Faith Works 4-18-15
Questions about attendance at church
For many congregations, this is the last big push for church camp registrations this summer.
Yes, summer. It's coming. There may be another frost or even snow after the forsythia's yellow bloom, but summer is not just coming: for those planning summer events, it's already getting to be too late.
My congregation, up Mt. Vernon Rd., is deep in preparations for a July 19 visit from our wider church family to the Columbus Convention Center, as our denomination has an every-two-years meeting in our neck of the woods this time.
Your faith community may have picnics or outdoor worship or retreats in mind, and if you are doing them this summer, I'm guessing that menus are selected and speakers are booked and it's all set except for the registrations…and many of those have already passed the earlybird discount phase.
Registration for Vacation Bible Schools are already opening up, such as for Granville's Ecumenical VBS in June.
Planning ahead? We had a conversation in the church office about Advent and Christmas the other day; even 2016 is starting to press in on our collective consciousness.
It's a dilemma that families and individuals have higher expectations for calendar and coordination than they did not long ago, when it comes to church life. But at the same time, assumptions about regular church attendance have been shifting away from consistency for some time.
By some measures, church attendance is down across America in the last decade or so, by a significant amount. But that may not quite mean what it appears.
A couple of years ago, the church leadership consultant Thom Rainer said this: "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."
Rainer concludes: "Did you catch that? No members 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."
I look back over our congregation's life and statistics, and I'm pretty sure I see this here. We have about the same number of weddings, funerals, baptisms, activities and such, but the Sunday worship average is 25% lower than it was 25 years ago.
Pastorally, I hear often about the pressures of our 24/7 world on families; so many jobs are now rolling schedules, travel is an element for people who a quarter-century ago would never leave the county unless it was on vacation, and now it's built into the job description. Yes, youth sports on Sunday mornings still make me grind my molars, but that's not a core factor from where I perch, looking out over our attendance trends.
What's also changed: we have two services on Sunday now, when there was one (and yes, more people packed into it). Our Wednesday study incorporates elements of worship where that didn't used to be a priority in my mind; now I see that as an extra worship option for people who can't make it Sunday morning . . . and we keep talking about Sunday evenings, for something.
That Rainer line "if one-half of those members miss only one out of four weeks…" you see a 12% drop in attendance average – it sticks with me. Is this something we should push back against? If so, in what ways? Or do we adapt away from the "if you love the Lord, you will always be here Sunday morning without fail" model? Is that really the only true index of faithfulness?
This is a conversation, not a prelude to a prescription. I look forward to your thoughts on this subject.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Newark; tell him about your perfect attendance pins at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.