6 Things To Do When Your Church’s Attendance Drops
Okay, pastor friends. Picture this.
It’s Sunday morning, 15 minutes before church begins, and you’ve got everything planned. The sermon is going to be so good. The youth and kids ministries are up and running. The coffee is brewing. Volunteers are in place. Plus, you’re finally going to announce out that new church-wide event your staff has been working on for months.
But now it’s 10 minutes until service begins and . . . well, you notice the parking lot is a little emptier than usual. 5 minutes, and you’re wondering if maybe today is a national holiday you’d forgotten about? Now it’s time for service to begin and you’re trying really hard not to notice all the empty seats. Sound familiar?
Whether your church averages 10 or 1,000 people each week, we’re guessing you know what this feels like:
- The disappointment of realizing your attendance isn’t what you expected.
- The frustration that people maybe aren’t as dedicated, or interested, or invested as you’d hoped.
- The pressure to keep your numbers steady, or even growing.
If you’ve ever struggled with low attendance, you’re not alone. We’ve been there and, actually, just about every ministry leader we’ve ever met has been there. You don’t need to be in ministry very long before you begin to hear the stories of pastors who are feeling discouraged, frustrated, and under pressure to grow their ministries. Worrying about numbers and attendance kind of comes with the territory.
But just because drops in attendance are to be expected doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about them, and just because number fluctuations are usually normal doesn’t mean there’s not sometimes a deeper problem that needs to be solved. So what, exactly, should you do about declines in attendance? (You know, besides begging and pleading with people to invite their whole neighborhood to church?)
Well, that’s something our team at Stuff You Can Use has been talking about for a while. If we could sit down with every church leader who’s feeling discouraged about their numbers, we’ve wondered, “What would we say? How could we help, or encourage, or maybe even challenge our ministry pals?”
Well, here’s what we came up with. We may not have all the answers, but we’ve spent a lot of years doing ministry, volunteering in ministry, and learning from some pretty incredible ministry people. So the next time your numbers are discouraging you, here are 6 steps to staying sane, moving forward, and maybe even growing your attendance numbers.
WHAT TO DO WHEN ATTENDANCE DROPS:
1. DON’T PANIC
Here’s the thing. Fluctuations in your attendance patterns are completely normal. Sometimes, those patterns are universal, like:
- Increases at the beginning of the school year or on Easter Sunday.
- Decreases over the summer, when the weather is nice, or when sports seasons kick in.
- On top of that, you’re going to have patterns that are unique to you. Your attendance might drop the week of your town’s annual chicken wing festival, or when a big concert comes to town, or when that one family with, like, nineteen kids is on vacation.
The point is, attendance will fluctuate. So don’t panic. Instead, pay attention to those patterns and try to figure out when, and why, they happen. Because if you can predict it, you won’t be so surprised or discouraged when it happens next time – plus, you’ll be able to defend your numbers if anyone asks. So expect fluctuations, and prepare for them too.
And remember, where attendance is concerned, you’re probably not as awesome as your best attendance day and you’re definitely not as bad as your worst attendance day.
2. DON’T COMPARE
We’re all tempted sometimes to compare our numbers to the numbers of other churches. But maybe today you need a quick reminder of something you already know: comparison kills joy. So don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Your church is unique and uniquely resourced. That’s exactly the way God designed it. So be you. And don’t compare yourself to the churches down the street or all over social media, okay?
3. CLARIFY WHAT MATTERS
When attendance drops, don’t hear us saying numbers don’t matter. Numbers do matter, because every number on that attendance report represents a person you’re caring for. It makes sense to want to include and care for more and more people. But the number of people who show up each week doesn’t tell the entire story. Your church’s effectiveness can’t be summarized by your weekly attendance reports alone.
Your attendance can tell you some things about your effectiveness, but it can’t tell you everything. That’s why it’s so important to clarify what matters most to your church — you know, besides getting people to show up each week. Once you know what matters most, you can look for ways other than weekly attendance to measure your success and impact. For example, you probably want people to grow spiritually, right? Then try measuring some numbers that could indicate if they are or not, like:
- How many people are serving in your church or in their community.
- How many people made commitments to Jesus recently.
- What percentage of people are engaged in a small group.
- How often a first-time visitor actually comes back.
If spiritual growth is what matters most, then those numbers matter even more than your weekly attendance numbers. And they’re a lot more interesting, too.
4. FOCUS ON WHO’S THERE
Have you ever made the mistake of saying something like this on a low attendance day: “Wow, where is everybody?” When you’re visibly disappointed about drops in attendance in front of your congregation or team, it’s a pretty good way to kill the vibe. Imagine how someone in the room might feel if they heard you wondering “where everyone is.” Like, “Uh, I’m here! Am I not good enough for you?” So when attendance declines unexpectedly, don’t let disappointment distract you from the people who are right in front of you. You’ve still got ministry to do.
A week with a smaller group doesn’t have to be discouraging. It’s an incredible opportunity to build relationships and spend more focused time with the people who are there. You’ll have plenty of time to worry later about those who aren’t there, but for now, be present with those who are. You never know – that more intimate setting might be exactly what someone needed that week.
