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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  • David Troublefield says on

    Observations from my 30 years’ experience in vocational Christian ministry:

    SBC congregations cannot/do not reach the people they desire to reach and/or cannot/do not keep the ones they already have primarily for three reasons, none of which is spiritual necessarily (instead, they relate to organizational administration):

    1. Normal attrition/migration in/out/about communities (i.e., 5-20% of a zip code’s population may relocate each year, with people moving in and out and across zip codes–and affecting their participation in church activities if they attend; solution: [1] either own every business in the zip code and pay wages and benefits workers cannot afford to move away from [not likely]; or, [2] do intentional/strategic/relational outreach and evangelism and disciple-making all the time, all the time, all the time, all the time, all the time, . . . [also apparently not as likely these days?]).

    2. Low quality of ministry (i.e., SBC congregations usually do not get gigged for not having ministries but for having so many that none are done well and it shows–especially to first-time guests–and the ones that are done actually have little direct influence on evangelism growth; solution: scale back all ministry activities initially only to those for which pastors, staff, and congregations will answer at the Judgment Seat of Christ; consistently structure, staff, budget, and work accordingly [see #1 above]; add other ministry activities with less impact on souls saved and lives changes only after the Judgment-ready basics are done extremely well, if at all; this approach not only saves stars in crowns there-and-then but also saves wasted/duplicate spending of resources here-and-now).

    3. Unresolved conflict within the corporate body (i.e., even the core of a congregation finally will leave in frustration from the church if issues remain unresolved for too long–and, of course, they will take their talents and tithes/offerings with them to find another congregation where emotional maturity/security and effective leadership reigns ($2500 per person annually exiting unnecessarily due to unresolved issues = $25,000 with 10 folk or $50,000 with 20 folk or $100,000 with 40 folk in a short time; solution: everyone–starting with the senior pastor and staff–grow up emotionally, learn well how to do conflict resolution, and “live at” the address: Matthew 18:15 [seek to win your brother, not your case against him; etc.]).

    David Troublefield, DMin
    RetroActive Church

  • I am not comfortable attending someone else’s small group “church” unless I know someone in that group specifically, who has invited me, and am comfortable with them and their personality. When you visit a larger body, you can hide a bit initially, maintain a lit-tle anonymity, until you’ve decided whether it’s a positive venue for you and your family. There’s no hiding in a small group, and sometimes there’s too much affection and interest in new people.

    Otherwise…..this post is excellent and I hope pastors are taking it seriously. I would also suggest that when a church has a visitor, that the pastor or somebody close to the pastor make an effort to call the person, to email them, to contact them personally. We wanted to welcome you to the church and thank you for visiting, and ask if you had any questions or concerns, and invite you to attend again in the future. And if someone leaves the church, same again–contact them personally, person-to-person. We see you’ve moved on from our body and I just wanted to connect with you and ask if there were any comments you could offer us on your experience with us and wish you well. (Frankly, that might help to bring departing people back, without specifically asking them to stay.) Most churches anymore don’t care enough to put in PERsonal effort on either end. Seriously. Don’t beg, don’t gush, don’t act like your entire success depends on their staying at your venue. Just show a little interest in them as a person.

  • Allen Mickle says on

    So… what if our church is a small group? Frankly, we regularly communicate, follow up with missing people, etc. But we don’t have small groups because that’s already who were are. So what’s the main issue keeping smaller churches from growing past their “small church plateau?”

    • jonathon says on

      >what if our church is a small group?

      What will the congregation do, when attendance is double the current number?

      “Small group” implies anything between five and fifteen people, with twenty at the upper limit. Doubling that would be between ten and forty people.

      • Allen Mickle says on

        So, you’re suggesting creating small groups now, in a church the size of a small group, will help to prepare us for when our attendance doubles? What’s your rationale for that?

  • Richard says on

    Thank for your posts, always helpful. You frequently mention in your posts about New Members Classes. This is something we do at my church, but I was curious as to how frequently those classes should be held. We have tried monthly and every other month. I find that every other month is good to make sure you have a strong attendance, but I don’t like to make those who want to join wait so long between classes. Any thought on this would be appreciated.

  • I typically would’nt leave a comment, but I think its noteworthy and simple actually. How about inviting people to your Church service? There are people that will attend if invited. I do not attend Church often and have given generously in the past to the Church I attend and have never been invited to a service. I’m not outgoing in Church and would consider myself the norm in a church of 300 or so. I stopped tithing to the Church and redirected the money to various Charities. No one from the Church ever noticed or contacted us. I’ve wondered if they even knew we came. I can tell you that there are others in your churches that feel the same way as I do. I hope this was helpful. I’m a Christian and hope to someday find the Church family that everyone talks about.

    • Danny, I am somewhat curious where you are expecting your invitations to come from. Are there people that you know that you engage in spiritual discussion with that are active within their congregations that have not extended invitations? I ask because I have often had the opposite experience, despite at different times being vocally happy with the assembly that I was involved with, I had people inviting me out to services fairly frequently. I think that it was an outgrowth of being very openly passionate about God and scripture. In the same way that if someone who is into golfing finds out that you like to golf as well they are much more likely to invite you out for a round… you might find that if you are outspoken in your interests that those around you might be more likely to engage you on that interest.

      That may not be your problem, I don’t know you, but the other side of the equation is that people who aren’t particularly excited about their own place of worship are going to be less likely to invite you out as well.

      If you are looking for a place to plug in, I would suggest being more proactive. Invite yourself. Check some places out and meet people. Probably the most likely people to invite you to a service are the people who go out of the way to greet you as a visitor at a service, you might just not be meeting these people. I hope that you find your way into a church family, and remember how you felt while on the outside, so that when you find a place that you can be passionate about you will be inviting people like yourself to join in.

      • jonathon says on

        >I am somewhat curious where you are expecting your invitations to come from.

        Obviously I can’t speak for Danny. What I can speak from, is experience.

        You’re out in public. Maybe at Waffle House. Maybe on the train. It doesn’t matter where. A conversation starts, and ends up about the churches in the area. How many times have you given your name, and the name and time of the church you go to, to the other person?
        Especially if the other person has said that they are looking for a local church.

        Over a five year period, looking for a church, I had more than two dozen such conversations. For four or five of them, logistics prevented from attending the church service the person invited me to.
        For half a dozen of them, the person was unable to provide either directions, or the street address of where they meet. (It wasn’t uncommon for the church website to also omit the time of their Sunday Morning church service!)
        As far as the rest of the conversations go, no invite, no address, no nothing about where or when the church met.

        > Invite yourself.

        This gives me another opportunity, in this response, to hammer on a major failing of church websites.

        Make it easy for people to find out:
        * Where the church meets for each service;
        * What time the church service is;

        Nice to have, but not mandatory, is a brief description of the typical church service, including usual attire of the congregation.

        If a person on the church website can not find that information within three clicks, then the website is a completely failure, and needs to be immediately replaced with one page that simply lists the name of the congregation, the place it meets, and the time it meets.

        Also need to make sure that the information on the web-page is current, and accurate.

        Once, when church-shopping, I found a church that, going by the address on the website, was about 8 blocks from me. That address was a vacant lot. Turns out the church had moved more than five years earlier, but nobody had bothered to update their website.

        Another time church shopping, the address on the website given for the church was the church office. Not where the Sunday Morning worship service was. There was nothing at the church office, to indicate where the Sunday Morning Worship Service met.

        FWIW, the smaller one had around 400 people at each Sunday Morning service. The larger one bragged about being Internet savvy, with good web outreach!

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