The case of the declining congregation

Overreaction to what appears to be decline in a church almost always leads to more damaging scenarios.

By Bill Wilson

It is becoming a consistent scenario in our work with conflicted churches -- Anxious congregations overreact to symptomatic issues and cause great harm to people and ministry.

In its simplest form, it looks something like this: a congregation begins to notice that attendance at weekend Bible study and/or worship is declining. Assuming that a decline in attendance means their church is in trouble, desperate measures seem called for. A move to change ministerial leadership is carried out. Following a bruising internal conflict, the attendance decline accelerates as the church implodes.

Sadly, some version of that scenario is probably playing out in a congregation near you. It is hard to list all the ways such actions harm the body of Christ and the work of the kingdom of God. The damage such a scenario wreaks upon a community of faith, the lives of clergy and the future of the church is breathtaking.

Ironically, ignorance about causal factors for such a situation is widespread and pervasive. Key facts that are at the root of the issue are often overlooked.

Take, for example, the decline in attendance. While it may be a foregone conclusion that declining attendance is synonymous with fewer people active in the life of a congregation, such may not be the case.

I recently helped a congregation examine their attendance records. Over the course of a decade, Sunday morning average attendance had steadily declined. Much hand-wringing had commenced, and several initiatives to address the decline had been launched. Those remedies had little positive result, but only served to raise the anxiety in the congregation about attendance. Interestingly, during that same time, congregational membership had steadily increased. How could this be?

A closer look revealed a previously unseen culprit. While more and more people joined the church and were blessed by its ministry, the frequency of attendance by those who considered themselves active members began to slip. Thus, a growing church saw a decline in attendance.

Here’s how that happens:

A church grows from 400 to 600 active members over a decade. That’s 50 percent growth. Wow! Congratulations!

During that same decade, the frequency of attendance by the active members declines from an average of three Sundays a month to two Sundays a month.

The result? The average attendance remains the same (300) for the decade. While there are 50 percent more people active and attending, they come less frequently and the church appears to be plateaued or declining.

This congregation rightly identified the culprit, and it was not underperforming clergy. In fact, we made a list of contributing reasons for the decline in frequency of attendance. Here is what we came up with:

• Youth sports leagues and competitions of all kinds that take place on weekends and often on Sundays.
• The proliferation of vacation homes and timeshares owned by active church members.
• Collegiate and professional athletic weekend events.
• One in 3 Americans now work on Sunday morning.
• The dramatic increase in the number of “holiday” weekends (Sundays impacted by either the civic or school holiday schedule. One church with multiple school districts counted 27!)
• Illness (as people live longer, they are more likely to be seriously ill and unable to attend).
• Aging parents that require their extended family’s increased involvement in their care.
• Ease of travel.
• Lifestyle fatigue that often means Sunday is the only day of a family’s week that is not over-programmed.
• A seeming decline in commitment level to regular attendance in Bible study and worship.

Once we compiled the list, we had to admit that this was not an issue that would be solved by scapegoating or simple admonishments. Instead, we must rethink how we connect with people and accomplish the mission of the church.

This group immediately agreed upon an obvious truth. They could no longer rely on a simple headcount of attendees at Sunday morning events as the sole measurement of their impact upon people’s lives and the community around them.

New metrics were necessary to fully grasp the breadth and reach of the church.
For example, when they measured the number of people who attended Sunday school over the course of a year, they found a significant growth curve, in spite of a stagnant average weekly attendance. When they began to imagine how they might measure impact, they quickly realized that the multiple ministries they engaged in during the week needed to be included in their numbers. Rather than being in decline, this congregation was actually growing and expanding.

Gradually, the brewing conflict over declining Sunday morning attendance shifted into a vibrant conversation about how to engage a congregation and community outside the traditional confines of Sunday morning ministry. Such adaptive or “both/and” thinking is at the heart of a healthy and thriving church.

Beware the simple and reactive solution to your issue. It almost always creates more issues than it solves.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.