The Number One Reason for the Decline in Church Attendance and Five Ways to Address It, by Thom Rainer

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The Number One Reason for the Decline in Church Attendance and Five Ways to Address It
Thom Rainer

Few peo­ple will argue that church atten­dance in many church­es in Amer­i­ca is declin­ing. Our own research indi­cates that the major­i­ty of church­es in our coun­try are not grow­ing.

Most of us have our own ideas why atten­dance is declin­ing. Many have sug­gest­ed that our nation is shift­ing away from its Chris­t­ian roots, and thus the church­es are declin­ing as a small­er pro­por­tion of our coun­try are believ­ers in Christ.

I cer­tain­ly will not argue with that premise. Cer­tain­ly atten­dance declines are relat­ed to mas­sive cul­tur­al shifts in our nation. But I would also sug­gest that one rea­son for declines has a greater impact than oth­ers.

The Fre­quen­cy Issue

Stat­ed sim­ply, the num­ber one rea­son for the decline in church atten­dance is that mem­bers attend with less fre­quen­cy than they did just a few years ago. Allow me to explain.

If the fre­quen­cy of atten­dance changes, then atten­dance will respond accord­ing­ly. For exam­ple, if 200 mem­bers attend every week the aver­age atten­dance is, obvi­ous­ly, 200. But if one-half of those mem­bers miss only one out of four weeks, the atten­dance drops to 175.

Did you catch that? No mem­bers left the church. Every­one is still rel­a­tive­ly active in the church. But atten­dance declined over 12 per­cent because half the mem­bers changed their atten­dance behav­ior slight­ly.

This phe­nom­e­non can take place rather quick­ly in an indi­vid­ual church. And lead­ers in the church are often left scratch­ing their heads because the behav­ioral change is so slight, almost imper­cep­ti­ble. We real­ly don’t notice when some­one who attends four times a month begins to attend only three times a month. Nor do we typ­i­cal­ly catch it when the twice-a-month attendee becomes a once-a-month attendee.

Five Pos­si­ble Approach­es to the Prob­lem

Of course, the heart of the prob­lem is not declin­ing num­bers but wan­ing com­mit­ment. As I addressed in my book, I Am a Church Mem­ber, church mem­ber­ship is becom­ing less and less mean­ing­ful in many church­es. As mem­ber­ship becomes less mean­ing­ful, com­mit­ment nat­u­ral­ly wanes.

While I don’t want to sug­gest there is a magic bul­let to this prob­lem, I do want to offer some approach­es to address it. These five have proven to be the most help­ful in hun­dreds of church­es:

Raise the expec­ta­tions of mem­ber­ship. You may be sur­prised how many church mem­bers don’t real­ly think it’s that impor­tant to be an active part of the church. No one has ever told them dif­fer­ent­ly.

Require an entry class for mem­ber­ship. By doing so, the church makes a state­ment that mem­ber­ship is mean­ing­ful. The class should also be used to state the expec­ta­tions of what a com­mit­ted mem­ber looks like.

Encour­age min­istry involve­ment. Many mem­bers become less fre­quent atten­dees because they have no min­istry roles in the church. They do not feel like they are an inte­gral part of the church.
Offer more options for wor­ship times. Our cul­ture is now a 24/7 pop­u­la­tion. Some mem­bers have to work dur­ing the times of wor­ship ser­vices. If pos­si­ble, give them options. One busi­ness­man recent­ly told me that he changed con­gre­ga­tions to a church that offered a Sat­ur­day wor­ship time because his job required him to catch a plane on Sun­day morn­ing.

Mon­i­tor atten­dance of each mem­ber. This approach is often dif­fi­cult, espe­cial­ly for wor­ship atten­dance. That is why the tra­di­tion­al Sun­day school approach of call­ing absen­tees was so effec­tive. Per­haps church­es can incor­po­rate that approach in all groups. Mem­bers are less like­ly to be absent if they know some­one miss­es them.

When Church Mem­ber­ship Becomes Mean­ing­ful

Peo­ple want to be a part of some­thing that makes a dif­fer­ence. They desire to be involved in some­thing big­ger than them­selves.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, in many church­es mem­ber­ship has become less and less mean­ing­ful. Until we get our church­es back to the com­mit­ted mem­ber­ship the Apos­tle Paul man­dates in 1 Corinthi­ans 12, we will con­tin­ue to see declin­ing atten­dance. But when mem­ber­ship becomes truly mean­ing­ful, our church­es will become an unstop­pable force for the King­dom and glory of God.

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