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

August 19, 2013
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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.

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  • Gary Winton says on

    I am disturbed that at the church I quickly became a member of that the attendance of the elders and deacons is very irregular . There is a morning service and maybe 60 % of the leaders are in attendance
    On Wednesday and Sunday nights there is maybe 10 % in attendance . This is unsettling to my spirit and contradicts what I believe leaders in church should be showing and setting examples . Am I wrong to even be thinking this way or should I question this matter and see why the people in charge or selected to lead are not present ?

  • God Bless You, Tom!
    I have read your topics on the declines of church and various inputs and contributions. I would love to draw our attention to the story/parable of Jesus in Luke 10:25-37. In this fable, there three(3) distinct characters. The High-Priest…The Levi…And the Good-Samaritan. I believe the answers to all the debates can be found in the characters of the three actors. A man found by the roadside, robbed! and Severely beaten. The high priest comes, sees and passes by! …The Levi comes, see and also passes by! …finally, the good-old, Samaritan, came by, and have compassion. He takes the inetiatives to help save the wounded man and takes him to the hospital, and pays all the bills for his treatments! Therefore, looking at why churches are crumbling-down and members leaving in frustration. The holisticity of members not met, individuals don’t know what to believe, the sheep not satisfy with the pastures they are led-to and leaves the queue. To find a more greener-pasture. In most cases, they lost their way!!!

  • Cameron Rowe says on

    I left the church for one reason. Lack of anyone wanting me in their clique or social group. Basically, there was no community offered. If I wasn’t working in the TV ministry, I sat alone. I didn’t feel wanted. I even worked in a ministry and suddenly stopped going to any of it.

    And, not one person ever called to see why I wasn’t there any more.

    Not one.

    I wrote the pastor of the church and told him why I left a year later. He offered me connect groups, which consisted of lots of married people. I’m single and really didn’t want to go to them and hear people gripe about their marriage or talk endlessly about married things. I hear people at work constantly gripe about their kids and spouses.

    I’ve been to a lot of churches and marriage is totally celebrated, and, if you are single like me, you are not wanted really unless you are a professional (i.e. have lots of money, which I don’t). They have the lowly jobs for you to do but no offers of friendship outside of church (unless you are the rich professional). And, they love to get that tithe money. But, there is nothing for single people. Sermons are all about marriage. Us singles are never even talked about.

    I came to the conclusion church is mostly clubs for married folk and those with lots of cash. All others need not apply.

  • i guess today most churches are focusing on membership rather than winning soul for the Lord Jesus Christ. they have forgotten the very mean reason of why God came down to earth. i believe i they ever know that membership will not declined. my sister was removed her membership because some praying meeting she could not attend due to she has difficulty seeing a night and apart from that she has other commitment to attend to, now she feel outcast in the community because she is no longer a member and the pastor told her if she want to be a member she must attend every activity in church then only they will renew her membership. i feel sad for her. if the legalism exist in church it will be a great danger because the Lord Jesus Christ did not come for that. He came down for one main reason”a] LOVE” HIS CREATION b.] H died for us His creation because He love us. c] He wants to restore the relationship that have been broken by sin. Because He LOVE us]

  • Try to observe the church members led by Bro Eli Soriano a Filipino Preacher. “Members Church of God International” every month additional new members is being baptized counting from 1,000-3,000 or more. this is the link where you can get some of their ideas how they handles their member’s attendance in the church. They have many batches of gatherings starting 4:30am until 1:30am so that all their members can attend church gatherings.

  • Richard G says on

    It amazes me that this discussion has continued for almost 8 years. It tells me its a burning issue that needs close attention, part of every church’s mission and strategy. The above have great thoughts that we should all pay attention to and learn from for our specific situation in our congregation. Whereas there are no cookie cutters on how to grow or maintain attendance for all churches, I applaud Bro Rainer for putting something out there for us so as to “save some”. Thank you Bro Rainer for writing the book.

    Pastors, continue to remain faithful to your calling and prove your ministry. And to our congregation, let’s continue to pray for our pastors and encourage them in their calling. Unless your church is heretic in their teachings, continue to support your ministers as they continue to serve the flock, the people of God. Good Pastors always are willing to listen and learn from their leaders and parishioners for better approaches to presentations, and they will leverage ministry opportunities for laity to help as well so ministry will grow. At the end of the day, we will not be judged by the size of our ministry but by the details of our personal callings by Christ and how faithful we were to that calling.

    Do we ignore the dwindling size of church membership. No, not at all. We should continue to trust Jesus to give us better approaches to our ministry presentation. Billy Graham preached milk and saved many. Apostle Paul preached meat and saved a whole lot too. Every particular minister and his congregation have a specific calling and they should remain faithful to that. Jesus never raised campaigns but he probably attracted more people than any other preacher, relatively speaking to the times. Our message is the cream of the crop, be it meat or milk, we must be faithful to our callings and that could mean not satisfying everyone.

