The Liturgical Year and Average Church Attendance

Could emphasizing the importance of certain seasons and celebrating them with higher quality services actually be lowering average attendance in liturgical denominations?

This possibility is raised by a recent study of 71 Protestant churches in a Midwestern city. Those with a conservative ideology combined with non-liturgical worship had consistently higher attendance throughout the year in comparison to their maximum attendance.

While theoretical jargon, complex and detailed statistical analyses made this study publishable as well as difficult to read, the overall results are clear and can be summarized in language close to the article’s words.

For the typical congregation, bad weather during January and February drove attendance down. A gradual increase occurred from late February until a sharp peak at Easter, remained close to the yearly average until Memorial Day, stayed under the yearly average until Labor Day, then gradually increased to average in October, being above average in November and December, then plummeting the first Sunday after Christmas.

Mother’s day promoted attendance. Father’s day, Memorial Day. Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving lessened attendance. Special occasions, e.g. new pastor, promoted attendance.

For churches with conservative ideology and non-liturgical worship, a consistently higher level of attendance (closer to that at Christmas and Easter) obtains. While there is some seasonal variation among these churches (e.g. less in summer) the positive effects of Christmas and Easter cycles and negative effects of competing secular holidays are much less pronounced.

The author suggests consistently higher levels of attendance are due to two factors:
1. the message that regular church attendance is expected and not just preferred (conservative).
2. an equally high quality of service throughout the year (non-liturgical).

The implementation of the new English missal offers many opportunities to raise the quality of services so that an equally high quality of Sunday Mass can be maintained throughout the year, e.g. new musical compositions, and catechetical materials. Amid disagreement about the new translation perhaps we could all agree on the desirability of increasing the quality of Sunday Masses and church attendance during Ordinary Time.

This may not happen without careful planning and attention. If we place most of our emphasis upon new music compositions during Christmas and Easter seasons, and put our catechetical efforts at increasing appreciation for the Mass during Advent and Lent we will likely end up reinforcing the existing pattern of greater attendance during these seasons

Beginning the implementation with an Ordinary Time Sunday would help focus attention upon Ordinary Time.

A particularly bold plan would use Corpus Christ Sunday (“Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ”) to catechize the beginning of the new missal on the following Sunday in Ordinary Time. Yes, we would be challenging the nadir of attendance during the summer! However the high attendance congregations in this study did not dismiss their choirs during the summer. Much of Paschal Time, a time of average or higher attendance, could be spent preparing for and looking forward to doing Ordinary Time EXTRAORDINARILY BETTER in summer! Sooner or later we have to challenge the summer nadir if we want to raise average church attendance.

Beginning the implementation in September would allow a month of rising attendance, a month of average attendance (October) and a month of higher than average attendance (November) which should be sufficient to convince most parish members of a higher quality Mass during Ordinary Time.

Parishes vary greatly in what they now provide as well as in the resources they might use to improve the quality of services. While there are many different ways to do it, perhaps everyone can agree on the important of improving the quality of services and church attendance during Ordinary Time.

See: “Any Given Sunday: Weekly Church Attendance in a Midwestern City,” Paul J. Olson, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2008) 47(3):443-461.

Paul J. Olson, author of the study, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Briar Cliff University. His research interests are primarily in the sociology of religion with an emphasis on church attendance and giving. He is also the editor of the quarterly newsletter for the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture.

Jack Rakosky, who drafted this post, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current main interest is voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.


  1. Or to put it another way: ‘No matter how good or bad the translations, the ONLY thing that will stop most priests using Eucharistic Prayer II most of the time will be if someone writes a shorter one.’

  2. One question: was the study controlled for the existence of climate control? There are *lots* of large old Catholic churches that are not air-conditioned in the summer, but whose windows are sealed due to the need to save $$$ in the winter. Many congregants in these churches migrate to other locations for the season. And choirs cannot function well in that environment. Been there, done that, got dehydrated.

    My impression is that there may be a higher proportion of newer, AC’d buildings among the non-liturgical churches sampled.

    If this was not taken into account in the study, it’s a significant issue that should be factored into the disclosure.

