The Number One Reason for the Decline in Church Attendance and Five Ways to Address It

UPDATE: Listen to the podcast episode about this post.

Few people will argue that church attendance in many churches in America is declining. Our own research indicates that the majority of churches in our country are not growing.

Most of us have our own ideas why attendance is declining. Many have suggested that our nation is shifting away from its Christian roots, and thus the churches are declining as a smaller proportion of our country are believers in Christ.

I certainly will not argue with that premise. Certainly attendance declines are related to massive cultural shifts in our nation. But I would also suggest that one reason for declines has a greater impact than others.

The Frequency Issue

Stated simply, the number one reason for the decline in church attendance is that members attend with less frequency than they did just a few years ago. Allow me to explain.

If the frequency of attendance changes, then attendance will respond accordingly. For example, if 200 members attend every week the average attendance is, obviously, 200. But if one-half of those members miss only one out of four weeks, the attendance drops to 175.

Did you catch that? No members left the church. Everyone is still relatively active in the church. But attendance declined over 12 percent because half the members changed their attendance behavior slightly.

This phenomenon can take place rather quickly in an individual church. And leaders in the church are often left scratching their heads because the behavioral change is so slight, almost imperceptible. We really don’t notice when someone who attends four times a month begins to attend only three times a month. Nor do we typically catch it when the twice-a-month attendee becomes a once-a-month attendee.

Five Possible Approaches to the Problem

Of course, the heart of the problem is not declining numbers but waning commitment. As I addressed in my book, I Am a Church Member, church membership is becoming less and less meaningful in many churches. As membership becomes less meaningful, commitment naturally wanes.

While I don’t want to suggest there is a magic bullet to this problem, I do want to offer some approaches to address it. These five have proven to be the most helpful in hundreds of churches:

  1. Raise the expectations of membership. You may be surprised how many church members don’t really think it’s that important to be an active part of the church. No one has ever told them differently.
  2. Require an entry class for membership. By doing so, the church makes a statement that membership is meaningful. The class should also be used to state the expectations of what a committed member looks like.
  3. Encourage ministry involvement. Many members become less frequent attendees because they have no ministry roles in the church. They do not feel like they are an integral part of the church.
  4. Offer more options for worship times. Our culture is now a 24/7 population. Some members have to work during the times of worship services. If possible, give them options. One businessman recently told me that he changed congregations to a church that offered a Saturday worship time because his job required him to catch a plane on Sunday morning.
  5. Monitor attendance of each member. This approach is often difficult, especially for worship attendance. That is why the traditional Sunday school approach of calling absentees was so effective. Perhaps churches can incorporate that approach in all groups. Members are less likely to be absent if they know someone misses them.

When Church Membership Becomes Meaningful

People want to be a part of something that makes a difference. They desire to be involved in something bigger than themselves.

Unfortunately, in many churches membership has become less and less meaningful. Until we get our churches back to the committed membership the Apostle Paul mandates in 1 Corinthians 12, we will continue to see declining attendance. But when membership becomes truly meaningful, our churches will become an unstoppable force for the Kingdom and glory of God.

Posted on August 19, 2013


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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278 Comments

  • Honestly, I think it is more than what is in this article. For me, it feels like going to a weekly concert or show. It is 45 minutes of songs and then about 15 minutes in the Word. Then you have the cliques. I am so sick of the fake smiles and how unkind people can be. If you happen to be friends with people on church leadership, some are always trying to keep up with the Jones’. And then you have small groups, which is more of a culture club and is every bit of a popularity contest. In short, everything is fake.
    This article talks of membership classes to monitoring attendance. Honestly, I think you need more elders and deacons to connect with people. Cut down on the constant barrage of events and stop guilting people if they don’t join everything. Oh! And youth leaders need to stop pushing parents away. One church said parents were not to walk their kids down to youth group. I am sorry, but that is not going to happen. The leaders say this is “helicopter parenting”. No! It is called being involved. Most youth group let the kids wonder off and speaking from experience, I have caught kids making out in unused rooms. Then you have the youth rooms with video games on Sunday’s and the justification is to keep their attention. Funny how smaller congregations can do this with far less. The list goes on. For us, we found a smaller church that sticks to the Word of God.

