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August 21, 2014

RIP, average attendance

Average worship attendance was once such an important number. With it, I could predict the size of the church staff, the informal patterns of decision-making, most of the stresses on the pastor’s time, the leadership required for small groups, and more.

Back in the day, church consultant Lyle Schaller was quoted as saying that average worship attendance was a better indicator of congregational behavior than denomination, geography or neighborhood.

Today that number means much less because the definition of an active member has shifted.

At one time, “active” meant attending services three or four times a month. Today people feel active when they enter the church building once or twice a month. Some people engage worship more regularly online than from the pew. Others prioritize participation in a small group over worship attendance. Congregations have multiple services and, increasingly, multiple campuses.

It is more and more difficult to determine what “attending” means, much less judge someone as “active.”

These changes are signs that congregational culture is now less uniform, which has practical implications for things like the development of a Bible study curriculum.

When a denominational publishing house could predict the needs of congregations, curriculum materials could be mass-produced. While the number and variety of materials have expanded in recent years, teachers are often dissatisfied with their options. They then feel obligated to write congregation-specific material for children, youth or adults, requiring a huge commitment of time and creativity.

Developing customized curriculum and activities, such as missions experiences, means that the congregation feels a need for more staff, regardless of the church’s size. The needs are not connected to any predictable ratio of ministers to members, but the costs are.

In the old days, attendance was a good predictor of revenue for the church. Today, revenue can be up when attendance is down -- sometimes these trends can go in opposite directions for years.

In a doctoral seminar with experienced pastors last semester, the group begged for help in developing a score card of statistics by which they could monitor the vitality of their congregations. Each was tracking average worship attendance, giving, mission/ministry hours and more. Yet, the relationships between the numbers were not clear.

Church attendance was once a key indicator of a virtuous cycle. If the church could get a new person in the pew regularly, offerings would go up, involvement in small groups and missions would climb, and the church would be healthy. If attendance was declining then everything else would eventually decline.

The growing lack of dependability on attendance is a sign that the virtuous cycles that have sustained congregations since the end of World War II are collapsing. In order to sustain congregations over the long haul, new cycles need to be developed. Once that begins to happen, new measures can be identified.

One place to start is to map all the ways that a person engages a congregation -- joining a small group, attending group meetings and social functions, contributing to special causes and to the church’s general budget, reading sermons or other resources on-line, volunteering in a missions project, teaching a class and more.

What patterns of engagement emerge? Which activities encourage participation in other activities? What practices are most likely to lead to spiritual growth? These are the building blocks of virtuous cycles.

Having answered these questions, look at the numbers the congregation is gathering or could be gathering. How do these numbers help track the ways of engagement? What other data could be gathered easily? It is important to gather data that are measurable signs of the engagement that matters most.

Marketing is all about answering these sorts of questions. Rather than seek to master this field, I prefer to ask for help from an expert. No marketing professional knows the church like the leaders, but the expert can ask the questions and organize the data into something that can be tracked over time.

Yes, this is a lot of work. I wish we could go back to the good old days and track a couple of different numbers. But, most people know that is no longer working. What will we do about it?


Very helpful!

Thanks for this. It verbalizes something I've noticed in my congregation for years, but couldn't quite identify.

Gordon Ramsay and Church Numbers

Well said. I cannot get out of my head how little is told by the statistics that churches watch from new membership to average attendance. I've been watching some episodes of Kitchen Nightmares lately and wondering how to apply some of those principles to the Church. Primarily the show advocates for people doing their jobs excellently, having a clear hierarchy, and communicating well.

In the end the goal of every restaurant is to make money. The same with marketing. The goal of the Church is more complicated. It will never be entirely about making money. So, how do we incorporate aspects of marketing within the community building of the Kingdom? Did statistics really ever help with all that anyways?

