On a recent flight, I had the opportunity to sit next to a man who was the ideal conversationalist for me. First, he was not a Christian, but he was eager to hear from me about the gospel. That part of the conversation went very well. Second, he had a Ph.D. in statistics. I thus had the best of two worlds: sharing Jesus and talking numbers.
Confessions of a Numbers Nerd
I confess. I am fascinated by numbers. My undergraduate major is corporate finance with minors in statistics and economics. My Ph.D. dissertation was on numerical church growth.
Yes, I am totally capable of boring someone to near death with my fascination with numbers and statistics.
So when I write or speak about the local church, or when I study churches, I must be careful. I can be overzealous with numerical realities and fail to see the bigger issues God would have me to see.
A Concern about a Hidden Number
I thus speak about this particular numerical concern with caution. Still, it is an area that is often overlooked by leaders of churches.
Let me describe the “hidden” number by asking a question. From a strictly numerical point of view, what causes a church to grow or decline in attendance? Some of the answers are obvious. If the church has more guests attending, attendance will likely go up. If the church adds new members, attendance is likely to increase. The inverse of both statements is also true. If a church loses members or has fewer guests attend, then attendance is likely to decrease.
But still one key metric is missing: attendance behavior.
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 have 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.
The hidden, or at least under analyzed, metric is attendance behavior or frequency.
The Reason for the Concern
Why does this issue concern me? First, I see faithfulness to the local church as one of the key components of Christian discipleship. If a pattern develops where more congregants are attending less frequently, I am concerned that Christian growth is not taking place. They are not hearing the Word preached as frequently. They are not as active in fellowship with other Christians. They are not experiencing corporate worship as frequently. And they are likely not attending Bible study groups as regularly.
Attendance behavior is not always easy to measure, especially if the primary count is in a worship service. Still, there are ways to monitor this metric. Several churches have done so successfully.
Yes, it is about the numbers.
But it’s really about something more important.
It’s about doing our best as church leaders to see if our congregants are truly developing into more mature followers of Christ.
And that’s what really matters.
Posted on November 4, 2009
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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