The Attendance Challenge

The Attendance Challenge

Losing Their Religion: Why US Churches are on the Decline was a title by the Guardian that grabbed my attention recently. The lead sentence sums up the article well: “Churches are closing at rapid numbers in the US, researchers say, as congregations dwindle across the country and a younger generation of Americans abandon Christianity altogether.”1. One reason why churches are closing is the decline in attendance, which also leads to a decline in giving.

How bad is it? The article cites two studies on post-pandemic attendance levels that found,

  • A Lifeway Research study found current attendance levels are 85% of pre-pandemic levels.
  • 67% of Americans reported attending church at least once a year, down from 75% before the pandemic, is what the Survey Center on American Life and the University of Chicago research found about attendance in the spring of 2022.

While some churches have seen attendance return to normal, most are still off their pre-pandemic levels. Across America, attendance is down.

What is the reason? Many reasons contribute to the decline, but lockdown strategies enacted to keep Americans safe seem to have worsened matters.

“The closures, even for a temporary period, impacted a lot of churches. People breaking that habit of attending church means many churches had to work hard to get people back to attending again,” said Scott McConnell, executive director at Lifeway Research. McConnell said, “In the last three years, all signs are pointing to a continued pace of closures probably similar to 2019 or possibly higher, as there’s been a really rapid rise in American individuals who say they’re not religious.”2.

The Guardian article backs up McConnell’s statement by writing, “But while Covid-19 may have accelerated the decline, there is a broader, long-running trend of people moving away from religion. In 2017 Lifeway surveyed young adults aged between 18 and 22 who had attended church regularly, for at least a year during high school. The firm found that seven out of 10 had stopped attending church regularly.”

So, lockdowns didn’t cause the decline, but they did accelerate it. The longer a church was shut down, the longer it took for their attendance to rebound. However, studies are finding that few churches ever gain back their pre-Lockdown attendance. Reversing attendance declines is difficult. How difficult?

32% is the yearly growth of new attendees you will need to stay even! Thom Rainer recently wrote an article with this headline, “Why Your Church Has to Replace 32 Percent of Its Attendance to Stay Even Each Year.” His post had this discouraging fact, “For every 100 persons in attendance in your church, you will lose each year:

  • 1 to death
  • 9 to moving
  • 7 to transfer to another church in the community
  • 15 to declining attendance frequency

Thus, if you add 32 attendees for every 100 you have in attendance now, the church will stay even. Anything less and the church will decline.”3.

What’s the solution? Here are some thoughts.

Keep the main thing the main thing! We are Great Commission Christians building Great Commission churches, and everything rises and falls on that mission. How you do your mission depends upon God’s leading, but everything boils down to our core values of evangelism and discipleship. Jesus is our story and message, and He makes all things new.

Keep your principles but alter your practices and preferences. We must never compromise our biblical principles to placate an increasingly secular society. Frankly, we don’t have to, as the Word of God is forever applicable. However, we must re-think our practices and preferences. For instance, the offering a hundred years ago was almost exclusively received by plate, bucket, or basket. Now, churches, like society, are moving away from physical giving towards an entirely digital offering. The Bible tells us to give, not what means we use to give. From how we worship remotely to how we give digitally, much of the practice of the church has changed to meet the preferences of our society. Procedures and practices change with time, but the Word of God is eternal.

Keep preaching and teaching the Word of God. What attracts people to church? A list of what attracts folks to a church might be long, but one thing is certain if you preach and compellingly teach the Bible, people will be drawn to that message. If you faithfully preach and teach with the goal of making disciples, you will find attendance is more likely to increase rather than decrease.

Keep your doors open! The lockdown response to Covid is perhaps the most divisive issue the Church has faced in years. In March 2020, we knew little about the virus, and churches willingly closed to stop the spread. We know better now. While learning can and will take place remotely, it is a poor substitute for gathering physically together. Look at the learning damage our students have endured from being locked out of school. Should we expect better results after locking our children out of Sunday School? The local church is the most essential of all the essentials in our society. Never close your doors again.

While the above will not correct our attendance problem overnight, they are the steps needed to meet this challenge. If we don’t meet the attendance challenge, we will see more and more church closures in the coming days.

Get me out of here, or send me more shoes? What is your response to a challenge? Remember the old joke about the shoe company that sent a salesman to Africa to sell shoes? A few weeks after he was there, he telegraphed the company and said, “Get me out of here! No one wears shoes here!” The company did that, but they sent in one more salesman. Within days he telegraphed the company saying, “No one wears shoes here! Send me all the shoes you can!” Who are you in the story?

  2. Ibid.

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