6 Perspective Shifts on Church Attendance in the New Year

By Mark Dance

Why do so many of our members habitually neglect gathering together (Hebrews 10:25)? More importantly, how can we help them get into better rhythms in the new year? As a lead pastor for 30 years, I have to admit I have seen church members’ attendance rhythms change dramatically.

And so should our response.

Here are a few ways we should change our approach to church member attendance.

1. Take member attendance personally

It is impossible for a pastor to not take worship attendance—or lack thereof—personally. It is personal in part because a good shepherd aspires to know well the condition of their flock (Prov. 27:23). And it is our passion and mission to see our respective faith families gather for worship and discipleship, then leave with a renewed sense of mission to love our neighbors and change the world.

2. Get a new scorecard

Even before COVID, our faithful members started attending less often, thereby skewing the number of actual regular attendees. We need to look at how many are attending, not just how often they attend. The only way to do that accurately is to consistently ask guests to share whatever information they are willing to share. Make it easy without applying too much pressure. Texting guest information is a fairly quick and easy way for guests to introduce themselves, especially those who are not ready to introduce themselves at a guest registration or to fill out a card.

I realize in-person worship is exceedingly better than online worship. However, I do not want you to waste your limited time and energy trying to turn back your church clock to a day when regular worship attendance for faithful members is once again every Sunday. Instead, focus on who is attending and not just how many or how often. Steward their souls as faithful shepherds and many will mature. Only then will they consistently prioritize their church on their calendars.

3. Check your motives

Attendance is not only a personal subject but sometimes a sticky one, as it is the primary metric by which we most often measure pastors. As pastors, we need to watch our hearts as well as our tone, because we can come across as defensive when attendance goes down—or arrogant when it goes up.

Less mature pastors address their attendance woes by throwing shade (or shame) from the pulpit. I can assure you that talking poorly about people who are not in the room will not motivate them to be there more often. Neither will it motivate the people in the room to bring more of their friends and family to church.

The first place to address the missing elephant in the room is in the privacy of your prayer closet. Ask God to reveal and resolve your insecurities before you blow up His church. Dig deep to see whether you are more concerned about the attendance or the maturity of your people.

4. Check your measures

Nothing erodes trust faster than exaggeration. Pastors who round numbers up come across as naïve at best or manipulative at worst.

When COVID officially became an epidemic, pastors were forced to count online attendance and were elated by the numbers Facebook and other social outlets were reporting. It was clear many pastors had no idea how social media algorithms worked as they reported surging online attendance to anyone who would listen.

Needless to say, they were disappointed when members trickled back to church and attendance numbers slowly climbed toward their pre-COVID levels. I discourage pastors from counting online attendance as a part of their weekend headcount because often there is no way to know how long they are watching.

Real church growth is kingdom growth, which is measured by baptisms—period. Resist the temptation to brag about transfer growth or high watermark Sundays. Instead, double down on advancing the gospel and your attendance growth will follow the kingdom growth.

5. Engage small group teachers

Much or most of the shepherding in your church happens through small groups, so your shepherding strategy should involve your small group teachers. If you include your teachers in the planning process for the year, they will be more likely to embrace the rhythms of the church calendar and rally members around common goals.

6. Embrace the rhythms of your families

If you want them to embrace the rhythms of your church, you must also embrace their rhythms at school, holidays and family plans. Here are a few ways I came to terms with the realities of the rhythms of others’ calendars:

  • Make holidays family-friendly. This year Christmas Eve was on Sunday, so it could be used as an opportunity to rally your folks once, instead of trying to do everything you normally would. Don’t make holidays harder than they should be by ignoring others’ personal rhythms and imposing your own.
  • Don’t slack off in the summer. Attendance will likely wane in the summer, which is normal. I like to preach a summer series that includes online tools that will keep people connected when they are on vacation. 
  • Take a break between series. Your soul needs a regular break, and to be honest, your members need to hear a fresh voice. Use these breaks as opportunities to equip ministry students, as well as to introduce your members to ministry partners from outside your church.
  • Embrace local events. Loving our neighbors starts with knowing them and living life with them. Unchurched and unsaved people attend community and school events, so take the opportunity to complement the calendar of the local schools instead of competing with them.

I hope these words of encouragement are a call for you to embrace your people. Make sure they know you love them and want to be with them. Dig deep into the shared calendars of your members, groups and community. Then celebrate when they show up—and try not to be too discouraged when they don’t.

This post originally appeared at Lifeway Research.

Published January 2, 2024

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Mark Dance

Mark Dance (@markdance) speaks at churches, conferences, and retreats — often with his wife, Janet. Mark has contributed to several books and offers weekly encouragement at MarkDance.net. He’s currently serving as director of pastoral development for the Oklahoma Baptist Convention.