Five Organizational Reasons Many Churches Hit Attendance Plateaus

In a recent post, I noted that 90 percent of churches in America will not go beyond the 350 attendance barrier. I also said that one key reason is organizational challenges. A lively discussion ensued in the comments of that post.

For many years, leaders have moved away from the discussion of numbers and organizational issues. To many, such issues seem unspiritual or secular. Indeed, if the numbers become an end in themselves, such arguments have merit. I fear, however, we are throwing out the baby with the bath water. In our zeal not to seem numbers-focused, we are often failing to be good stewards of our God-given resources.

As I have noted in other posts, the number one reason for declines and plateaus in churches is declining frequency of attendance of church members. Though there are many possible explanations for this reality, some of the reasons are in the category of organizational issues. Let me note five of them.

  1. The church does not keep good records of attendance of worship services and small groups. Do not neglect this stewardship. You will not begin to know the nature of the problem until you have this data on an ongoing basis.
  2. The church’s small groups are not an organizational priority. Those in small groups are five times more likely to be active in the church than those who attend worship services alone. Leadership in the church must give fastidious attention to small groups and Sunday school classes.
  3. The church does not organizationally have some method of action reminders. For example, I know of one church that contacts anyone who has been absent from a small group for two consecutive weeks. The leaders shared with me that it has given them great insights into pastoral needs and hurts before the members drop out of church life.
  4. The church is not organizationally a high expectation church. I have written and spoken on this issue many times. The best way to address member expectations is through a required new members’ class.
  5. The church does not have organizational accountability. For example, a small group leader should be accountable to someone to make sure anyone in his or her group is contacted if they miss consecutive weeks.

At the risk of redundancy, let me again emphasize: The number one reason churches are declining or hitting plateaus is the declining frequency of attendance of church members. I have noted five organizational issues in this post. There are many more we will discuss later. In the meantime, let me hear from you.

Posted on April 6, 2015

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • This article and others I’ve seen makes me wonder whether part of the problem is the lack of social support outside the church.

    What I mean by that is there was a time when there was a social/political/sometimes economic price to pay if you weren’t connected to a church. If you were looking for a new job, or for new friends, or for political connections, you started at church and worked your way out from there. And if you weren’t part of a church, there were very few other options for making these kinds of connections, and very few people willing to connect with you until you became “churched.”

    But in recent years (the last 20 or so, I’m guessing?), the social stigma of not being “churched” has diminished dramatically. As such, the political, economic and social value of being at least a “nominal” Christian has nearly disappeared, and (as Ed Stetzer rightly notes) those “nominal” Christians have, not surprisingly, disappeared with it.

    So maybe the problem is not that we have fewer Christians — by that I mean genuine disciples of Jesus — than we used to, but that we never had as many as we thought.

  • jonathon says on

    >The church does not organizationally have some method of action reminders.

    I received my first phone call from the deacon allocated by the church to me, roughly eight months after I last attended a service. The entire point of the phone call was to get me to attend the annual general meeting of the church.

    Between waking me up, my answering in a language other than English, my not understanding the deacon’s name, and the deacon thinking they had reached a wrong number, the call can only be described as “dazed and confused”. (I did switch to English when I realized that the caller did not understand the language I was using.)

    In that congregation, deacons are supposed to provide spiritual care and nourishment. Pretty hard to do that, if they never talk with you.

    In as much as I received a call about the AGM, it appears that they have some sort of “action reminder” setup. Or at least this specific deacon does. However, that I received _one_ phone call from a human, one robocall, and no emails, text messages, personal snail mail, or other modes of communication, other than a monthly snail mailed church bulletin, during those two years I was a member, demonstrates that their “action reminder” is either poorly implemented, or not adhered to.

  • Great points! In the last paragraph you stated, “The number one reason churches are declining or hitting plateaus is the declining frequency of attendance of church members.”

    I think people are underestimating the importance of this idea, especially when it comes to staffing and pastoral care. I serve a church as a solo pastor that averages roughly 140 people in Sunday Morning attendance. Yesterday, on Easter, we had 225 in attendance. We certainly had some visitors but the majority of the crowd was caused by everyone showing up on the same day!

    This is a problem because I, like many other pastors, are dispersing pastoral duties to many more people than the average church member realizes! I think the days of gauging whether we need to add staff, and a whole other plethora of issues, solely based on worship attendance may be coming to an end.

    What are some other metrics that can be used to gauge needs in churches that are facing the same difficulties?

  • Good article – you’ve written quite a bit about the “frequency” issue but I think most churches don’t get it.

