The Attendance Replacement Postulate

January 27, 2020
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By Thom S. Rainer

Larger churches will have a more difficult time staying larger.

At least, that is my postulate according to our early research.  And to be clear, I am defining a larger church by the size of its largest worship service, not by its total attendance. It looks like churches that are intentional about moving to more services, more venues, and more sites can indeed get larger.

This research is based on the attendance size of an individual service, not on the cumulative size of a church’s combined services. In simple terms, it will become increasingly difficult for a church to replace lost attendees at large worship gatherings.

Here are some of my thoughts: 

  • The large worship service is mostly a factor of the Boomer generation that gravitated toward large attractional services. Until the Millennials came along, Boomers were the largest generation in American history. They are no longer the dominant voice in cultural and religious trends.
  • Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers do not gravitate toward large attractional worship services. The big church event is simply not the preference of these generations. They prefer to attend worship gatherings in a smaller setting. 
  • The attrition rate of the larger worship services will not be easily offset by others coming to these services. When a member or an attendee dies or moves, he or she is more likely to be a Boomer. But the younger generations will not, as a rule, replace this Boomer attrition. If the younger generations attend worship services, they will more likely go to a smaller worship gathering. 
  • Our early research indicates the preferred size of worship gatherings will peak around 300. After that point, the replacement of dying or moving attendees will prove more difficult. I have to be careful to even call this information “research.” We conducted a limited study of churches by size to determine their conversion rates and their assimilation rates. The best rates peaked around 300 in worship attendance. At this point, the information may not be sufficient to deem it as research. It may be more accurate to label it a hypothesis. 
  • If this postulate proves true, it will have a dramatic effect on local congregations. Church practices will have to adapt. Church facilities will be dramatically different. Church funding and stewardship will have new priorities. Church staffing will not look anything like it does today.

To be clear, we are well aware there are exceptions to this trend. Some churches can grow with larger worship services if they are in fast-growing demographic areas, or if they are the church with obvious momentum in the community. But those two factors will not continue indefinitely. 

We will continue to keep you updated on this potentially critical issue. If you are a part of a church that seems to be having trouble replacing members who leave or die, the possible explanations could be many. But our early research indicates your challenge could be related to the size of your worship gathering. 

We have only just begun to delve into this issue.

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28 Comments

  • LeRoy Smith Jr says on

    Well, I am not an expert but it is sad to see many Churches that had their focus on sharing Jesus, helping as well as encouraging, focusing on discipleship has dimished due to community, age, and generational change.
    Their several things thanks to you have helped me have a heightened awareness of the smaller Churches are struggling with inward focus only, lack of younger families with children, decreased childrens Ministries so when visitors visit families are looking for more.
    250 is good attendance number because it gives the Church more leaders and teachers.

  • Thom,

    This article is a small picture of a conversation that I believe is critical but one that it take great courage on the part of the people and the pastor/staff to have.

    “Church staffing will not look anything like it does today.” This statement seemed to be stronger in emphasis than the others made in the article. I am tracking with you totally.

    But as one who is seeking what that difference in staffing looks like, could you comment more on this or point me to some online resources? It would help in my personal journey.

    Thanks

    Josh

  • Hey Thom,
    This article blew my mind. We have experienced exactly what you are talking about. Two years ago we got our first building after being portable in Orlando for 14 years. We had a decision to make about the size of the sanctuary. So many of the boomer churches here with 5000 seats are slowly disappearing. We decided to build a sanctuary for 500. We have 4 services and with kids we are approaching 2500 (we also have 3 campuses). We are starting our fifth service at our main campus on Easter. Year over year we are up 45%. Growth doesn’t seem to be slowing. Most of our services are in the 300-500 range. I think there is a point of diminishing return on service size and overall crowd size at each location. Our culture is important to us and we see God working powerfully in de-churched and un-churched lives. But, at some point the concierge culture (personal attention) that we give to people just can’t be sustained. So we have decided to limit campuses to 2500 at the most. After that, we plant new ones. I really believe this is more sustainable and more practical for the long run. I look forward to hearing more research on this. I just didn’t know anyone else thought this way. Thanks for your work.

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