Those Erratic Church Attendances: What’s Going On?

No, it’s not just happening at your place. Wherever you look attendances at morning worship services are in a state of high fluctuation. While it may vary from church to church, the best guess is that up to one third of a congregation may be missing from your average Sunday service. The reasons for this phenomenon are varied and probably not too well understood. The explanation that “people are not as committed these days” may hold up in some situations but there is much more to the plot. The upshot though is that pastors are battling to maintain not only continuity in teaching, preaching and pastoral care but are also finding great difficulty in nurturing genuine fellowship in circumstances which are often disruptive to congregational life.

Without guaranteeing to be comprehensive here are some suggestions:

  • The work place has become much more demanding. Anybody holding down a job, even with minimum responsibility, will be working hard and for long hours. The weekend is an obvious opportunity to recharge and Sunday will most likely be the preferred day.
  • Also, employment is no longer a largely Monday to Friday enterprise. Trading hours means that the working week is just that: shifts may fall any time in a given 24 hour period any day of the week (and not just in retailing).
  • The pressures on adults are being felt by younger people too. The competition for tertiary places and the realities of surviving course work be it secondary or tertiary are immense. It is all the more difficult for those students who are trying to finance their way through their study programme or who are having to live away from home for study purposes.
  • Sunday is no longer the holy day it used to be. The inroads into Sunday are just about complete. Sunday trading, sport, markets and entertainment generally have all changed the flavour of what used to be a quiet day. There is no point bemoaning the secularisation of Sunday. There are bound to be clashes of all sorts in a vastly more complicated and distracted world.
  • There are factors in the congregation too. There is often a perceived lack of connection between one Sunday and the next. Pastors who pursue preaching themes over a period of weeks help to build links between worship experiences. This becomes difficult where a pastoral team may share the preaching although there is no reason why the thematic or similar approach cannot be followed.
  • The community life of the church may be weak. Attendance of itself at a worship service can be a lonely undertaking. Churches which have opted for the after service cuppa recognise the natural desire for a casual yarn and the community building potential of this. It is also a great opportunity for the pastor to “hang around.” Post service deacons’ meetings which isolate the leadership from the church are self-defeating and demonstrate a lack of appreciation for being with the congregation informally. .
  • There is no doubt that the consumer society has clearly invaded church life. People worship where they feel at home and where they see their own and their family’s needs being best met. There is not necessarily a highly developed concept of contributing to the life of the church to go with this. These motivations are easy to grasp and to fail to be sensitive to them is to miss the needs which individuals and families are facing. It does mean that the larger congregation is often better placed to meet such needs and this has profound and discouraging implications for the smaller church. The extreme consequence of this is the spiritual tourism which occurs regularly, the “shopping around” syndrome. People drop in and out with alarming ease.
  • If a church is marred by long running tension, erratic attendances are a certainty. People simply tire of politics and usually quit quietly. Unresolved conflict is a nasty disincentive and few want to stay, let alone worship, in an environment which is felt to be hostile or unsettling. This occurs frequently where the leadership is seen to be dictatorial. The truth is that acceptance and friendship without the bickering can be found in other places.
  • Attendance at worship services alone will not be sufficient glue to generate commitment. While it is not a rock-solid principle, there is a likelihood of real involvement if each person has some way of expressing their faith meaningfully within and through the church community. This may be through participation in a small group, or the exercise of some ministry in association with others. Church, like any other corporate activity, can become a spectator sport.
  • Some churches are simply out of touch. Services are unimaginative, dull and utterly predictable. Erratic attendances and the constant movement of people in and out of the church does not ring a bell for anybody in the leadership. This is not always the pastor’s fault either. Resistance to innovation, little or no opportunity for participation and a lack of life and warmth will cool off the keenest of us.
  • Too many churches lack an effective process for following up newcomers. There is no point being overly critical of new faces who fail to show the next Sunday. Was any friendly contact made with them immediately after the service? If there is a visitors’ book, were their details filled in? (There are numerous visitors’ books which are notable for their non-use.) A little more system in follow up will almost always yield a positive outcome of some sort like securing names and mobile numbers.
  • There is also the issue of the lonely Christian. There is a battalion of people who have a deep faith which is not shared by their families. How many husbands or wives are there in your church who have a partner who does not endorse their commitment to Christ? This may range from genuine sympathy to outright hostility. Depending on the circumstances, attendances may be anything but continuous. This may also be true for young adults in the same situation.
  • There is no sense of the “otherness” of God in worship. Now this is a slightly tricky one since it touches the very heart of our spirituality (and different people respond in very different ways). A service may be wonderfully orchestrated, run smoothly, have great music, a marvellous sermon and still lack meaning for some people.
  • There is a thin line between entertainment and worship and its location varies from one person to the next. The real test is simply: has there been an encounter with the living God? It is all too easy to offer stones for bread without realising it. People will be faithful in their attendance if there is a real expectation of meeting with God and being touched by His Presence. A well-staged “show” will be just that: a good show.
  • Dramatic changes to worship patterns will almost always produce erratic attendances. Most people are philosophical about change and accept that there is a place for it in the church as in any other aspect of life. The problem is the speed of change and the rather amateurish and insensitive way in which it is too often implemented. Enthusiasm for new ways too often leads to unnecessary haste with people often being given little or no opportunity to understand the purpose of the changes and to own these. This is a serious oversight. True, some folks are just plain unco-operative when faced with change. But there are many others who will catch the spirit of new ways if approached and involved in a caring and thoughtful manner.
  • Churches with team ministries face some special problems. Unfortunately, tensions can and do arise in the way in which preaching opportunities are shared. In some congregations it is eminently clear as to who is primarily responsible for the preaching (usually the Senior Pastor). In others there is an amazing lack of clarity with some serious jockeying occurring for access to the pulpit. This is not especially edifying for anybody. Worse, people begin to determine their attendance based upon the preacher for the day. Erratic attendances are inevitable in these situations.
  • Another troubling aspect of erratic attendances is the impact on offerings. While there are some who are totally committed financially to the church, many are not. An absence one week does not necessarily see a double offering the next. This has introduced a haphazard dimension to stewardship which is clearly less than the best. The fact that some churches fall flat on their faces financially during the summer break with no subsequent catch up is a clear signal of this lack of discipline in giving. The obvious solution is direct depositing for the conscientious supporters.

