When we look at the meaning of a frequent church attendee today, most people will say if you go once or more in a month’s time – you are a ‘frequent’ attendee. Do you believe asking the same question across all age groups would yield the same answer? Probably not. Most people in their 50’s or older will remember when church attendance was an obligation and it was done every week, if not more.
When a question’s meaning changes over time, how does it change the respective survey data during the same time? If in the 70’s church attendance meant once a week, but in 2015 it means once a month, what does that tell us? Are people growing less interested in their obligations? Are they becoming unchurched? Is membership declining? Has their life focused changed to other priorities — ie kid activities, longer work hours, and so on?
Let’s use an example to illustrate how the meaning of attendance can change the perspective lens in which we view data. A church has 300 members on average that come every week. What happens if 50% of those people miss just one week in a month? The church leadership would see a drop of 12.5%. Here’s the math:
Average weekly attendance before the drop is 300 per week with a 4 week month as our baseline. (total 1200)
Average weekly attendance after the drop of 50% for one of the weeks. (total 1050)
- 1050 attendees / 4 weeks = the new average of 262.50 members per week.
- What’s the percentage drop?
- Take 300 – 262.50 = 37.5,
- Then divide 37.5 / 300 = .125,
- Then multiply .125 by 100 → which equals 12.5% decrease.
With a 12.5% decrease in attendance, can we say that the members left the church or less active? Probably not as no one left the church. They are still coming but changed their attending behavior. Does the church leadership realize when a family’s attendance pattern changes to 3 times a month, instead of 4? Probably not. The family was still at the church for 3 Sundays. After all they are coming about 40 weeks per year instead of 52. Most people would argue they are really active. However the drop from 52 to 40 weeks, represents a 12% drop in attendance and can happen rather quickly. Would 40 weeks per year represent a frequent attendee in the 70’s or before?
How does online sermons or small group attendance make the above more complex to measure?
Would you count the people that attend your online worship with your church attendance numbers? If so, is it being tracked so you know those numbers and recorded them in your church software?
Does small group attendance play a factor in Sunday attendance? It’s possible to have low Sunday attendance for members, but have a very engaging small group attendance throughout the week with members and visitors, alike. Does small group attendance and Sunday attendance intertwined or have inverse effect on each other? For example, is it possible that small group attenders say I won’t go this Sunday because I already went on Wednesday to my small group. In their head they checked off going to church by using the Wednesday small group meeting in place of the Sunday meeting. However, the church is only measuring Sunday attendance, therefore the measurement is inaccurate.
In summary, human nature is funny in on how we give ourselves check-marks for things we did. 🙂 The church has to understand their congregants very well as individuals as well as a whole. The only way to do this is to have deep discussions with them and empathize and understand why their attendance behavior changed. The best processes to accomplish this will rely on the church’s resources as the pastor couldn’t possible get to know every one in a 300 member church, at a deep level. Mature members need to come along side the pastor and help in this endeavor. As mature members get to know individuals they may find a single parent that simply can’t get off work on Sunday and why they go to the Wednesday small group, or maybe it’s an illness so they watch the sermon online, and so on. These types of dilemmas just don’t come up on reports that church leadership review regularly.