The Attendance Replacement Postulate

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.

Posted on January 27, 2020

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,
    There are so many different reasons why churches grow and shrink that even the trends can be confusing. I think part of the surge in the megachurches was the different, contemporary product they provided to a generation looking for something with more energy than they had grown up with. Although some say that appears to have run its course, those churches have the resources to adjust. Or perhaps now people will look for intimacy because the megachurches seem too impersonal? Or a little of both.

    I think the next phase of the church will be tied to identity and being known. Smaller groups are more conducive to intimacy within the group. As a boomer, I do not think the Church has done a good job of helping people discover their identity and drive discipleship. We need to listen to their stories, as they are, and help them co-write (with the great author of stories, God) even better stories. We should do better at helping people know who they are (in Christ; not who they were, that’s the old story) and how to live more functional Christian lives. No matter what we profess, if that does not bear the fruit of better marriages, family dynamics, and loving relationships, then are we really living out the life God wants for us. Life transformation is difficult when the main “writing” tool many churches have is primarily the Sunday morning worship service.

    In this digital age, we need to use technology to help us identify our differences (Enneagram, DISC, Love Languages, Conflict styles, and others), deliver personalized content when people can consume it, connect people continuously through their phones to discuss that content, etc. It’s too late to try to pull them off their phones; make them feel guilty for being on their phones; they are doing more and more on their phones every day – that boat has left the dock. We need to learn to use this same technology for Kingdom purposes. Healthy churches are made up of healthy people. The church is the people, not the building.

    Keep up the good research!

  • This is so good. As a “Boomer” I have told my adult children, “Man, I have a lot to repent of on how I thought church services should be…” My adult kids “get it” and are more Biblical than we are on so many worship issues. I read of the statistics and have also met many of the Millennials and Gen Z people who are now attending The Anglican church as they want worship of the Lord to be their Sunday experience, not worship of man. They also really appreciate taking communion weekly. It seems like every piece you have written recently or every podcast has captured not only the outward expression, but also the heart of what is going on in the church. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Meg.

    • The Anglicans have been growing lately with a lot of people who did not grow up going there. Part of the reason is their method of a homily every Sunday focusing on what Jesus did and following the liturgical year. Also, like you said, communion, sometimes daily in city congregations, is appreciated especially after the prayer of humble access and being handed the host and Chalice and told individually that they are the body and blood shed for you. That and their unspoken Invitation where people do not feel embarrassed if they go talk to a clergy or lay person both help.

  • lovelypeace says on

    I get that this is a minor point in the article, but it’s niggling at me. I’m not sure I buy completely into the “When a member or an attendee dies or moves, he or she is more likely to be a boomer”.

    I get that there’s the caveat of “more likely”, but society is so much more mobile than it’s been in the past. Everyone is moving around these days for economic reasons and age doesn’t seem to the main indicator of whether you are moving or not. (There are too many reasons to list as to why both old/young desire better economic situations).

    I think that a lot of church communities need to get a handle on how mobile our society actually is. People aren’t simply living and staying in the communities that they grew up in. It’s very rare that young people come home and stay in their home state (let alone their home town) in a lot of places. My state isn’t bleeding youth like it did in the ’00’s, but it’s still an issue.

    The stadium model seems to presuppose some sort of permanence or relationship to an area- and there is no permanence in a lot of people’s situations these days.

    (I’ve lived in at least 5 different cities in my metro area – and each time we’ve uprooted our lives and found new doctors/churches, etc. So, even though the cities are ‘close by’ on a map – they aren’t necessarily close in the actual day to day experience of living. And since my spouse and I are planners – we are starting to vacation in areas we’d potentially like to retire in. My husband is determined to move south after our son graduates from high school in less than 10 years – and planning to work remotely! We aren’t boomers by any stretch of the imagination!)

    Big organizations don’t inherently do community well. They really need a plan and need to be intentional about helping people make connections in order to make community happen. Those are the churches that are going to stick around. Big or small isn’t the issue in a lot of cases. It’s the people inside the walls that people are going to respond negatively or positively to.

    The biggest factor for young people is “do I feel welcomed and am I able to make friends who share similar values within this community? Are my friendships “surface” friendships or are they deep friendships where I can be “real” and show my warts and still be loved?” If you feel like you aren’t meeting anyone you could be friends with or you keep finding that your new friends are “fake”, then you aren’t going to stay long at any church.

  • David Booth says on

    We may end up with a lot more churches in the 200-400 range.

    As a small church pastor (there were 23 people in worship the first Sunday I preached at my church), I also think that there are a lot of pressures on small churches. Many people who say that they prefer a 50-70 person church also want the level of activity and opportunities that larger churches can provide – and they frequently don’t seem to realize that there are tradeoffs. Small churches can also have difficulty getting visitors to return when visitors don’t find some individuals that they can relate to in terms of age, having young children, etc …

    I also suspect that young single Christians will naturally gravitate towards larger churches where there are more young single people. My congregation now has around 125 people and all our single people are 50+. Given that many single people think of themselves as pre-married rather than single, it is an unusual young single person who doesn’t very much want to attend a church with at least a fair number of other young singles.

  • This is a fascinating idea you have. I believe you are into something big here. I look forward to seeing more about this in the days ahead.