Given all of the above, there is a need then to ponder how best to respond. There are, of course, no fixed, sure-fire solutions. But there are some possibilities worth investigating:

  • Let’s think again about what each day may hold! There is no purpose in longing for the good old days when Sunday was the day for “church.” Every day is a holy day and a gift from God.
  • Let’s hold to the idea of Sabbath rest. And this is sound common sense for all of us. But radically changed working patterns and the impact of a secular culture call for innovation and creative thinking.
  • Sunday will still be the day for most people to worship. But it is now time to conduct services on other days and at other times. We need to offer options for those for whom Sunday is genuinely difficult. Some churches have already started down this track and have unwittingly attracted people who would not feel comfortable fronting up on Sunday (for all sorts of reasons). There is also an easy informality which is ideal for many.
  • Let’s give very careful attention to nurturing the community life of the church. This is the issue in numerous churches. It is surprising (or is it?) how rarely this surfaces on the agenda of leadership meetings.
  • Let’s enrich the creative enriching of our community life. This will help to defuse conflict, reduce misunderstanding and heal some of those long-standing hurts. It may help to lessen the need for the political game playing which is the ruination of too many churches.
  • But Christian community is much more. It is not just worshipping with others, or knowing their names, or where they live. Community is about grace not gossip, understanding not undermining, acceptance not aggression.
  • It is the stamp of the Spirit’s Presence. It is not the product of some new-fangled programme. Christian community springs from grace, not the exercise of enhanced inter- personal skills (helpful as these may be). Without prayer, confession and trust, Christian community is impossible.

It is also time to consider what worship is all about:

  • We are too often obsessed. With want we want to get out of a service without giving much thought to what we bring to the act of worship.
  • Raw obsession leads us down the path of entertainment. There is yet more homework to be done on the way in which we give ourselves to God corporately in sincere humility recognising our dependence upon Him.
  • The pastoral role here is profound and beyond price. The enormous privilege of leading our people in renewed dedication to the God of Abraham and Isaac, of Peter and Paul is not to be taken lightly.
  • It is much more than planning the service. It is not just choosing the hymns, songs and choruses, selecting some readings and preaching a good sermon. Our people have an amazing capacity (well beyond basic logic) to sense when there is a real God being approached by real people in need of real grace. Anything less will leave then empty and unsatisfied.

Be wise in establishing expectations regarding the use of time….

  • Pastors can be woefully insensitive to the demands made upon their lay leaders.

Deacons’ meetings which nudge midnight are no fun for those who have to be on the train, on the road, at the dairy, or at the airport by 7.00 or earlier the next morning.

  • Most pastors can catch their breath. After a marathon meeting the pastor can engage low gear calmly forgetting that their leaders cannot.
  • One also has to wonder about those Saturday morning breakfasts for prayer and planning. Not only do we do a good job keeping people out at night, we then rob them of a slow start on what may be the only morning available to them.
  • Such demands not only wear good people out. They also place enormous stresses on families and couples in particular. Some pastors have still not worked out why their gifted lay people are sometimes missing on Sunday morning and why they shy away from leadership in the church!

Encourage your leadership to reflect on each experience of worship….

  • Regular review and evaluation should be a normal and ongoing aspect of the leadership role. Where there are rough edges, these should be identified and addressed.
  • Feedback from the congregation should be actively sought. There is much to be gained from listening to the ordinary people who so faithfully support the ministry of the church.They will soon tell you if your three quarters of a hour mid summer sermon in a hot, sticky, crowded church was a word from the Lord or not.

No doubt the issue of flawed commitment will continue to be paramount in wrestling with the problem of erratic attendances…..

  • There is a present danger. The danger is that the erratic attender will be held accountable for their unpredictable behaviour without the church engaging in ongoing evaluation of its life and health. When people start voting with their feet, there is a message and it is crucial that it be well understood.
  • Throwing blame around the place is comfortable but not very smart. Further, there have always been those who, like Demas,[1] have opted for the distractions rather than the main game.
  • This is a spiritual dis-ease and needs to be treated as such. Throwing brickbats, or getting uptight, or tearing out your hair are not very refined discipling strategies. It’s better to get alongside the half-committed person, win their confidence and dig in for the long haul. Even if you do not win right away, it is always worth a serious try.

So, don’t lose heart if you are being dogged with erratic attendances.  It is important, though, that you engage in some serious heart searching, listening, praying, responding and perhaps some thoughtful innovation. The tide is always there to be turned.

Rev John Simpson

[1] 2 Timothy 4:10