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.
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Thom, related to publishing attendance, are you referring to in person only? If we are to include on line, how do you recommend we report those numbers – which may reflect a single viewer, a family, a group, or repeat viewers?
I recommend you count in-person first and separately from online attendance. Because online attendance has fallen so rapidly since its peak in many churches, it is a moot point for a lot of congregations. And counting approaches are all over the place. From what platform do you count digital attendance? Do you count someone who clicked on for less than a minute? Do you count multiples for every view? Do you require a minimum viewing time before someone is counted? There are many more questions we could ponder, but if online attendance keeps falling, it will be a moot point. But if you do count digital attendance, do so consistently each week with the same standards, and do not combine it with in-person attendance.
While I share the concerns that you have expressed in this article, what also concerns me is that we are not using the smaller gatherings for a more intimate, heartfelt kind of worship that would appeal to the younger generations. We continue to worship in these smaller gatherings as we did when we worshipped in larger gatherings. We are also not using the technology at our disposal to give people viewing our worship gatherings on cable TV, Facebook Live, or YouTube the best impression of our worship gatherings. Long shots of a small congregation scattered around a large sanctuary, for example, do not create a positive impression of a church. Close-ups of members of worship teams who have expressionless faces and show negligible animation when they are sing do not create a positive impression either. I realize that the worship team members may be doing their best and they may not be very expressive or animated individuals, but more expressiveness and animation would have a greater impact upon viewers. I take voice classes at my local state university and my voice professors emphasize being expressive and animate in our singing. Those who lead a church’s worship gatherings may not think about such things, but they do make a difference. If people are going to view our worship gatherings on cable TV or online several times before they attend one in person, we need to be more attentive to the impression we make on the first time viewer as well as the first in-person visitor.
Do you have any advice about where counting, or at least publishing, may become counter productive? I can imagine if there are only 10-15 in church regularly (and the same people almost every week), they know how many are there. But if there is some number, 50-75, where it is hard to estimate (and easy to overestimate) that it might be really beneficial.
Context – a small parish which hasn’t been packed since the Colonial days (when it was illegal and financially painful to miss church). Since the middle 19th century there have been more years with less than 20 on a Sunday than more than 20. There has been “reported history” which claims ~60 on Sunday around 1999-2000.
My suggestions are no more than suggestions. Context can determine so much. I will say that my first church of seven people loved our “attendance board” we displayed every week. Our sole deacon told me that the board motivated him to invite more people to church. At the end of the year in that rural church, the board indicated over 60 were in attendance.
Your experience hits on something that seems intuitive to me. A small growing church might be encouraged by the attendance board. But doesn’t this suggest that a small declining church might be deeply discouraged be the statistics?
The small church that I am privileged to pastor has slowly grown from 23 people my first Sunday to around 100 people in worship (out of 120 members) today. I have never considered publicly providing attendance statistics (We do give membership statistics once per year at our annual meeting). Given the size of the church, everyone knows all of the other members and people are very welcoming to visitors – trying to get to know them as quickly as possible.
In thinking about whether or not publishing attendance in the future makes sense, I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about how to deal with the fact that attendance fluctuates quite a bit based on people traveling to visit families (or people visiting families in our church), etc … Is it best to just let those numbers bounce around or would it make sense to do something like average numbers over the month.
From my article: “We recommend that churches publish monthly averages or, at the least, quarterly averages.”