What’s happening to service attendance?

By John Sweetman

The attendance issue

I was retreating with a group of senior pastors recently when the subject of attendance at Sunday services came up. The general consensus among these pastors was that ‘committed’ Christians come to church about once every second Sunday. This is not only true in large churches. Most pastors I speak to bemoan the fact that Christians are attending services less often. It would appear that this is a growing trend across the board that has considerable impact on churches and their ministries.

When I commenced as a pastor in the late 1970s, most committed Christians would attend both morning and evening services and the average member would attend every week unless circumstances prevented it. The morning service was the flagship of the church and gave a good indication of the size and makeup of the church.

On Sunday morning, Christians would worship God, absorb (hopefully) the preaching and teaching, catch up with what was happening in the church, spend time with their church friends, and build relationships with new people.

There was always a group of about 30% who attended irregularly. They would receive a pastoral contact and maybe come for a few weeks before dropping back to sporadic attendance. But the majority of members could be counted on to be at the Sunday service unless prevented by circumstances. Times have changed.

What’s driving this trend?

The reasons behind this trend vary from person to person. Here are some factors I can think of. I’m sure you can add others.

  • Many Christians are very busy during the week. They have no down time. Sunday provides the only chance for them to get away or spend time with family (or even catch up with chores). They feel that they need to use some Sabbaths to relax, refresh and invest in their family and house.
  • Many Christians have growing commitments on Sunday. For example, children’s sport is moving more to Sunday to avoid the commitment clashes on Saturday. Others have work or family commitments.
  • Some Christians don’t feel that church services are a priority for them. Perhaps they are learning from podcasts or the books they read. Perhaps they feel that their time is better used with non-Christians. Perhaps they are more committed to their small group. Perhaps they feel that they get little out of services and grow better in other ways. Perhaps they are serving God in other places. Whatever the reason, regular Sunday attendance is not high on their priority list.
  • Some Christians have partners or children who are reluctant or unwilling to attend services.
  • Some Christians are consumers. If the church service is not meeting their need, they will not attend regularly.
  • Some Christians are lazy. They are not committed to any spiritual disciplines, including service attendance. Regular attendance requires too much effort for them.
  • Some Christians are rebellious. They refuse to allow Jesus to be Lord of their lives. They make their own calls. They’ll only attend church when they choose.

Different church reactions

Free-Photos / Pixabay

1- Emphasise the biblical basis.

Churches that take this approach believe that service attendance is a Christian responsibility. They quote Hebrews 10:25, which says that Christians must not drop off assembling together (as some are prone to do) but need to be encouraging each other. They point out that Jesus regularly attended the synagogue. They say that there is no substitute for the preaching, corporate worship and teaching of children that occurs in a Sunday service. Attendance is not a matter of personal choice; it is God’s expectation of his people for very good reasons and must not be compromised by the pressures of the world.

Such churches speak regularly about this commitment. They will often put church attendance in their core values. They may make it a requirement of church membership. They want their church family to understand the importance of serving God by attending services. It is an essential spiritual discipline.

2 – Emphasise the value.

Churches that take this approach see regular Sunday service attendance as a very desirable thing for both individuals and the church family. It may not be mandated by Scripture (Heb. 10:25 could apply to any gathering of church people) and may not be possible in some contexts (e.g. persecuted churches), but in the West it is both possible and needed. It provides opportunity for preaching and teaching, great worship, fellowship, evangelism, prayer, and service. It is an important entry point for new people. These churches want their people to be coming to services every week for their own benefit, and for the benefit of others.

Such churches work hard to ensure that services are worthwhile attending. As much as possible, they seek to provide excellent music, strong teaching, great children’s programs, good meals, well-designed spaces for fellowship, comfortable conditions, etc. They want people to appreciate and benefit from their time at church services as well as to serve the church community. They emphasise the importance of Sunday in spiritual growth and ministry.

3 – Accept that the culture is changing.

Churches that take this approach see our style of church services as a cultural form that will change over time. There are plenty of places in the world (e.g. China) where the church is growing rapidly without large church services. While the purposes of the church remain the same, it must learn to use different forms to achieve these purposes in a culture with different priorities.
Such churches are learning to help people be committed and to grow without regular attendance by:

  • Keeping people connected and informed through online bulletins, email, texting, Facebook, etc
  • Podcasting sermons for those who don’t attend on Sunday
  • Emphasising small groups where people are perhaps more likely to be committed
  • Rotating Sunday service ministry teams to allow for less regular attendance
  • Calling for commitment to community and church ministries outside of Sundays
  • Not viewing Sunday attendance as a measure of their church size.

I think that many churches (or at least their pastors) still believe that church attendance is important, but they are not sure what to do about the growing irregularity of committed Christians. Declining service attendance is a trend that will be difficult to reverse. In ten years time, committed members may attend every third week. If your church believes it is important to reverse this trend, you will probably need to move quickly and intentionally.