how-churches-count-attendance

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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Comments

  1. says

    Thom,

    Thanks for the post. I agree with what you have written. I would add that at Abilene we count every service, (posting on ACP only Sunday morning worship attendance) and track them asking the questions stated at the top of your post. Also, we still count Sunday School (or, as Adrian Rogers called it, “Bible Fellowship.”) We count worship to assess who we are reaching and we count Bible Fellowship to see who we are keeping and discipling. Thanks again for the post.

  2. says

    I have used “Servant Keeper” for several years and maintain an accurate count of all services. I can tell a person how many Sundays they attended or missed even visitors. I do purge the names of those who didn’t attend in an entire year at first of the year, but keep a card file just in case they attend again. I am proud to say, although the numbers are small, we have increased each year in attendance for the last 5 years. If I am going to be out I print out a roster for someone to check off the names of those in attendance and to print names of those not on the roster.

      • Leslie Fogleman says

        Thank you Dr. Rainer. I forgot to say that I maintain a log on attendance. The attendance for the last 4 1/2 years is maintained on this log. I have began to make not of DST changes, Mardi Gras, and other such events that would affect attendance. I also maintain a monthly log of giving and spending.

  3. Jenni Baier says

    Interesting article. I would add that some churches inflate their attendance number even when they aren’t estimating it :) I used to provide database support to some churches, and those who had to report back to a denomination or sponsor organization had incentive to round up – sometimes significantly – when reporting their numbers. Kinda like a puffer fish.

    Also found your statement about membership interesting, but I see it from the other side: Yes, churches expected more from members in times past, but I think members also took church (and faithfulness to anything, really) more seriously too. Granted, there are issues today with work schedules that just weren’t an issue back then, but I think most folks just don’t come regularly because they don’t see the value. People make time for the things they value.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Jenni -

      You are absolutely right. The issue of declining membership standards works both ways. Churches expect less. Members take membership less seriously. Thanks.

    • Andrew says

      Jenni, I couldn’t agree with you more on that last sentence. If we make church relevant to our people, they will come. We must be careful, too, to give our families time to be families. if we have something every night and day to do at church, do we ever give them a chance to just be “family”? Do they have to stay home from church to get family time?

  4. says

    The problem often with numbers is that we don’t use them so much as a statistic in our own churches as a comparison to other churches. As both a statistics teacher and pastor, this topic has a great deal of meaning to me. Often churches report their “big day” as their average rather than taking a sample of several Sundays, taking into account things like local events, weather, etc, and then reporting an annual average. Regardless of what our number is, it ought to be that we are able to see what we are doing rather than compare it to the church up the street. If statistics are used to help US do what we do to win people to Christ, then we do well. If we use statistics to compare or brow-beat other churches, then they serve the purpose of hurting rather than helping churches.

  5. Steve Drake says

    I remember in seminary a pastor from Romania came to speak to us at the invitation of Dr. Lewis Drummond. He told us that his church had only 100 members but would typically have twice that number in attendance. I believe that phenomenon occurred because the expectations on church membership was great. At every service, nearly 100% of the members were present and many others came to hear the message that had so changed their lives. Their focus wasn’t on having big numbers, but having mature disciples.