  • Joshua Ade says on

    The reasons for church attendance declination in your write up is so wonderful. Thank you so much.
    But the effect on this declination in church should please be explain Sir. When we know the effects, it make us to take a quick action.
    Thanks.

  • I pray you gain the knowledge as to why you are being left behind and abandoned. Do not blame others. Just look at the state religious political damage in America has cost.. I suggest you get busy real quick protecting your scripture because spirituality has left the house.. centuries of shaming and blaming women. Who you have with your Christianity placed as second class citizens with no voice and no power. Creating a nation of violence and evil holding up a Bible. Your scripture teaches you to protect the word. Malleus Maleficarum seed planted should be your first serious read as to why you are cursed and condemned to failure. Without knowledge you cannot grow and if you do not own your actions you cannot grow. All you can do is blame and shame.. action and reaction has put you here.. cognitive dissonance male superiority keep you from understanding women will not tolerate it anymore.. too many women children and families are suffering because you have allowed other white Christians to use your Christianity to destroy this nation.. it is why they chose the sheet and the Bible. They fully understand their Christian brothers in Christ would turn a blind eye shame and blame others and never see or protect Christianity scripture and the word used against them.. you want to blame somebody blame all white people so says the white lady cradle Catholic X Eucharistic minister who has been studying every Bible since I learned to read.. the American church has gone into the dark because you did not protect it.

  • Male opinion… Wrong. Membership has plummeted because of only one reason.. cognitive dissonance and bias will keep you acknowledging that fact not to mention male superiority. As the number of white supremacist groups grow and the top of their motto is women haters. How’s the numbers of females murdered by violent narcissistic abusers escalate. World renowned psychologists are publishing papers warning of the phenomenon that has been groomed in the American Christian Church… Malleus Maleficarum gave you the seed.. the fact is male Christian superiority self ordained godly superiority.. as you stay in your mail Superior power of cognitive dissonance women are educating themselves. The shackling oppression suppression subservient second class citizen placement of a cultural ideology that has exploited with power and greed to place all others beneath. Do not fool yourself or blame others. Study the history of what Christianity has brought to the American woman child and family.. I advise you to take a good look at the state of our country right now because of mail Superior Christianity and religious politics.. there is also a lot of data information statistics case studies and history books of how Christianity in the hands of the white male has affected humanity… You will not!! You cannot! Because it has nothing to do with love compassion empathy or community.. let alone spirituality.. in fact it has created a nation of children and capable of compassion. One where a mother can arm her son with an assault weapon drive him to a protest and praise him for murder in the name of Christianity . Karl Rittenhouse. There are a long list sexually documented of male Superior killers Christianity has raised up…. If you want to take responsibility and credit for the good religion has brought you must also take responsibility and credit for the evil that it has propagated. Until you investigate and study this phenomenon your numbers will continue to decline. Your ego must blame. You do not protect your Christianity.. you have allowed it with a blind eye to be defiled and used against you as a weapon. When good men turn a blind eye to evil evil will prevail. When Bad men turn a blind eye to evil they are complicit.. women are tired of bending over backwards being told we’re going to burn in hell if we’re not good enough and finding out our devotion keeps us being nice unworthy of no value. You’re raising boys like Brian and girls like Gabby and women are noticing.. so you go ahead and blame others or some excuse as to why your membership is declining.. that is cognitive dissonance. We will not be blamed or shamed we will grow a society of spirituality will not be allowed. To stop all over self-esteem to build up their fault sense of ego as they hold the Bible proclaiming themselves Superior. This country is about to fail because of that one fact you are the reason spirituality in this nation has gone evil.. women and children and family has suffered for it. If you had true spirituality you would educate yourself about action and reaction. SHAME on the man who wrote this article.. read your scripture and learn what it says about man’s action and man’s words. Christian check yourself.

  • Marla Horne says on

    My church is experiencing a pretty rapid decline in membership. We have lost multiple families this year already. I don’t believe we have had anyone join our church this year either. Our church is dying and it is breaking my heart. Please pray for us.

  • I was looking for a reason why the church have declined, and what I read was very interesting to me. People have just lost interest this was educational.

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