Few people will argue that church attendance in many churches in America is declining. Our own research indicates that the majority of churches in our country are not growing.
Most of us have our own ideas why attendance is declining. Many have suggested that our nation is shifting away from its Christian roots, and thus the churches are declining as a smaller proportion of our country are believers in Christ.
I certainly will not argue with that premise. Certainly attendance declines are related to massive cultural shifts in our nation. But I would also suggest that one reason for declines has a greater impact than others.
The Frequency Issue
Stated simply, the number one reason for the decline in church attendance is that members attend with less frequency than they did just a few years ago. Allow me to explain.
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.
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.
This phenomenon can take place rather quickly in an individual church. And leaders in the church are often left scratching their heads because the behavioral change is so slight, almost imperceptible. We really don't notice when someone who attends four times a month begins to attend only three times a month. Nor do we typically catch it when the twice-a-month attendee becomes a once-a-month attendee.
Five Possible Approaches to the Problem
Of course, the heart of the problem is not declining numbers but waning commitment. As I addressed in my book, I Am a Church Member, church membership is becoming less and less meaningful in many churches. As membership becomes less meaningful, commitment naturally wanes.
While I don't want to suggest there is a magic bullet to this problem, I do want to offer some approaches to address it. These five have proven to be the most helpful in hundreds of churches:
1. Raise the expectations of membership. You may be surprised how many church members don't really think it's that important to be an active part of the church. No one has ever told them differently.
2. Require an entry class for membership. By doing so, the church makes a statement that membership is meaningful. The class should also be used to state the expectations of what a committed member looks like.
3. Encourage ministry involvement. Many members become less frequent attendees because they have no ministry roles in the church. They do not feel like they are an integral part of the church.
4. Offer more options for worship times. Our culture is now a 24/7 population. Some members have to work during the times of worship services. If possible, give them options. One businessman recently told me that he changed congregations to a church that offered a Saturday worship time because his job required him to catch a plane on Sunday morning.
5. Monitor attendance of each member. This approach is often difficult, especially for worship attendance. That is why the traditional Sunday school approach of calling absentees was so effective. Perhaps churches can incorporate that approach in all groups. Members are less likely to be absent if they know someone misses them.
When Church Membership Becomes Meaningful
People want to be a part of something that makes a difference. They desire to be involved in something bigger than themselves.
Unfortunately, in many churches membership has become less and less meaningful. Until we get our churches back to the committed membership the Apostle Paul mandates in 1 Corinthians 12, we will continue to see declining attendance. But when membership becomes truly meaningful, our churches will become an unstoppable force for the Kingdom and glory of God.