3 Troubling Church Attendance Shifts to Know

How should planters navigate this new terrain?

3 Troubling Church Attendance Shifts to Know

In the last five to eight years a subtle but profound shift in church attendance behavior has begun to change the way ministry is done in North America.

The problem is some senior pastors don’t realize what has been happening, or at least have been taken off guard and haven’t fashioned a response yet.

I know because I’m still trying to find my bearings.

Here are three church attendance shifts you may not be aware of, or may not have fully processed:

1. The Most Committed People in Your Church Are Attending Less Regularly

This is something that has taken every senior pastor I know by surprise.

Essentially, if you took the top 20-30 percent of your people and did a little poll, you’d find that the vast majority of them have reduced their attendance by one Sunday a month. Some by one Sunday every other month. This is particularly true for suburban churches.

They’re still committed to your church. They’re still your top givers. They still lead the way in terms of serving.

It’s just that they’ve quietly, and with little fanfare, reduced the total number of times they are attending your Sunday service—from roughly 47-50 times a year to 38-42 times a year.

We noticed this happening at CCV starting in 2010.

Why is this happening?

It is the consensus of our staff that the biggest culprit is the specialization of youth sports and activities at younger and younger ages.

When I was a child I played baseball in the summer.

Now, children in our area start playing baseball year-round at age 8.

It’s the same with soccer, lacrosse, volleyball, band, karate and a whole host of extracurricular activities parents have their kids participate in. Most engage in multiple sports and activities. The lure of having your child play sports in college has increased the pressure parents feel to help their child get ahead by having them play on travel teams with paid coaches, trainers, speed and agility sessions, and competing against the best competition in the region.

In our area this can start as early as second grade.

Youth sports has generated an “Abraham sacrificing Isaac on top of Mount Moriah” type of situation. Who do parents love more—their children or God? Well, the jury has come back, and there is no question who parents love more.

As with most things in the church, they’ve voted with their feet.

2. The Faithful 50 Percent Have Been Affected by the Top 20 Percent Reducing Their Attendance

What happens when the most committed people in your church attend less frequently?

That’s easy: The people who follow their lead attend less frequently, serve less frequently and give less frequently. That’s because the rest of your congregation’s participation patterns rise and fall by the participation level of your top 20 percent of active members.

With the senior pastors I coach, I tell them that if the top 20 percent slides, so will the participation of those who follow them (whom I call “the faithful 50 percent” in every church).

It’s a domino effect.

The faithful 50 percent don’t see the top 20 percent as much on Sunday, in part because the faithful 50 percent are just as involved in their own kids’ activities, but also because the top 20 percent aren’t in church as much. Because of this the faithful 50 percent are naturally less apt to rub shoulders with the top 20 percent—the only ones besides staff who can envelope them into relational circles, serving and the various kinds of activities that keep people plugged in.

Think about it: If the most committed people in your church are walking your hallways less frequently, they’ll have fewer opportunities to connect with the rest of the congregation. Right?

This small shift has sent earthquake-like reverberations throughout most churches.

The problem is, despite research done by Pew Research and others, we won’t have any hard data on the decline of evangelical church attendance for at least another decade (simply because most polls and studies are based on extrapolation and inference), but by then it will be too late for many churches.

3. New Visitors Are Taking Longer to Become Active Members

Like the first two groups, unchurched non-Christians (the bottom 30 percent) end up attending less frequently, for the same reasons mentioned.

The problem this poses is that 15 years ago I could say with accuracy how long it took for a new person to fully adhere to a local congregation. Today I have no clue, and this scares me.

The issue is there are other factors, besides youth sports, that keep new people from attending frequently (which, as anyone knows, is the number one factor to being fully enveloped into the life of a congregation). The combination of the two (youth activities + their own natural apprehensiveness to join anything new) has become near lethal. This combination of the two has stopped many church’s growth curve dead in their tracks.

If a non-churched non-Christian doesn’t take the time to develop relationships with people within your church community, they’re done.

What scares me is this is failing to happen at an alarming rate.

Five Suggestions for Navigating This New Terrain:

Here are some suggestions for how to move forward…

1. Most senior pastors I know are used to expending a certain amount of vision-casting and financial energy to attract and keep new people. Whatever that is for you, double it. It’s taking at least twice the effort and attention to help our people reach their friends for Christ than it did 10 years ago. Simply put, whatever you’ve done in the past to envelop new people into your aggregate ministry group, it is no longer enough. I believe the day is over for things like “Friend Days” and other gimmicks that churches have used to drive attendance spikes.

2. Teach your people what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and how that relates to participation in the body. For almost everyone, especially those born after 1980, they’re literally clueless. They have to be taught. In the absence of a biblical worldview people will create their own.

3. Be a prophet. Point out the dangers of what is happening in our culture, and how if parents aren’t careful what they think is actually helping their kids will end up seriously hurting them. By all means share with them Dr. Louis Profeta’s timely article Your Kid and My Kid Are Not Playing in the Pros. I would also share with them my article Spit Out That Lotus Plant (thoughts on why going to church matters).

4. Make your weekend services excellent. Missional thinkers will tell you Sunday isn’t as important because of this cultural shift. Trust me, what happens in your corporate service has never been more vital. I would also add that putting your sermons and services online will help your people stay connected when they are gone on a Sunday. But doing so is a double-edged sword—it could just as easily become an excuse for people not to come (“I’ll catch the service online later”) as it is a useful tool to help new people connect before actually attending.

FYI—the number one thing people search for when they come to our website is the sermons. Go to moviechurch.com and notice where we put the sermon tab as a result—it used to be buried behind a couple different links. Once we noticed this trend from the stats from Google Analytics we quickly changed the location of the tab. I would encourage you to make this section of your website as prominent as possible.

5. Take responsibility for leading through this difficult period. Don’t throw your hands in the air and give up. Take the time to come up with a contextualized response that strikes hard and fast.

As I say all the time, you can do this.

If you are interested in learning more about the types of coaching I offer, you can do that here

This article originally appeared here.

Brian Jones
Brian Jones loves helping Christians live thoughtful, courageous lives. Brian is founding Senior Pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley, a church of 2,000+ amazing people in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Cincinnati Christian University (B.A.). He blogs at www.brianjones.com, but if you’re a Senior Pastor you might want to check out his website, Senior Pastor Central.