  • There is still little to no sense of belonging that is felt by the younger people. It is as though the church is not really there for them. Inclusion, being subjective, is very difficult to produce much less measure. Even when people are welcome at a service, feeling like you are a part of a church is almost impossible. It is even hard to describe but once youth group ends, if there is one, you are on your own.

    • Yes, and the definition of “younger” gets really old at some churches. Some of us are in our 50s and stunned that the bible studies and clubs held during the week are only offered during the day, which only retired people can attend. So the non-retired generation goes somewhere else to get involved. And then eventually the church can’t understand why no one younger stays even though they are so friendly during service’s pass the peace.

      • But I offer a counter observation about timing and ages. For years there were evening classes at our church and those with kids weren’t attending because of school and extra-curricular activities not at church (sports, etc.). As the average age went up a decision had to be made about timing of classes: if we kept them in the evening without commitment from enough people no one would come because the older members stopped driving at night. If we moved the majority of the classes to an earlier hour, the older members could attend and those with kids, who weren’t attending in the first place, wouldn’t attend.

        The problem is, once people get out of the habit of attending things fall apart and they rarely come back.

  • I agree. To me, it’s like MLB stadiums, etc. They used to build them larger, but now with online ways of worship and other things competing, actual attendance is lower and stadiums/churches have less in the seats (though many still may be “attending” via online services, etc.).

  • We are seeing the 50% rule play out across all events. We have roughly 1200 people that call our church “their church”. I would say that we have 800 that are “regular attenders/members”. What we see in worship attendance is a differnt 550-600 each Sunday. Our Sunday school over the course of 4 weeks will average 450 in attendance. If we look at individual attendance, we will have had over 600 people that attended Sunday School at least once in that four weeks, 500 that attended at least twice but the average is 450 +/-.

    The stats of old are no longer tell the full story. I am hopeful to help our church change what we measure – number of first time guests; number of returning first time guests; number getting connected to a small group; number of first time people serving; number of first time givers.

    We are a strong Sunday School driven church who had all but eliminated Wednesday nights for the past year. We started January with a new “model” using intentional small groups sitting around tables of no more that 8-9 people discussing the application of Sunday’s sermon and proving a place of prayer and connection. Our goal is to have 80% of our “regular attenders/members” involved and connected to at least one type of small group (Sunday School or Connect Groups).

    In reading and working through “Canoeing the Mountains”, I realize we must think differently and love our people through them beginning to see a different future.

  • My personal experiences, both in consulting with and in my own attendance are in churches of 50 to 3,000. I personally feel that a “critical mass” is reached someplace above 100 – 150 in attendance.

    Dr. Rainer, you postulate is, I believe, playing out pretty clearly in the rapidly growing number of house churches in this country, a phenomenon we might not have anticipated a couple decades ago. For me, as a baby boomer, I love the dynamics of a good small group. But I would also miss the dynamics of a much larger worshipping group.

  • Steve Davis says on

    We are experiencing the decline ourselves. 2017 avg was 130. 2018 avg was 126. 2019 avg was 111. Since Nov. 2019 our largest service was 97… very perplexing. We do have a good representation of every age range. People are getting saved, baptized, and discipled.

  • Thomas Kiker says on

    Just curious of your thoughts on what size auditoriums (seating capacity) churches should try to focus on with this information in mind. Maybe 500 seating max?

    • Thomas –

      It depends on your current average attendance. For example, if a church had an average attendance of 400, I would seek to have a capacity of 300 and move to two services.

  • If the preferred size peaks around 300, then what about the lower end? I know several churches that are between 20-40 people who are older, and there is no life. Therefore, even youth that want to go to church do not choose to go when the numbers get too low. I find they look for a larger space with at least 75-100 people and where there are others who are younger.

    • It’s a point worthy of future research, Mitchell. There are many variables, which makes the research challenging. Your anecdotal observations are similar to mine.

    • Echoing Thom a bit, the interactions between size of the congregation, average age of the congregation, size of the worship space, and local demographic are hard to quantify. I know certain churches in rural Virginia that have a maximum capacity of ~100 people but have ~50 in the pews and they are attractive for young and old.

      Somewhat off topic: Even with an engaged parish, as the average age goes up the attractiveness goes down. While I’m not sure the real reason my estimate is potential younger members don’t want to be left “holding the bag” alone as the older members start to die off. While the offering is faithful and thoughtful, it is difficult to attract younger members when all that’s there are older members – no matter how welcoming and engaging they are.

      • Especially in Evangelical churches, the church is there only for the old people who always get what they want be it leadership positions, sermons, etc. Having gone to an Anglican/Episcopal for some years now, I really see the difference with the younger group who get taught the catechism generally by the jr clergy and what the faith is all about then get confirmed vs Evangelicalism where they get nothing but Sunday school taught by whomever gets pulled into it. The same is the case with my Jewish friends who got taught by the rabbis or cantors before bar mitzvah and confirmation. I never understood why Evangelicalism had such a problem with younger people.

      • Our evangelical church is based on “home churches” or “life groups” where it seems the younger 30-40 year olds seem to thrive. There is a large service on Sunday but the life groups of 6-12 people meet once a week for Bible Study and then again for service projects and fellowship throughout the month. It’a a Great Commission church.

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