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.