    Communicating is an ongoing issue at our church and, I suspect, at most churches. All of us have developed filters to deal with the plethora of messages we’re hit with and punching through is an issue.

    That would include communicating to small group leaders.

  • Ashlyn Clary says on

    Hi Dr. Rainer, thank you so much for your website and your articles. I enjoy reading a variety of the things you address and make available to us regarding churches. I’m not sure how to get this thought/question/topic to you other than right here as I can’t find an email for you or anyone on the team you work with, so here goes…regarding church growth/plants and evangelism, do you have any thoughts or input on church plants and a somewhat saturated area? If there is such a thing? I live around Raleigh, NC and have noticed lately that there has been an explosion in church plants in the area and RDU already has a very high number of churches and plants here to begin with, including a very large and evangelical multi-site church that covers the area of RDU quite well, among other growing multi-site churches as well. Just last weekend I noticed that another very large multi-site church from another area of NC launched a new campus in the same area as so many other plants and the already existing local multi-campus church. While I recognize that there are still many people to reach with the Gospel in the area, I was contemplating the possible ramifications of saturating a market with too many plants when there are so many areas in NC and other states/cities that are not being reached at all. Is this sudden growth tied to population number growth? It just seems to me that churches should be looking for unreached areas and people instead of going into areas that pretty well have the many options and active groups already working hard. I would love to see an article or blog about this, or any thoughts you may have regarding this current trend as I see it here, and I’m sure, in other areas of the US. Thank you 🙂

  • Dr. Rainer

    Great pointers!

    Another area to consider would be breaking into the small groups or Sunday School classes. Once we took a close look at what it took to get your name on the “role”, we discovered that an individual had to come several times before the class would actually add them to the role. Therefore, they would come drop out, then no one would contact them and they would go to another group and the process would start over. They were continually marked as a guest and no one was taking their information. Our rule of thumb now – if they attend and their address is not from out of state they are added to the role.

  • #1 is a particular issue with some churches. For some reason we Baptist are loathe to drop inactive members from our rolls. We boast of 2,000 names on the books but in the past 3 yrs we avg 800 – 900 in Sunday worship. It’s not hard. Follow the tithing records and you’ll see how many true members you have.

  • Tom, your 5 reasons are spot on! There is an old maxim that is attributed to Peter Drucker that says, “What gets measured gets done.” Also people will live up to or down to your expectations. If we don’t expect growth we will not have it. Your 5 reasons can be applied in many different arenas. Thanks for your blogs. I read them every chance I get!

  • Jim Moon says on

    Item #3 has long been a source of disappointment for me. My career has caused me to move from time to time to another city which then leads to me joining another Church congregation and leaving me with a wide variety of experiences where people come in the front door of the Church and out the back and nobody seems to be able to figure it out. I know from my own experience that the Church does not follow up on it’s members to determine if there is a problem, to learn why they have missed a couple of Sundays and if they need help. I can name three Churches that I have attended in the past several years that have yet to contact me to find out why I’m no longer there. One was a small Church that just could not grow. I volunteered to develop a set of guides to help the Church toward making the first time visitor feel welcome, and to follow up on a new, or long time member if they were not there for two Sundays. The Pastor was excited about my plan and started puting the pieces together. When I was suddenly moved to another State and did not take time to let my small group leader know and had not called the Pastor, no one called to see if I was okay. They still have not called and it’s been four months now.
    If the membership does not feel loved and cared for they will leave.
    In my humble opinion, the two areas where Churches consistently fail are dicipleship of new Christians and attending to the needs of it’s members.

  • Mark Dance says on

    The good news is that all five of these challenges are within our grasp to overcome. Almost all pastors, churches and small groups have these organizational tools in their computers and phones already. Shepherding is never easy, but we have the tools to do it better than any generation before us.

    Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds.
    (Proverbs 27:23)

  • You’ve made this post in the context of the organizational structure of the church. You did mention that there are other reasons as to why attendance plateaus occur. But, it’s also important for us to realize that evangelizing is not really a priority for many churches. It’s a tiny fraction of the church that take the great commission seriously. I frankly believe that we should do more in that regard.

  • Thank you for sharing leadership principles for the church. I for one completely agree with analyzing numbers and understanding plateaus, secondary to seeking God through prayer and study. The story of Gideon would not be as powerful or meaningful to us if it the author said, “An army showed up, some left, some more left, and then they attacked.” Numbers are a way to measure. We can’t measure everything God does, but we can measure some. And what we can measure we can share, what we share we can use to inspire. When we inspire, we can lead to action.

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