What Numbers Can and Cannot Tell You

I recently published an article online, and later in a journal on this subject. Hopefully it will be of some use to someone--especially those who have lay leaders overly-dependent on conventional counting practices.


measuring growth

The relationship between money and church attendance is similar to what happens in a school classroom. As a teacher, I know grades (quantitative measure of learning) is important for both teacher and student. What is more important is the measure of student growth. How much more does a student know and understand at the end of a lesson compared to the what he or she knew at the beginning of the semester. Educators have debated for years how to measure student learning. Whether it is spiritual or academic it always goes back to the amount of effort the student puts into class attendance. But teachers also know--sometimes growth happens unexpectedly. We can only attribute this growth to the work of the Spirit. The expertise of the teacher, class attendance, and the quality of the materials all take a back seat to the work of the Spirit.

Growing in wisdom and knowledge

I do not know about numbers, but I do know that those who attend less, as a rule, know less. This especially about the children. Sunday School lessons are written for regular attendance. The child who only attends once a month does not get the full information of the lesson being taught that day. So, what will our next generation be like...even more Biblically illiterate than the present one, no wonder they will want teachers who "tickle their ears".

Growing in wisdom and knowledge

I do not know about numbers, but I do know that those who attend less, as a rule, know less. This especially about the children. Sunday School lessons are written for regular attendance. The child who only attends once a month does not get the full information of the lesson being taught that day. So, what will our next generation be like...even more Biblically illiterate than the present one, no wonder they will want teachers who "tickle their ears".

Average Attendance

I write as a Lay person involved in several parts of our church operation and have observed the following: spotty and infrequent attendance at worship indicates a casual engagement of that person (s) in their spiritual life and their connection to their church. We need to recall the vows we took as we joined the UMC: I will support the UMC with my gifts, work, attendance, etc.

So, our expectations have been reduced to near zero---and this is all about expectations. We expect little from ourselves (our members) then we will get little in return.

I worked in the corporate world; there is no way we (employees) would tolerate fellow workers to be so lackadaisical in their part of the teamwork required to make a success of our enterprise.

Come on Leaders and teachers: get the people into the church family. As the successful entrepreneur David Ramsey says: one of our first and primary obligations is "To show up".

Counting and

David Odom has it right. Secular and church culture have changed and how we measure things needs to change with it. As Dr. Odom points out, in the past we used a single factor, worship attendance to measure vitality. Actually before worship attendance it was membership. A single factor worked because we were a homogeneous culture in which patterns and institutions could be seen and experienced through a single lens. When United Methodist/Methodist Churches were all using the same worship format and had similar church life experiences (cover dish suppers, hymn sings, midweek worship, etc.), a single factor worked very well. Because within the church there is no longer homogeneity, even within a single congregation, no one measure works for vitality. Vitality is about life and its breadth and depth of life. Today in the United Methodist Church we use four areas to measure vitality:

1. Involvement over time
2. Growth over time
3. Engagement in the community
4. Financial health

We also recognize there is counting and testimony that bears witness to vitality. Therefore in addition to measures, are there stories of transformation and change that are being told within the congregation?

The United Methodist Vital Congregations Initiative recognized a single lens does not measure vitality nor a single snap shot of several indicators but it is over time that we can measure vitality. Within the four areas above, there are actually more than 12 indicators that are measured.

I am grateful for Dr. Odom’s calling to mind that we must move away from a single factor. The culture and the church changed a long time ago.

Work for Justice as a Criterion for Vitality

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19) A vital congregation engages in justice making, supports justice-makers, and challenges the tendency of other criteria to measure church vitality by how well we imitate "successful" organizations.


I agree that yes, there are many factors going into what defines faithfulness, but Hebrews 10:25 "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another...". Corporate worship is vital to the life of a congregation. Saying it doesn't matter is one more lowered expectation.

