Remember “average Sunday attendance”? If you are the lucky one in your church who completes forms to send to your denomination, you recognize this metric.
During the modern era (up to around the year 2000), this metric was a fairly reliable measure for how many people participate in a church. During the postmodern era (2000 and later), when attendance patterns shifted, this number became less reliable for assessing the number of church participants since people attend worship less often.
But now — O, but now — the unreliability of average Sunday attendance has skyrocketed. What in the world do the numbers tell us? Do we count the people online and in-person or just one or the other? What does this tell us about the number of people involved in our church, especially during this autumn of 2021?
Your church’s smaller average Sunday attendance means your church is like most others in North America.
No, contrary to the buzz floating around your church and in the lay leadership team, your church is not the only church in the land whose attendance numbers are smaller. No, your church’s smaller head count doesn’t mean your church is uniquely flawed, headed for imminent and immediate disaster. Your church is simply experiencing what the vast majority of churches are in North America. So, take a deep breath and don’t freak out.
Your church’s current average Sunday attendance is not an accurate measure of the number of participants in your church.
A few weeks ago, I gathered online with leaders from churches that are engaged in our ReShape Transforming Church Initiative. A major activity of ReShape is an eight-session curriculum in which small groups engage for Christian formation and discernment regarding their churches. As these leaders described their progress, church after church shared that the number of people participating in their small groups exceeds their current average Sunday attendance.
“More people are participating in these churches than their average Sunday attendance might indicate.”
I had to ask again to make sure I was hearing correctly. One church’s average Sunday attendance is about 120, while they have 151 people in their small groups. More people are participating in these churches than their average Sunday attendance might indicate. So, take a deep breath and don’t freak out.
Your church’s smaller average Sunday attendance does indicate that some participants are not returning.
There are church prognosticators who claim to know what percentage of people are not returning to churches after the pandemic. My crystal ball is broken, so I don’t have a percentage to offer. At the same time, the pandemic was the straw that broke the church camel’s back for some, turning them into “dones.” A few others are going to other churches because of the way their church handled the pandemic. Although we hate to lose anyone from our churches for any reason, fallout during major times of crisis is typical and normal. We don’t like it, yet it happens. So, take a deep breath and don’t freak out.
Your church’s smaller average Sunday attendance doesn’t indicate that your pastor and/or church staff need to go.
Here we are nearing pastor and staff evaluation season (for those churches that value evaluations). Given America’s infatuation with leadership along with the deep disappointment by many in America’s politicians, don’t be surprised when some in churches interpret your lower average Sunday attendance as a clear sign that your pastor and church staff are to blame.
“Don’t be surprised when some in churches interpret your lower average Sunday attendance as a clear sign that your pastor and church staff are to blame.”
Yes, they are part of the mix, just like everyone else. Yet if the previous statements in this article hold true, your pastor’s performance is a minor influence on your average attendance (except in extreme cases, which most are not). So, take a deep breath and don’t freak out.
The bottom line is that no one knows exactly what your church’s current average Sunday attendance means beyond the obvious — the number of people participating in worship. I suspect this metric never will regain the level of significance it enjoyed in the past, given the changing ways we are evaluating church effectiveness. So, before we take drastic measures or become reactionary to our church’s smaller average attendance, take a deep breath and don’t freak out.
Mark Tidsworth is founder and team leader for Pinnacle Leadership Associates. He has served as a pastor, new church developer, interim pastor, renewal pastor, therapist, nonprofit director, business owner, leadership coach, congregational consultant, leadership trainer and author. Ordained in the Baptist tradition, Mark is an ecumenical Christian minister based in Chapin, S.C.
We need a new set of metrics for the spiritual life | Opinion by Bill Wilson
What if they don’t all come back to church? | Opinion by Jason Koon
America 2021: Got church and steeple but where are the people? | Opinion by Bill Leonard