One of the Biggest Reasons Why Churches Decline

Sam Rainer

November 5, 2009

My wife and I are in San Diego this week at the National Outreach Convention. It’s been a great convention thus far. I had the opportunity to lead a discussion group this morning …at 7:15AM! I think most of the attendees were on central or eastern time :). A person in our group asked a great question: How do you define and assess church health? We spent the next hour discussing this issue, but let me share with you one point of our discussion that is perhaps one of the most neglected church health metrics: attendance frequency.

Most churches track how many people attend, but few churches know how often people are coming. People do not simply quit church one week; they phase out. They begin by attending less frequently. This issue is one of the biggest reasons why churches decline. Understandably, a plethora of spiritual reasons exist why people attend less frequently, but many churches do not even realize that people are gradually leaving the church by attending less often.

Let me share with you a basic exercise:

Church A has 400 people that come 4 out of 4 weeks (yes, I know that’s a pipe dream, but hang with me for the sake of argument). This attendance frequency means that the church averages 400 in attendance.

Church B has 400 people that come 3 out of 4 weeks (not too bad). But this attendance frequency means that the church averages 300 in attendance.

Church C has 400 people that come on average 2 out of 4 weeks (probably more realistic). They average 200 in attendance.

I’m sure that you get the point by now. Each church has 400 people that are part of the flock, but the average attendance at Church C is much less than Church A. As attendance frequency drops, the churches have drastically smaller averages, without “losing” anyone.

I am not advocating legalism – a haughty attitude that every time the church doors are open everyone must be there. But the family that once attended almost every week and now attends ten times a year is gradually leaving the church.

Attendance frequency. It’s not the most important church health metric, but it’s one that is neglected. And it’s one of the biggest reasons that churches are declining.

I also noticed that my Dad posted on this exact same topic over at his blog. I guess I am my father’s son. It won’t be long before I’ll be singing cheesy 60s songs and telling corny jokes…

11 comments on “One of the Biggest Reasons Why Churches Decline”

  1. @Marksnet says:

    There is a subject within these statistics not addressed. As in “why” the Causality of why these people fade away? This is where you will find Church assembly grow and not decline. It will not be done when your people are allowed to “fade” away. When someone leaves Church attendance and it goes unnoticed by Pastor’s and congregation not going to these people face to face and letting them know they are missed their decision is often confirmed! I might add that many Christians that leave are not lukewarm rather they are not being fed and I am not sure why?

    I have heard so many Christians say I left and when I did no one called so we have to find somewhere that loves us and makes us feel needed.

    Why is it that Baptist have the largest conversion rate to Mormonism? It is because they are made to “feel” needed and family is sacred in this institution.

    I say this in hopes to improve Christianity not the Baptist Doctrine! Love to all! Follow Christ with Passion and Strength!

  2. TOM SPANGLER says:

    My wife and I are empty nester’s and a year ago we left our SBC church of after 24 years. ( reason’s were many – 2 church splits, Pastor leaving,legalism, church leadership off focus, and lack of love and concern for for both youth and hurting seniors).

    God put us on a journey for almost a year to help us realize how “visitors” (churched and unchurched) feel and are treated when they come into our supposingly lighthouses to our community for the loss, hurting and unloved. From this we have come to the conclusion we believers (that includes us) are not anywhere close to being “like Jesus” to the people that may desire to come to worship and find a savior.

    In our small community we visited (Sunday School, morning worship, evening worship, Wed worship)filled out the “we want a visit card” ) of 6 churches. We had 2 follow-up visits and a jar of honey with the church welcome card sitting on our porch 2 weeks after our visits. We had one pastor tell us “good luck’ on our search for a new church home. Another pastor (very young) did not want to know any of our history. I must sadly say for the most part we church people are not friendly caring people to both our fellow believers or to the unchurched.

    No doubt after 24 years at our former church we DID respond the same way as we were treated. I am pleased to say today we are part of a smaller church family that has a burning desire to touch and love on the unloved and seek out the unchurched. God puts us where he wants us and at the same time changes us for HIS work and our ministry.

    One of the main reason for church decline is uncaring and unloving attitudes by believers to believers and the unchurch.

    Praise and Glory to God.

    Tom & Penny Spangler

  3. worshipcity says:

    I think the hard thing to look at though is that while you have some people fading out, you have some people checking the church out and visiting. So it could look like for a while your attendance is staying the same however you’re losing current church members while others are experiencing it for the first time.
    Church attendance is a quirky phenomenon that is only handled by personal attention. I’d assume you’d have to track both: those coming and leaving.

  4. As a pastor I have seen what has been described. I don’t feel it is intentional but I wonder if this topic could be looked at to one dementional. I have been at this church for aproximatley one and one half years. In this time we have seen baptism and salvation numbers that equal the last thirteen years combined. We here at College Heights give God great praise for this but I am noticing something that is troubling. The ageing part of the congregaion has declined in health drasticlly. Within a six month passage of time almost one third of the church has fallen to various illness. To top this off there are several families that have fallen into danger of breaking apart, some of these are leaders! Because of the mix of God’s blessings with the recent challanges I thought the church would want to step up and increase its time with prayer and spiritual growth. Instead it seems that many seem to be growing apathetic and weary of the physical challanges that have been coming our way. I struggle with what to do as a pastor for my flock. I know that I must keep loving on them unconditionally, that isn’t an option. Nevertheless it is diffucult knowing if you are making a differance or have the people become so battle worn that they want to do nothing but give up.. Keep praying for my people and this church. I believe that God has incredible things instore for us but we must contunue running the race not forgetting the prize that lies ahead of us.

    Pastor Wil Etherton
    College Heights Baptist Church
    Alamosa, Co.

