Think attendance in your church is declining? Think Again

Some eyewitnesses claim the attendance in their congregations is declining. This may be true. In some cases, however, congregations do not know how to count. If you think attendance in your congregation is really declining, I invite you to think again.

Your first reaction may be that it is an easy task. If a congregation has more people in attendance this year than it did last year, it is growing. If it has less, it is declining. Think again.

First Church has decreased in weekly attendance by 35 percent in the past 20 years. The average size of the households connected with the congregation has decreased from 3.4 people to 2.6 people. Twenty years ago 147 households were present on a typical Sunday, and now 163 households are present on a typical Sunday.

In Trinity Church three decades ago, active leaders were present an average of 48 Sundays per year. Today they are present 39 Sundays. Weekly attendance is about the same as it was 30 years ago. However, if you count the number of different people present over a four-week period, that number is up 23 percent.

Household Size and Frequency of Attendance

Counting weekly attendance in your congregation is no longer a reliable way to figure your attendance. It does not tell you who makes up your active congregation; which now needs to be the question asked rather than average attendance.

Let’s look at the situation of First Church. It illustrates that we should not only count the number of individual people present on Sunday for worship. We should also count the number of households present. Often in the New Testament the number of households present or impacted seemed to be the measurement used.

What the situation of First Church illustrates is that attendance can decrease fairly significantly over a couple of decades, and the number of households present can actually increase. Since certain activities in the life and ministry of a congregation–such as pastoral care–are often carried out by household rather than by individual persons, the pastoral care load of a congregation can actually increase while the individuals present decrease.

A congregation with an aging demographic where there are only one to two people in a household, or a congregation that transitions from reaching primarily traditional nuclear families to reaching single parent or single adult households, can experience a decline in attendance on Sundays, but really not be declining if the measurement unit is households.

Let’s consider the situation of Trinity Church. The reality is that people attend their church less Sundays per year than previously. Fifty years ago the deeply faithful members of a congregation attended at least 48 Sunday per year. They felt guilty if they missed a Sunday. They were encouraged to have perfect attendance.

Today even the leaders of congregations only attend 39 or so Sundays per year. People have found other things to do on Sundays. Vacations, illnesses, busy-ness, sports, and many other things focus people away from attending church.

Decades ago families would find a church to attend during their vacations. They would come to church sick. They would reserve Sundays for worship and not allow their busy-ness to keep them away. Sports–particularly for their children–were neither practiced nor played on Sundays; especially not Sunday mornings.

Strategic Insight: How Do We Count Our Active Congregation?

To figure out the active membership or the active number of people connected with your congregation, two distinct ways of counting should be instituted. First, is to count the number of households present on a typical Sunday in addition to the number of individual people. Observe trends over a period of years.

Second, is to pick four consecutive Sundays in the Fall and four consecutive Sundays in the Spring—that do not include Easter—and register everyone present by name each Sunday. Then figure out the number of different people in attendance during those four weeks. This is your active congregation.

Follow these two trends from year-to-year to better decide if you congregation is growing or declining. You may find that you have to think again.

George Bullard

Author's Website
About the Author
George is President of The Columbia Partnership at, This is a Christian ministry organization that seeks to transform the North American Church for vital and vibrant ministry. It primarily does this through the FaithSoaring Churches Learning Community. See George is the author of three books: Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation, Every Congregation Needs a Little Conflict, and FaithSoaring Churches. George is also General Secretary [executive coordinator] of the North American Baptist Fellowship at This is one of the six regions of the Baptist World Alliance. George holds is Senior Editor of TCP Books at More than 30 books have been published on congregational leadership issues.

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  • cken

    Yeah a new way to count or less is more.  Churches only care if the pews are full, they have to get the word out to as many as possible after all, and how much money is taken in.  If 30% less people give 30% more money,  are we more or less successful?  Conversely if we have 30% more people but 30% less money are we more or less successful?  Attendance is down solely because people have realized church is no place to go to acheive spiritual maturation.  In order for “thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, we need to get past the stylized ritual and work on spiritual development.  A half hour sermon, a few songs, and some money in the plate will only suffice for those who are spiritually shallow.  I am afraid some will be in for a rude awakening when they find out you had to do more than just go to church, and go through those funny little rituals called communion and baptism, to get into heaven.  Even to some of the regulars church is a farce and they only go for the networking benefits or in some cases to have their ego stroked.  I am sory for being so harsh this used to bother me alot more until it was revealed to me, it is better we try and get it wrong than to not try at all.

  • Randy White

    Just curious what cken believes you have to do to get to heaven?

  • Dave Patchin

    In both instances, attendance is still declining. They have a larger number of “active families” if you define being “active” as attending 1 time per month (your example). While these alternative statistics help reflect the larger picture of reach and engagement, their actual attendance (number of people who have shown up) is declining. The reasons for declining membership (smaller families, people not attending as often in a year, etc) must be dealt with as we seek to fulfill the great commission and make disciples. 

  • David Thomas

    I am wondering what your comment has to do with the topic?  Church attendance is in decline? Yes.  The demographics for many churches has increased to the 55+ year old.  They will die soon and without replacing them, so will churches.  How can these churches draw in more members in younger age groups?