  • In the early seventies attended a First Christian Church.Pastor was a fire and brimstone,when he spoke you did not talk or nod off.Sitting with friends from Sunday school in front row, his sermon resonated to everyone.As time went on
    he retired and new Pastors came in,One thing I noticed when one of the flock
    needed prayer or wasn’t in Church they were called upon.I know in these large Churches usually theres Decons or members that keep in touch with ones that are ill or not in church.I have since been at a another church for 16 years.Its not a large church,but I saw when the Pastor left 8 years ago,the new pastor (hired with in) a good man but failed to reach out to his members and soon the flock was moving else where.It doesn’t take a minute to pick the phone up and call,to older members it means more than they realize.also to younger members it means alot as well.When my mother was sick there were no calls,they knew at church because I told the office when I was there;finally 2 months later a Decon called.I told him in a nice way that the Pastor is not that busy to make a call,which goes along way to make ones day.And one other input I always enjoyed when a good sermon could be told from the Bible and apply to the daily lives of the congragation.Especially today.-

  • I realize this article is from 2013, but I came across this article due to my current struggle . I have to say that over the past year I’ve really been struggling because I don’t have a desire to be at church. I desire Jesus Christ and I love Him and I’ve served (beyond served) with a passionate heart. However, I feel as if church has become a show, a production. It’s all about the lights, the performance, the perfection. It’s about new buildings and all the newest technology in order to keep the “audience” entertained. I watch (behind the scenes at times) the frustration that comes over the staff when things don’t go “as planned.” I see how the Holy Spirit seems to be squelched and stomped on during the process as e.v.e.r.y. s.i.n.g.l.e. second has to be accounted for with the “planned” service. I’m exhausted watching it and my heart feels sad and even resentful. Believe me when I say that I know this is my problem to wrestle with and that I must come to terms with it with God’s help. I’m just being transparent and honest. It’s a real struggle. I know other people struggle with it, too. You know what I would love to see? I’d love to walk into church one Sunday with no lights, no one on stage, no sound system and the congregation just start singing in unison “How Great thou Art.” We are so hyped up on getting the audience “INTO” worship by the CONSTANT reminders to the praise team to raise their hands, close their eyes, and “look” the part that REAL worship seems strained and fake…. To the point that you can see the worship team is more worried about not meeting the “expectations” than they are about true worship. Maybe we would understand and experience true worship if all the hype of lighting and stage presence wasn’t the focal point. No time limit, no man made barriers, just worship in its rawest form. When I think of church in its present form, I think “show,,” I think “production.” I pray this trend shifts and I pray that someone will shed light on this dangerous precedent that seems to be more and more embraced by so many churches.
    Maybe THIS is one of the reasons there is a decline in consistent church attendance.

    • I just came across this today, (May 24, 2020) . You are spot on. It is even worse then it was in 2018. Everything you said about the team worrying about perfection, and being told to smile and worship….on and on, is absolutely TRUE! I have been there and couldn’t take the performance stress… I had to leave that environment. It would make me sick and question church entirely… It used to be about true worship when you were playing. Now it is about performance, live video, streaming, looking good. Also, if you don’t “tow the line”, you are banished in a “passive way”…. because YOU are the problem, you are no longer relevant in their ” clique ” .

  • Brian Vensel says on

    Generally, what is the impact on attendance in the 1) short, 2) med and 3) long term when a church moves to a new location within the same city?

    My sense is that initially there will be a 10% (or so) drop off in the near term then a gradual increase upward over the med and long term. Obviously, there are a lot of variables. However, I am hoping to get some general feedback based upon the experiences you’ve seen. Thank you.

  • Lisa Truitt says on

    The things you mentioned are everything that’s wrong with “church”. Simply put these places are businesses. Money and control and manipulation rule. Unfortunately this is just the way it is since “church” as we know it got started in the 400s, when the home and public meeting place meetings lead by groups of unpaid elders became outlawed. As far as I’m concerned these outfits hinder the fiction of the body of Christ and I want no more part of them. I will read and study God’s word, pray, fellowship and pursue following Jesus daily with my family and friends at home and anywhere else we feel led to connect. This is what we’ve been doing for a few years now and I love the freedom and growth I’m experiencing in myself and others. We read Gods word, compare different views to each other and scripture in an effort to search the word daily what is true, and we respect any differences people have with each other while at the same time keeping dialog open to help sharpen one another. Sometimes this input causes me to change my mind about a subject and other times I have that effect on others. An example is I used to believe word of faith teachings on healing and though I absolutely believe in healing I no longer believe that particular belief system is biblical. I could go on and on and all without ever darkening the door of a church with paid clergy.

    • Local Prophet says on

      Yehovah led you out. He wants you to experience ekklesia, not ‘church’. I encourage you to study the origins of the word ‘church’ and how it is a technical incorrect translation of what Yeshua and his apostles, his sent out ones, began centuries ago…may His Spirit rest upon you and lead you to such meetings/gatherings, for in them you will see and come to know even more the reality of Yeshua.

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