5. IDENTIFY THE PROBLEMS
Now that we’ve spent some time feeling encouraged, and remembering that our identity and success aren’t determined by the number of people who show up each week, we can’t leave things there. We’ve got to talk about some harder things, too.
- Yes, sometimes attendance fluctuations are out of your control.
- No, your attendance numbers aren’t the whole picture.
- And yes, sometimes a smaller group of people allows you to do better ministry.
- But while low attendance isn’t always a problem, low attendance can be a symptom of a very real problem.
When your attendance drops, take time to identify the problems in your ministry — or maybe even in your leadership. Because, let’s be honest, none of us are actually good at everything in ministry, so it’s okay to admit you have a weak spot or two. You’re not good at everything, and you don’t have to be good at everything. But as a leader, you’ve got to know what you’re not good at so you can put systems (or even other people) in place to help you be better in the areas where you’re weak.
So if you really are seeing drops in attendance that can’t be explained by something obvious, like holidays, weather, community events, or global pandemics, it’s time to start looking deeper.
To help you identify what those deeper problems might be, we broke this down into 7 areas of ministry where problems tend to show up. If your numbers are dropping, start with this list and ask, “Where are the problems?” Because one, or more, of these areas of ministry could be impacting the drop in your attendance.
- WEEKLY ENVIRONMENT: Is your weekly service a place where people actually want to be? Do they see value in meeting together? If not, what might the problem be?
- TEACHING: In both your large group teaching and small group environments, do people feel they’re hearing something relevant, memorable, and worth listening to? And do they know how to apply what they hear? If not, what might the problem be?
- DISCIPLESHIP: Beyond just what happens during your teaching time, do people have the tools they need to grow spiritually? Are they inspired to be more like Jesus? If not, what might the problem be?
- EVENTS: Are the special events on your church calendar really making a difference, rather than just using up time and resources? Do people want to show up to them? If not, what might the problem be?
- VOLUNTEERS: Do you have enough volunteers? Do the volunteers you have feel equipped and empowered and released to do significant ministry? Do they like showing up to invest, serve, and lead? If not, what might the problem be?
- FAMILIES: Do the parents or caregivers in your church feel supported and cared for? Do they believe in what you’re doing for their kids and teenagers? Do they trust you with them? If not, what might the problem be?
- LEADERSHIP: Is your ministry known for having a plan, a strategy, and systems that are reliable? Can people trust that your ministry will lead them toward greater growth and health? If not, what might the problem be?
Remember, you are not going to be naturally excellent in all seven of these areas, so your job as a leader is to identify the problems — but to do that, you’re going to need honestly.
- BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF. Like, ruthlessly honest. None of this wishful-thinking or rose-colored-glasses stuff. Be honest about the weak spots in your ministry and in your own personal leadership.
- ASK OTHERS TO BE HONEST WITH YOU. Ask people you trust to give you feedback on both you and your ministry so you can begin to identify the potential problems. Talk to co-workers and mentors. Talk to volunteers. Talk to parents. Talk to young people, too! Ask them to help you identify your weakest areas, and really listen.
Wherever those problem areas are for you, please don’t be discouraged. It means you’re one step closer to diagnosing, and solving, the source of your attendance problems, and of making your ministry healthier overall. This part of the process requires humility and courage. It’s not always fun, but it’s worth it. If one of your weak spots is causing your numbers to shrink, or is preventing you from growing, a fancy new church website or outreach campaign won’t fix your attendance problems. The only thing that will help is identifying, and addressing, the real problems.
6. DREAM UP SOLUTIONS
We’ve covered a lot, but there’s one more step you can take when your attendance drops, and it might be the most important one. After you’ve not panicked or compared, clarified what matters, focused on who’s there, and identified your problems, here’s your last step: start dreaming up solutions that address your biggest problems and help pave the way for long-term growth.
Maybe you’ve noticed, but you can’t really force numerical growth. Not in a healthy way, anyway. If you want real, long-term, sustainable growth, you’re going to have to identify your big-picture problems and put strategies in place to solve them. In other words, if you want your ministry to grow, you need to first decide what kind of growth you want.
- If you care more about numerical growth than healthy growth, then sure! Quick fixes (like big giveaways, a social media campaign, or a cool event) will probably work. But just because something grows in size, doesn’t mean it’s healthy or good. Quick fixes to attendance problems aren’t sustainable or healthy, and they don’t address your ministry’s actual problems. Instead, they simply distract from the real problems that need to be addressed.
- But if you care about healthy growth, you know the fruit your ministry produces is the real indicator of your ministry’s success — and “fruit” isn’t synonymous with “numbers.” So instead of trying to get your numbers up in the short-term (like before your next board meeting or annual evaluation), think about what kind of fruit you want to see that isn’t numerical. Then dream up some solutions that could help you get there.
We know fluctuating attendance patterns can be hard, and discouraging, and frustrating. But remember: your success as a leader isn’t determined by your weekly attendance. It’s determined by the fruit your ministry produces. So take a breath, hang in there, and keep working to better care for the people you’ve been called to serve.
And if you need help creating a strategy for healthy growth, we have some ideas that could help. Check this out.