  6. Randy Chestnut says

    Thom,
    As always, thanks for the good word. Your research over the years has been very helpful to me and the various ministry teams with which I have had the privilege to serve.
    Someone said, “We measure what matters”. Worship attendance, Sunday School/Small Group attendance, baptisms, giving patterns… All of these are important. Yet, most of what we measure is what happens at our gatherings, and we stop there. Can we go deeper? How do we develop metrics that measure the impact our church is having in a local community? One can be related to attendance. For example, what percentage of the Sunday morning worship attendance actually comes from the local community? Why measure this? In many urban areas, we have churches with a stable, healthy, Sunday morning attendance, but the majority of the attendees drive in from outside the community for Sunday worship.
    In doing research in an urban area for a new church, the planter discovered 17 evangelical churches within the target community. Doing an informal survey, he also discovered the percentage of local community attendees for Sunday morning worship in these churches ranged from between 10% – 40%. He also discoverd that only 4% of the population in that community (population 11,000+) attended a local evangelical church. The local SBC church in that community has an average attendance of 140 on Sunday morning, with about 20-25% of attendees coming from the community.
    It is not necessarily a bad thing to have people driving in from outside the community, but what does the attendance pattern look like over a period of years? Are we seeing less of the community attending our services or more? What does this mean for how we develop our local mission strategy?
    I use this as just one example. I would encourage churches to use the present metrics as a starting point for developing a deeper level of measuring effectiveness/impact.

  7. Heartspeak says

    I’ve have also come across a different way of estimating particularly in a mega-church. Today’s average church attender doesn’t always attend every week due to health, family, work, vacation, etc, etc. Therefore the assumption is made that on any given week perhaps up to 20% of the usual attenders may not be present for one reason or another. Therefore, if 1600 is the weekly average head count, there are more likely to be 2000 all told who might consider that church to be ‘their’ church. This is for a church that does not have actual membership rolls.

  8. says

    Great stuff, Dr. Rainer.
    We’re in Georgia, so it has been our tradition not to count Crimson Tide fans who attend worship. However, we do pray for them, and we will not give up on them. Praying for you.

  9. Gwendolyn Lewis says

    Our Usher teams take an actual count for each service, every campus and we see weekly totals and monthly average. Children’s, Students and any Week-end groups meeting during service times take attendance and or have check-in. It is more important to have accurate counts than inflated numbers if you are truely measuring growth. It is a constant challenge to update attendee and member records and involvement. I also like to see number of first time guests and track retention. Our Serving/Volunteerring Metrics, done quarterly, is the report I look forward to seeing most. When this number is increasing it reflects a healthy church and growing Christians.

  10. Brent_Bullard says

    Thank you for your work Mr. Rainer. I have had the joy of serving in vocational ministry for about 9 years & have seen the strange and yet intoxicating insecurity that we may put upon numbers & in confession been tempted to drink of it myself. On Monday morning the staff is either pumped up and feeling good about the services or concerned and insecure based on the attendance of the previous morning services, when the reality is that the fluctuation in numbers from the highest to lowest attendance isn’t more than .5% of the city we minister in.

    As ministers we complain about the consumeristic nature of the church today, yet here we ministers often stand guilty of gauging our self worth by how many consumers we ran through out business (church) the previous day of operation. May the Holy Spirit be quick to convict and rest our hearts back upon our callings instead of our counting.

    Thank you again

  11. says

    The problem you’re describing often shows up in the summer, when many churches reduce their weekend service offerings (eg, going from 3 services to 2, or from 2 services to 1). Attendance either drops deceivingly low, or is artifically inflated high the rest of the year. The reason is that the more services you have during the weekend, the more likely it is that many people will be counted more than once (eg, worship team, children’s volunteers, etc). Thanks for shining a light in the issue, and providing a fresh approach.

  12. Brian Ball says

    In our congregation, we talk about what we reflect on by numbers (Microsoft Excel) and what we reflect on by story (Microsoft Word). While numbers are very important, from budgets to attendance to participation, the heart of the Church as an organization is in the power of witness and testimony in the movement of the Spirit to the glory of God. Most congregations (like most individuals) do not recognize the power of the story of Christ through them and how a record of these movements both witnesses to the world and edifies the saints.

  13. Christopher Steyn says

    Thank you so much for the good work in the Body of Christ, I would like to have an idea or estimate of average attendance of church members actually attending prayer meetings?

    I O W how many of ‘registered’ members go to the midweek .?
    prayer meeting

  14. Jessica says

    How do you track who has been in service or serving as a volunteer so that they are not counted more than once? The amount of “working” volunteers for any given service can be very large and overlapping.

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