Many church leaders and members cringe when they hear or read about numbers and statistics in churches. Such a reaction is understandable. For many years in many churches, numbers were an obsession. They became an end instead of a means.
Statistics can, however, be very helpful. They help us to answer the “why” question. Why did worship attendance increase 25 percent last year? Why did small group attendance decline when worship attendance increased? Why did our attendance increase by only ten when we added 30 new members?
Counting in the Past
For over 100 years, the primary metric of churches was membership. During that span most churches had high expectations of their members. A member was thus clearly expected to attend each week. There was little difference between the number of members and the weekly attendance.
The large exception to this pattern was the Southern Baptist Convention. That denomination focused on Sunday school attendance. The SBC was greatly influenced by the Sunday school movement in Great Britain started by Robert Raikes. For decades, churches of the SBC reported Sunday school attendance more than other metrics.
The Pattern Today
The most common statistical metric today is average weekly worship attendance. The gauge of membership is no longer very helpful. In most churches membership comes with few and low expectations. Thus a church with a membership of 400 may only have 100 in average worship attendance. There is little expectation for members to be active in the church in a meaningful way, even weekly attendance.
But this relatively new metric of worship attendance has its challenges. The simple problem is that different congregations count attendance in different ways. Churches with multiple services may count only those who are actually in the services. Others count children and preschoolers who are present but not in the worship services. Some churches count everyone present in a worship service, even if they attend multiple services (such as a praise team or choir). Other churches only count each person one time, even if he or she attended more than one service.
The counting challenge is greater in some churches because they estimate attendance. In my consulting experiences in the past, I found that estimated attendance was inflated by a factor of over 30 percent. Thus a church with an estimated attendance of 200 would really have an attendance of 140. Other churches conduct an actual count only one time, but then used that number to represent the average throughout the year.
The Emerging Norm
Despite the historical differences and inconsistencies, there is a pattern developing in how churches count attendance. Worship attendance has fast become the most common metric. And more churches are following these guidelines when counting attendance.
- Count everyone in every primary worship service, including multiple services and multi-campus services. Include anyone on the church campus at the time such as children’s church, preschoolers, babies, and their corresponding workers.
- Do not count any person more than one time. Those who speak, lead worship, greet, and usher are common examples of people who might attend more than one worship service.
- Count those who are not in the services, but who are in service for the church. A mission team overseas would be a good example.
- Count only primary worship services. Some churches still have Sunday evening services with the same people who attended Sunday morning services. The Sunday evening service, in this example, would not be included in the attendance count.
Those of us who research churches find these issues and trends fascinating. Others of you may be bored silly with discussions like these.
So what metrics does your church use? What do you think of the whole idea of statistics and counting in churches?
Pastor to Pastor is the Saturday blog series at ThomRainer.com. Pastors and staff, if we can help in any way, contact Steve Drake, our director of pastoral relations, at Steve.Drake@LifeWay.com. We also welcome contacts from laypersons in churches asking questions about pastors, churches, or the pastor search process.
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