  5. Jack Wesley says:

    Attendance is a an important figure, but not the only figure. The unspoken non-statistic that is a possible answer to declining churches: people in general do not want to go to any church. Church for many is something that is now passe. Phrases that come to mind from interviewing those who are not interested in church, including some who briefly looked at church participation: boring, irrelevant, legalistic, have nothing I/we are looking for.

    So called “contemporary worship” congregations–the ones with the good rock bands, light shows, high-end sound systems, etc.–may capture a number of younger adults. But down the road may appear to be flashes in the pan–all about Christian “pep-rallies” with little ministry and mission beyond “worship.”

    People would rather do other things on Sunday, or any other day of the week, than go to church. Church is still trying to operate in its institutional identities and with structures that no longer are working. It is like trying to sell a model of car that has not added anything new or any of the latest safety features for over a generation. It does not sell. Neither does the church.

    Perhaps it is time to re-examine first century realities–before the institutions, before the big physical plants, before the multi-million dollar church agencies, offices for whatever, etc. Followers of Jesus were in smaller groups, more involved, and more creative. There were many conflicts, but more energy. If I had a choice, I would go with energy, creativity, and a more day to day love of neighbor–even if there is some loss of central authority a la church hierarchies, and therefore more possible conflict.

    Maybe then we would then once again be known “by our love.”

    1. In my Sunday school class on of the issues we are discussing is
      What hinders church growth.
      Reasons are numerous:

      1. Lack of desire to surrender unto God.

      2. We do not have time for God anymore.
      Our services are dictated by the clock. I wonder what would happen if we quit watching our clocks and agendas and started watching for God to move?

      3. People being in leadership and not accepting the responsibility of it. ie. Look at your services how many of the leaders of the church are really supporting all services and sunday school. I wonder how many Preachers have the boldness to lovingly address the leadership of the church in all areas?

      4. Unlike the early church how much time do we spend with one-another? If we know one another we build trust, understanding, and accountability. Then we can more effectively work together for the kingdom of God.
      I am sorry but I don’t have time for you says you are not important to me.

      5. We offer nothing different than the rest of the world.
      What we have is Jesus and Gods Love and we are not good at sharing either.
      Are people really sharing salvation thru Jesus?

      6. How many false doctrines are being preached in churches because people aren’t really listening to the messages or do not know what scripture says?
      I wonder if God will move in these churches?

      7. Prayer is one of our offensive and defensive weapons yet very little corporate prayer is happening and most of that is for the sick very little about our lost loved ones or for someone we shared Jesus with.
      How much individual prayer is really happening?

      8. Lack of corporate outreaches.
      It is easy to tell people to minister but people need someone to lead in that direction.

      9.What do we do to turn the tide?
      It must begin with me.

      10. It is easy to say to much legalism what about
      to liberal of teaching? It seems we suffer from this more than the other. Disquised as lack of commitment

      11. Lack of follow up on visitors.
      What a great ministry outreach for someone in the body.

      12. No sharing of what God is doing in peoples lives.
      We might be considered bragging if we say God used me.

      13. We of the church have to see that we also have a need for God in our lives.

      14. Lack of true Love for the Bretheren.

      John 13:35
      By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

  6. M says:

    My personal experience, as well as a possible reason for the decline in both the US and Europe, is that I grew tired of “faith” being a requirement for “salvation” that is supposed to be experienced sometime in the “future”. In my opinion, faith is just a series of beliefs (which cannot be proven to be true – therefore equate to fantasy), about how we think reality is or has been in the past or future. Beliefs rarely have anything to do with what is happening right now. Beliefs also don’t have any relation to actual reality itself – that’s why beliefs (and requirements) are always changing and also why we have an inane amount of various beliefs all over this globe.

    For me it I didn’t just decide to sleep in one Sunday morning and start questioning assumptions. I grew tired of the same old routine over and over and over and over…. I grew tired of hearing I’m supposed to ask for forgiveness, and then, because of free will and love for God, I’m not supposed to sin (as much) anymore. Then when I sinned, there was the guilt, and then the forgiveness and communion rituals would start all over again the next week. Rinse, repeat. I eventually stopped going altogether, but still wasn’t sure what I was doing. I ran across Advaita and Zen, along with some philosophy and psychology, which took me in a new direction: questioning existing beliefs.

    The more time I spent questioning beliefs, the happier I became. I don’t believe I’m a sinner, nor that I “need” salvation”. I wasn’t happy in the church, but I am much happier now. I have literally spent months at a time targeting my remaining beliefs, questioning them and eliminating them – very much to my satisfaction and contentment.

    One thing I keep reading, over and over, is that the authors of articles like this one, and the church members and posters (like npscas) keep saying that they church needs to do something different in order to bring the “unchurched” back into the fold. But that’s what you don’t get. All people, like myself, are changing, which means the church is changing, which means you can’t continue like this. You can’t just try harder and make it all work out OK. You can’t stop it from happening. The church is dying, because beliefs just don’t hold up anymore, and we don’t want to come back to that.

    An exchange like this would probably be much better in a sincere discussion forum, since the range of information and experiences are likely extremely varied, but I thought I would chime in. I don’t see any point in you or anyone else beating themselves up over something that (a) they can’t change (b) can’t be proven to be true to begin with.

    I hope this helps.

    PS. My father and brother in law are both very nice Lutheran ministers. I’ve said these same things to them.

  7. pastor augustine says:

    the back door. by this i mean we dont take care of the people brought our way the church is overtaking by other activitities not mind ing the people we arwe doing the activitiea for.
    it is high for the church for to starting doing what it take keep by Love what God Gave us through His love.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *