The trend toward smaller gatherings was slow but perceptible prior to the pandemic. That trend is much more noticeable now.
Church worship gatherings are getting smaller.
Two major factors are contributing to this trend. The obvious factor is an overall attendance decline in churches. Many congregations have fewer members and attendees each year.
The second reason for smaller worship gatherings is “horizontal growth.” That means, in addition to multiple services on Sunday morning, churches are moving to multiple campuses, multiple sites, multiple days, and multiple venues. In other words, attendance is spread over potentially several different places and times.
The two reasons can be almost polar opposites. The first reason takes place in declining churches. The second reason usually takes place in growing churches.
We at Church Answers are asking church leaders and church members five key questions regarding smaller worship gatherings. We are concerned that these smaller sizes are being used in some churches to accept decline or to become comfortable about not reaching the community. Here are our five questions:
1. Do you know why your worship gathering or gatherings are smaller? If your church has more than one service, we encourage you to follow the trends in all of the services. Of course, we also encourage you to follow the trends in a single gathering.
2. Because smaller worship gatherings are more accepted today than in the past, has your church become comfortable or complacent with attendance decline? For sure, numbers are not our ultimate goal. But if a church is losing people faster than it is gaining, it could be an indication that the church has become inwardly focused.
3. Has your church become less evangelistic as smaller worship gatherings are more accepted today? This question is similar to number two, but it focuses specifically on evangelism. We know from our research that evangelism is not a priority in many churches today.
4. Does your church keep worship attendance records? Again, the purpose of counting is not to be numbers obsessed. The purpose is to engender accountability and to be able to plan for future needs. Any church of any size can develop a system to count worship attendees each week without being a distraction in the worship services.
5. Does your church publish attendance for all members to see? This question might cause a level of concern. We know that fewer churches publish attendance records than at any point in the past few decades. Some leaders rightly say that they don’t want numerical growth to become the focus of the church. But our research indicates a church is more likely to reach people if it makes attendance records available to church members. Again, it engenders a level of accountability. We recommend that churches publish monthly averages or, at the least, quarterly averages.
Frankly, I realize I am going against the grain with some of these questions, particularly the last two questions. But we are seeing the trends. Our burden for churches is not how big the church is, but how obedient the church is to the Great Commission.
Posted on March 20, 2023
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.
More from Thom