion and homosexuality depends on the purpose of the worship gathering. If the purpose of worship is to catechize, then perhaps a lengthy teaching on the topics would be appropriate for the worship service. If the purpose of the worship service is to reveal God to His people, the sermon would not be pedagogical in nature. Therefore, the topics might be used as illustrations of brokenness, but not treated in-depth for the service. The teaching about the topics would take place in a Bible class, or a discussion venue.

      • Thank you so much for such a helpful and thoughtful answer. I really appreciate your suggestion to make the distinction between “judging,” and “taking a stand” based on God’s Word. Your statement on “purpose” of a worship gathering is also helpful, and happens to coincide with the practices of the ministries of which I have been a part. Thanks, again!

  • Jane E. DeLand

    Under the area of Music smart churches sing both Traditional and Contemporary music in their worship services or other social get together’ of different groups! These churches usually really grow! Also the people are really friendly, loving ,helpful and very caring to every person they meet at church or maybe in the community! These churches actions really show visitors that they and everyone who these church members meet are all accepted unconditionally . Just like God/Jesus did and does every day!! I attend a church that fits into the category that I have been talking about! And to me it seems to be growing.

  • Thank you for taking the time to post a thought-provoking topic that we’ve address in my home church, Redeemer Lutheran in Springfield, MO.

    The second list has a lot of good take-aways. A few of my thoughts…and I realize I’m preaching to the choir here.

    Historically, God’s Church hasn’t tried to woo members by making the Bible relevant to people’s lives. Quite the opposite: the church often calls upon people to change their lives to conform with God’s word. By default, the Church is relevant because the world is hostile to God. People who come to church seeking a “kinder, gentler Jesus” often get things backasswards thinking the Church needs to be relevant to where they are.

    This is not to say that the church is purposefully trying to be as offensive as possible, but a church that is earnest seeking the Lord often is at odds with the world, which is hostile to God. We are called to be servants in a culture that seeks self-advancement. To be humble in a social media society that worships itself online. To be wise stewards of the wealth we have to manage instead of racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt to buy stuff we cannot afford to impress people we don’t know.

    As Luther admonishes, we are to put “the best construction on everything,” but I cringe whenever I hear the phrase “the Church / Bible / sermons need to be more relevant to MY life”…. Isn’t the proper attitude that my life needs to be made more relevant because of what Christ did for me?

    I don’t need a church who makes it’s mission equal rights for blacks, gays, straights, women, minorities, gun owners, etc. Respect for all people should be a side benefit of a Church earnestly seeking to share the Gospel with all people. But too often the church gets wrapped up in earthly struggles. I can get involved in those types of organizations in my community: they are plentiful! We do well to keep in mind that Jesus came to earth to save people from their sins by dying on the cross. He did not come to equalize them politically, economically, racially, sexually, or in any other way except to place us all squarely at the foot of his cross and receiving the benefits of God’s forgiveness.

    Many people in Jesus’ day thought he was to be a worldly king who would right the wrongs of the Roman empire and restore political power to Israel. Jesus had to correct their understanding. Too often, the modern church have turned itself into crusaders for “rights” or “equality” in an effort to recruit members. While those are noble goals, they are not the Church’s purpose. We are not crusaders: we are redeemed sinners working out salvation in a world that is in need of the lamb of Calvary.

    I know the spirit in which you posted this is a challenge to churches who have gotten wrapped up in their own ways of doing things for the sake of human tradition, which is just as dangerous as those who seek to bend and sway the Gospel to accommodate everyone’s personal feelings. For that and for your heart, I am very grateful.

    In closing, when a church makes its highest priorities the worship of God, administering the Sacraments, study of the Word, prayer and thanksgiving we are the most relevant organization on earth! Nothing else even comes close.

    Blessed Advent!