"For example, those who used to attend every Sunday in a month may now only attend three Sundays a month. Those who used to come two times a month, now come only once a month."
Measuring Church Health and Vitality
What is a healthy and vital church? Until recently, the answer to that question was generally answered with measurable data. For years church membership - the number of people on the rolls or books of an individual church - was the measure and focus of study. We’ve all read the reports of what was found: declining church membership, particularly in mainline denominations, and the vitality – not to mention the future – of our churches in question.
Late in the 20th century, those who study religion began to turn their attention from membership to Sunday attendance. Sunday attendance, or an average of a church’s Sunday attendance over a year, became a measure – or even the measure - of church health and vitality. But with this measure too, researches once again found a decline: people are attending church more infrequently.
Worship Attendance: The Frequency Factor
Is your church seeing a decline in Sunday worship attendance? Most churches record their Sunday attendance, so you may be seeing a dip in your data. Or you may notice lower attendance on a given Sunday just by looking around at how many people are – or aren’t – in the pews.
An important factor: the frequency of people’s attendance has a surprising effect on your overall data. Thom Ranier puts it this way:
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.
Who is it that is attending less frequently? When I first began studying this research, my assumption was that the least committed people were dropping away. And while this is true, what the data is now showing is that the most committed members are also attending less frequently. So, for example, those who used to attend every Sunday in a month may now only attend three Sundays a month. Those who used to come two times a month, now come only once a month.
Statistics vary by study, but researchers now say that only 18-20% of Americans attend a religious service in any given week. See this article from Churchleaders.com, and the research of Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler in “National Congregations Study” and “How Many Americans Attend Worship Each Week?” (Note that funerals and weddings are not included in the data.)
What about broader measures of church involvement? For example, church school enrollment, marriages, baptisms, confirmations, and burials? In a 2012 Episcopal Church research report Kirk Hadaway and Matthew Price studied broader measures of church vitality, particularly as it relates to a church’s “integration in the community and the possibility for future growth.” But these statistics are no more encouraging, with all showing a decline.
Causes of Attendance Decline
What is causing the drop in attendance? Certainly we are seeing less commitment to church and organized religion, but there are also cultural shifts. Several reasons are often cited:
1. People are too busy
This is often especially true for families with children, who may have multiple activities scheduled on Sundays. Look at what a 2012 Pew Research poll found: among religiously affiliated Americans who say that religion is at least somewhat important in their lives, but who attend worship services no more than a few times a year, 24% cite personal priorities – including 16% who say they are too busy – as reasons they do not attend more often. Another 24% mention practical difficulties, including work conflicts, health problems, or transportation difficulties.
2. Greater mobility
People travel more, especially for work, and have more choices for their leisure time. People also have more choices for socialization and networking.
3. Access to the church online and in non-traditional places
More people now worship – or are part of small groups – online, in homes, or even in coffee shops or pubs. You can stay connected through virtual classes, watching the worship service from your living room, or listening to it while at the gym.
4. Churches expect too little from their members.
People want to give their time and financial resources to an organization or cause where they feel like they make a difference, but increasingly they don’t think that this is the church.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Does data like that mentioned above matter anymore? Or with the rapid changes in our culture, is it just a piece of the picture, and are there other factors in determining church health and vitality? This is the first of two articles on church vitality. Today’s article focused on how vitality has been measured in the past, and the most cited causes for the changes we are seeing. The second article will look at other ways to talk about health and vitality, as we move into the future.
Until then, join the conversation. Are you seeing one or more of these attendance trends, but consider your church to be healthy and vibrant? How do you measure or define church vitality? If membership or attendance numbers aren’t the measure, what is? More importantly, how are you grateful to those who are in church, and how do you encourage their involvement and evangelism?
Carolyn Moomaw Chilton writes and blogs as a spiritual discipline and an invitation to conversation with others. You can follow her on Twitter @episcoevangel and Facebook as EpiscopalEvangelist. She is currently on staff at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia as the Assistant for Evangelism and Stewardship.
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