Church Vitality & Congregational Involvement

What constitutes a 'vital' church?
That question is almost as tough as 'am I saved. I'm not sure that all the benchmarks in the world could provide a definitive answer to either question. The same is true with this issue of Church vitality. Many of the comments given by other readers are definitely a part of the problem. However, I noticed that no one has commented on the 'performance of the Church pastor'. Some might call me cynical, but I believe that many churches fail because they have a failure as a pastor. I've only been a member of the United Methodist Church for 7 years, but I've got a Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic upbringing. So I am not unfamiliar with pastoral leadership. And one thing I've noticed a lot in our UMC's is that the pastors are becoming more and more 'ego focused' or 'micro-managers' to the extent some churches take on a 'we' and 'them' attitude. This, my friends, is a 'church killer.' I think one commentor, 'Halatbis' had it right! It's teamwork or it won't work. And, I feel these vitality targets we speak of are everybody's responsibility. We have to 'all' be 'servants.' No just some of us as the servants lead by 'a self appointed monarch.'

church vitality

I left the UMC church four years ago after watching worship attendance at our local church drop from 150 to 30 due to the conference being more intetested in the conference than the Gospel.

I've been writing about this

I've been writing about this trend on our small church website for a couple of years. I'm glad the experts are validating what our congregation noticed long ago!

The measures that regional bodies use to validate congregational mission are outdated. People in and out of the building mean something — but not what it used to mean. Geography (proximity to neighborhood) means nothing. The church is going to discover that people will support mission but they will be far less inclined to support traditional church structure when they see dollars better spent in other ways. Most nonprofits have been dealing with this for years. The Church was protected by loyalty. Loyalty has been squandered — by scandal in some cases and by ineffectiveness in others.

The staff needed in today’s churches are creative communicators—but regional bodies are likely to insist all resources be first spent on traditional clergy preparing 20-minute weekly sermons to deliver to 50 people. They are supporting the appearance of "church" as they know it—not mission.

Our small church ministry (which our regional body thinks they closed six years ago) has ten times the subscribers to our 2x2virtualchurch website as we have church members. We reach more weekly readers than the average attendance of the largest regional churches. We have no paid staff.

How does that translate to mission? We are finding new ways all the time. We help a Christian orphanage in Pakistan, communicate regularly with small church communities in Africa, and share resources in America and the world. We are hampered in our local ministry by our regional body's claim on our property and assets, but we manage.

A new world of possibilities is open to the Church, but (as Apple says) we have to Think Different—way different.

Measuring the health of congregations

Thank-you for the article; it touches on a challenge that I, as a new pastor, in an older, smaller congregation, am attempting to deal with.

One of the models that I use to measure comes from the work of Natural Church Development - where the premise is that healthy things grow! Over time increases are expected; however because of the changing ways that people now engage in church (whether we want it or not)we no longer know how long many things will take to show signs of growth and health. Metaphorically - as church leaders we are planting new and different seeds - that may or may not grow ... and we are not sure how long it will take them to sprout, grow and bear fruit!

What's the core question?

It seems to me that we need some sort of relatively clear basic understanding of the sort of difference we seek to make in the lives of people, to structure our programs in accordance with those goals (taking into account cultural patterns but not necessarily totally adjusting our practices to fit them at points at which adjusting practices would effectively mean surrendering the goal).
This whole article seems to be about institutional success. The question, "What practices lead to spiritual growth?" is the key kernel question.

RIP Average Attendance

As a head-hunter/head-counter myself, I was surprised to read what R.W. Emerson said about numbers:

"Let man [sic] then learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely; that the Highest dwells with him; that the sources of nature are in his own mind, if the sentiment of duty is there. But if he would know what the great God speaketh, he must “go into his closet and shut the door,’” as Jesus said. God will not make himself manifest to cowards. He must greatly listen to himself, withdrawing himself from all the accents of other men’s devotion. Their prayers even are hurtful to him, until he have made his own. Our religion vulgarly stands on numbers of believers. Whenever the appeal is made, - no matter how indirectly, - to numbers, proclamation is then and there made that religion is not. He that finds God a sweet enveloping thought to him never counts his company. When I sit in that presence, who shall dare to come in? When I rest in perfect humility, when I burn with pure love, what can Calvin or Swedenborg say? It makes no difference whether the appeal is to numbers or to one."

