Panic at the Church: Dealing with Less Frequent Attendance Patterns

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Whenever I walk into a church facing attendance decline, a common theme emerges. The leaders are concerned that people are attending services less frequently. They’ll explain that regulars used to show up every week, but now they’re attending only once or twice a month.

I’m fairly confident that’s true. I’m familiar with some churches that are using technology to track how often people show up for a weekend service. They’re learning it’s common for people to show up two weeks or less each month.

The reality, though, is that this really isn’t new information.

The Pew Research Center has been researching church attendance patterns for many years. Back in 2007, almost ten years ago, only 39% of people were attending church every week. Over a seven year period, that percentage dropped to 36%.

One of my teammates crunched the numbers from the Pew data and found that less frequent weekly attendance would only explain an 8% drop in attendance over 7 years, or about 1% each year. In other words, if a church’s attendance is declining by more than 1% each year, there are other contributing factors at play, including primarily the fact that they’re not reaching any new people.

We can’t use this trend of decreasing frequency as an excuse to mask other factors that are really contributing to the overall attendance decline.

So, How Should Church Leaders React to Declining Frequency of Church Attendance?

It’s not going to do any good to hope we will return to the days when Christians went to church every week out of obligation. Those days are long gone. Frankly, I think that’s a good thing. I’d much rather people experience a devoted relationship with Jesus rather than checking things off a religious list of obligations.

Over the next couple of weeks, our team is going to unpack some thoughts related to the church attendance panic we’re seeing. I’m hopeful this series of articles will challenge and encourage you and your team.

Rather than panic about attendance patterns, though, let me offer these proactive next steps you could take to encourage people to show up more often:

  1. Encourage people to develop relationships inside and outside the church.

    The more friends we have inside the church, the more often we’ll want to be together. The more friends we have outside the church, the more intentional we’ll want to be about inviting them to join us at a service.

  2. Prioritize a discipleship path over church programs.

    People are already proving with their worship attendance that attending more programs and events is a challenge. Many competing church programs will only compound attendance challenges on Sunday morning.

    Instead, encourage people to take steps on a discipleship path. Help people grow in their devotion to Christ. Focus more on who you want people to become in Christ rather than what you want them to do. When people fall in love with Jesus, they’re going to be more likely to engage in corporate teaching and worship. The Pew research confirms this as well.

  3. Mobilize people in volunteer serving opportunities.

    It’s just common sense. When people commit to serving, they’ll also be committed to showing up on a more regular basis. Help people feel part of the team. Connect people to the big mission of the church. When people experience that sense that they’re part of something bigger than themselves, they’ll want to be engaged on a more consistent basis.

  4. Offer more options.

    Sunday mornings are not sacred in our culture anymore. Jobs compete with Sundays. Sports are competing with that time. People’s leisure and recreational pursuits are competing for attention. In every other area of our culture, we’ve shifted to an on-demand mindset. The church can’t just offer one option on Sunday morning and expect people, especially those outside the faith, to readjust their lives. We may need to add more service options on Sunday mornings. Many churches are trying weeknight service options to avoid competing for weekend time. We may need to create options online for people to join a weekend experience.

  5. Become less predictable.

    You’ve heard me talk about this before. I think the modern church has become the new traditional church. We are creatively-challenged. Every service is just like the last. When services become predictable and people assume this week will be just like last week, it makes it easier for them to decide to skip. (I’ll admit it. I’ve done that.)

    This is going to take hard work, but the church needs to embrace creativity again. We need to reintroduce some element of surprise. You may not be able to do this every week, but at least begin by doing a fresh, creative element in each series every four to six weeks. Give people a reason to get out of bed and get to a service because they don’t want to miss something fresh.

    If you need some practical advice on how to jumpstart your creativity, check out this conversation on the creative process I recently hosted on The Leadership Unstuck Podcast.

That’s a handful of proactive next steps we could take to encourage people to show up to weekend services more frequently. I’m sure you and your team can come up with others as well. Whatever the case, let’s be intentional about engaging people on a more regular basis rather than giving up and letting the trend continue to play out or trying to guilt people into attending out of obligation.

There’s no need to panic, but we can’t continue doing the same things we’ve always done and expect different results.

How will your church tackle this challenge?


Read the Other Articles in the “Panic at the Church” Series:

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About Author

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Chief Strategic Officer and founder of The Unstuck Group. For 14 years, Tony served on the senior leadership teams at West Ridge Church (Dallas, GA), NewSpring Church (Anderson, SC) and Granger Community Church (Granger, IN). He's written several books and articles that have been featured with the Willow Creek Association, Catalyst and Pastors.com.

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