Why Your Church Has to Replace 32 Percent of Its Attendance to Stay Even Each Year

Let’s start with a scenario that your church has an average worship attendance of 100. I use that number for simplicity. The median worship attendance is 65.

Now, let’s ask a simple question. How many attendees do you have to add to your attendance in a year to stay even?

The answer for a typical church is 32 with a worship attendance of 100. You can double the number to 64 if the church’s attendance is 200.

Did you get that? A church has to increase the number of attendees by 32 percent each year just to stay even.

In a church with 100 in attendance, an additional 32 attendees would have to be added to stay even, and they would have to attend every Sunday. If they attend every other Sunday, the church would need an additional 64 attendees.

Where have all the church attendees gone? Let’s look at four important components:

Component #1: Deaths

The death rate in the United States is 1.0 people per 100 population. The death rate is likely higher in churches since many congregations have an aging membership.

Component #2: Moving Out of the Community.

The mobility rate in the United States was 9.3 percent in 2020. The good news is that the rate of mobility is declining. It almost reached 20 percent in 1985. Many of the moves are considered local, but most of them still move out of the church’s community.

Component #3: Transfer to Another Church in the Community

This number is not as precise as the previous two because it is based on the churches where we have this information, typically churches we consult. We think our estimate of 7 percent is close. In other words, your church will lose 7 church members to another local church for every 100 in attendance.

Component #4: Declining Attendance Frequency

We estimate that the attendance frequency is down about 15 percent per year in U. S. churches. For example, if a church had 100 members who attended every Sunday, the average attendance would be 100. If all those members attended every other week, the average attendance would be 50, or a decline of 50 percent. Declining attendance frequency is the number one factor in church decline in the United States.

So, here is our summary. For every 100 persons in attendance in your church, you will lose each year:

  • 1 to death
  • 9 to moving
  • 7 to transfer to another church in the community
  • 15 to declining attendance frequency

Thus, if you add 32 attendees for every 100 you have in attendance now, the church will stay even. Anything less and the church will decline.

But there is hope.

More on the hope factor soon.

Posted on January 23, 2023


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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24 Comments

  • Rod Ankrom says on

    For years we have heard about declining and “plateaued” churches. If I understand this correctly, a “plateaued” church has to “grow” by about 30 percent each year! Who would have guessed that it would take a 30% growth rate just to maintain the church’s average attendance? The “declining attendance frequency” is by far the biggest factor I have experienced… we see big week to week swings in attendance (for no apparent reason) – the average is still the same, but the number of people calling our church their “home” is far greater.

  • Stephen Foree says on

    Thom,

    Thank you for sharing your research. It is sobering. I was wondering if you have any break-out numbers.
    It seems obvious that attendees who aren’t actively participating in the ministry are more easily disenfranchised. In my own study and reflection, I have come to believe that church pastors and leaders overall don’t prioritize personal discipleship of new believers, or a focus on winning and discipling boys and men to be Godly leaders in their homes, community, work and in the church. I am convinced that these two things would change everything. My church is no different, and I just don’t see it changing. Who is or, how do we convince our pastor to get behind these critical, yet most often missed opportunities?
    Thanks, Steve

  • My husband and I are Born Again Christians. We live in a small rural community. We have stopped going to church for the following reasons 1. Church hurt. The last time it was so bad it damaged us spiritually. 2. People are too busy: Too busy to do anything but come to church on Sunday, pay, listen to music and leave. 3. Clique/Mean/Phony people 4. Cultish behavior: If you don’t believe in certain interpretations of scripture the way everyone else does, you will be shamed 5. Lack of commitment: My husband was a talented Sunday School teacher: He would spend hours preparing a lesson. Sometimes people would show up, sometimes they didn’t. The week we left, 1 person showed up. 6. Cold behavior on the part of church members or the pastor. It took 6 months for the pastor to contact my husband; he did so by text. Too little, too late. We had been committed members who supported the church both in volunteering and financially. Those are the main reasons. I have a teenage daughter who is also saved. She hated going to church and mostly has bad memories. It’s sad. The church has changed and is in big trouble in the US.

    • Toni,
      What you have described is becoming more and more “normal”. I’m not saying it’s right, but more and more people are describing the same experiences.
      So, how should you respond? Respectfully, leaving church altogether is not the proper response. Churches are made up of people, some great and some far from great. Yet they all share in at least one similarity: they are fallible humans. Meaning, we make mistakes on a daily basis and often fall short of what our Lord expects from us.
      My advice is for you and your family to get back out there and plug into another church. Pray and ask God to send you to the place that needs the gifts and talents you have been blessed with. That’s what my wife and I did. Every day for six months we prayed that the Lord would send us somewhere to be used. And that’s just what He did! Today, we are busier for God than we have been at any other time and we love it!

  • Robert Sloan says on

    Thom,

    To what degree is the attendance frequency affected by the church size. I have observed in smaller churches say 50 or less, where you can tell at a glance who is missing, the frequency seems much higher. For larger churches, say over 1,000 it is easier to disappear, and harder for the staff to even know who’s there. Do you have any numbers that show a difference based on size?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      It’s a great question, but we have not done that level of granular research. It’s a good idea for our future research. Thanks, Robert.

    • There was some anecdotal information while I was in Seminary (2007-2010) there was a megachurch (~10,000 per week) whose pastor mentioned that they essentially had 3,000-4,000 new members each year and still were ~10,000 per week. They had no data saying where those who had left went, but I imagine larger churches have larger numbers leave but equally large numbers attend.

  • Purtell Nancy says on

    We lost some people due to pandemic, zoom services made them lazy, and too convenient to stay home. Also. People got older over the three years. But now we are trying to be alive again, and need people back, or new people. ..

  • John Amandola says on

    Thom, I’m curious as to why you did not include deconstructing people/people leaving the church altogether? Is that not a significant factor according to your research?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      John –

      That factor is implicit in declining attendance frequency. The complete dropout would count as an attendance frequency of zero.

  • The old number for replacement of members moving on was about 10% I believe from 20 years ago. Also factored in is the mobility of the community in which you live. This will be different for non-urban churches. Deaths, yes, I get that. Transfer to other churches depends. In a denominational church that is specific about its theology and practices, this tends to have less movement. Non-denominational has huge transfer issues. Or if you are in a town with 20 southern baptist churches, yes, transferring is an issue. 32% is the worst case scenario, but it is certainly an eye opener. And as one mentor I had used to say: “if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Greg –

      Our analysis indicates that 32% is a standard-case scenario. We have data on many churches with more sobering data, and we have data on a few churches that are doing much better.

  • These are sobering numbers … You’ve got me waiting for the hope, the good news.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      There is indeed hope. We will share what God is doing in churches. Though I should not be amazed at the power of God, I am indeed amazed every time I hear one of these stories.

  • What do you mean to “stay even”. Sorry, I could not understand. Even in relation to what?

  • Robert Ivey says on

    This should be a powerful wake-up call to every church and pastor. Thank you for saying what needs to be said even when people don’t want to hear it and sadly will not believe it is true.

  • Great Help