Tis a slippery slope

It is easy to agree that average weekly attendance is not a measure of congregational vitality. Just looking at our own lives will confirm that: there were times when we were nominal Christians at best and times when we were "on fire for the Lord." In both cases, however, we could have been attending or not attending our local church. The problem we face with NOT being overly concerned about attendance is that it gives us a nice excuse for not going after those who no longer participate as they used to. The content of worship is more important than mere numbers, but worrying about "quality" and not "quantity" can easily result in a church of the faithful but very few.

Don't just count differently; DO differently

What I hear in this insight about our need for new ways to measure engagement is the greater need, for us to create new methods and avenues of engagement. More ways of learning and connecting online, more public classes on spiritual practices, more book/gift stores and coffee shops on campus. In other words, maybe we should start thinking of church as a Resource Center, providing outward, rather than a worship center, bringing in.

"Developing curricula and activities"

The "developing curricula" phrase caught my attention since we at LifeCrossings have made available curricula developed at a small individual congregation (Gethsemane Lutheran, Columbus, OH). What is needed in the evolving church environment is centralized places that evaluate and publicize the curricula and activities that individual congregations develop. Some of these are not transferable to other congregations, but many are.

RIP Average Attendance

Concur with the article and conclusions. Other interesting data not normally collected and shared might include number of external groups who regularly use the church space for meetings; number and amount of designated donations to clergy discretionary funds; numbers of individuals participating in special events (bible studies, newcomer meetings, special book study series), etc.

New Measures

The synagogue world is also facing these same issues. While our economics have long been determined by more than worship attendance, it's been considered a proxy for the health of a congregation. The San Francisco Jewish Community Federation's Synagogue Federation Partnership is in the process of working with 10 congregations to understand how they can start to use new measures. Please see my article at:


What measures are meaningful?

I enjoyed the article, and the concept of the "virtuous cycle" (read that article as well), and it seems to me that the crucial question posed by this author is, "Is what we have been measuring an valid and reliable measure of the health of a congregation?" Having been an Episcopal parish priest for 20 years, and now a clinical psychologist for 15, I can appreciate the importance of this question. It seems to me that challenge is to find out, for any particular congregation, which set of measures (and there should definitely be more than one) should be chosen to comprise a "Balanced Scorecard" (this concept is borrowed from the Harvard Business Review in the '90's) - this is a very useful tool for any organization to get a quick tracking tool to see how they are doing: growing, stagnating, shrinking, living up to our stated mission and purpose or getting sidetracked, etc.? I have been involved in creating such "Scorecards" for different mental health organizations, but it seems to me it applies equally to the local congregation, which is simply a local non-profit corporation, and should be managed as such if it is to thrive, let alone survive.

reading Sermons Online as participation

I recently changed churches, and have not yet started posting my sermons online. By the time I left my last church, after five years, I had more than twice as many 'hits' weekly on my sermon postings than people in worship on Sunday mornings. Most were not local. Some were halfway across the globe, and regular readers. One commented that s/he would pay for the 'blog posts' (my sermons!) if given an online button for doing so. I couldn't get the Church Council to decide to do that! Your post reminds me to get those sermons up from this new church site pronto, reconnect somehow with the old readers, and put a pay pal button on the site.


Friends...Yes, though this "vitality" discussion capitalizes upon numbers as a measure - can we also talk about lifelong learning goals that invite folks into a holistic approach to faith formation? That plus radial hospitality. There is so much more we ought to consider.


I find the lack of emphasis on Christ in both the article and the comments to be disturbing and telling. The issue is are we honoring and glorifying God. We have been called to faithfulness not success.

Avg attendance

We can't, nor should we, quantify spirituality. Period.

Virtuous Circles

Wesley was a genius who focused on developing various Virtuous Circles of Growt and Change with his methods. He preached Christ and the people shared Christ. He preached the Holy Spirit and people shared the Holy Spirit. He taught accountability and the people practiced it in small groups with mutual confession. He taught change and the people changed and prospered. Poverty was reduced dramatically. It was a Life Spiral that replaced the Death Spirals of sin.

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