  3. I am new to the world of blogging, but I could not see turning down the opportunity to participate in a discussion of church attendance trends when Jack gave me the opportunity. Furthermore, I believe that sociologists should be more public figures than we oftentimes like to be, and engage clergy and others with a vested interest in the well-being of our religious institutions in private or public discussions. In other words, I’m very excited to participate in this conversation.
    A bit of background: I am an associate professor of sociology at Briar Cliff University, a Franciscan liberal arts college in Sioux City, Iowa. Studying Protestant church attendance statistics, coupled with my personal experience of growing up Methodist and marrying into Lutheranism, and my five years of experience in a Catholic institution has provided me with ample opportunities for thinking about the applicability of what we know about Protestant behavior to Catholics. Obviously Catholics and Protestants differ in many ways, but I think the results of this study can be helpful for understanding Catholic attendance over the course of the year.
    Jack has done a terrific job of summarizing the article’s findings, and I hope that it helps us all understand why attendance is so good at some times of the year and so, dare I say, “ordinary” or worse at others. I look forward to reading your comments, answering the questions that I can, and learning a great deal from you along the way.

  4. Paul,

    One big difference between Protestant and Catholic churches that your study demonstrates is that Protestants regularly collect attendance statistics. You had a variety of denominations, liturgical and non-liturgical, liberal, moderate and conservative, large and small. In many cases, congregations have many years of statistics.

    While most Catholic parishes make head counts during October (probably a good guess for an average time) they rarely collect data the year around.

    How are these statistics collected? Head counts? Individual members?

    What are they used for? Do they play a role in retaining pastors? In deciding upon keeping or changing programming? On the congregations self evaluation? Do congregations engage in competition, even friendly, with each other around attendance figures.

    Perhaps some others with experience about Protestant congregations might be able to enlighten us about the role and use of attendance figures.

    1. At the parish where I served for two years, the ushers took head counts at every weekend & Holy Day Mass. The counts are used to monitor long-term trends in attendance, to help the sacristans to estimate how many hosts to prepare, and to help staff to anticipate whether additional chairs will need to be set up in the narthex area. The counts are also analyzed in conjunction with the counts from the parish with whom we’re twinned. Since the parishes have only been twinned for a few years, taking counts at both places has been helpful in fine-tuning the schedule for Holy Days.

  5. Jack,
    I’m at an Episcopal parish in DC, and we have the ushers (or the clergy if there are no ushers) do a head count for each liturgy. That’s then recorded in the parish register. It is, however, easier to do that when you’ve got an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of around 120-140 or so. Those figures are then used for various statistical purposes for both the parish or mission and the diocese, and I’m pretty sure they’re used along with other data in determining how much money the parish is expected to give to the diocese.

    In the Methodist churches I went to as a child, there would be an attendance pad in the pew where people would write down their names and check off that they were present and then pass it to the next person in the pew. The pages with that information were then collected at the offering. While introducing something like that would be a total non-starter in most Episcopal churches, (speaking as a parish administrator) I would say that it would make some things easier, such as determining who’s a “communicant in good standing” both for statistical purposes and for vestry elections.


  6. I have quite a bit of experience with the so-called non-liturgical churches. They are liturgical but informally so (read, they do the same order of events each week). Anyway, these are personality driven institutions that require very little of the congregation. The mega-church is religious entertainment and people love entertainment. I assume that the entertainers are sincere, since I know a great many of them, liturgical churches require congregants to engage with the service or Mass. We could all do our part very well every Sunday and have high production values, but the masses will prefer not to have to work too hard. Lukewarm Catholics go to church because they are required to and they will do as little as they think reasonable because they want access to the sacraments. I have no doubt that if we changed the character of Mass to a more evangelical Protestant model, numbers would swell, but other than easily covering the church’s bills, what have you done?

  7. One problem we have at my relatively small parish right now in regard to summer Sunday attendance is that most of our programs (choir, Godly Play, adult educational stuff) pretty much go on hold during the summer. Of course, without the extra stuff, people are less likely to come to church. However, having those programs remain going in the summer is next to impossible because people are all on vacation or just don’t show up until fall; so we can’t get volunteers to keep the programs going. But not having the programs means people don’t come or volunteer. Wonderful chicken-or-the-egg problem.

    1. Yes, summer can be a very chicken and egg issue. Thinking outside the box might help.

      One local parish with very good acoustics used to do an a cappela Mass led by a cantor during the summer instead of a choir. If they had done some promotion among surrounding parishes, I think they could have had a really good summer thing, perhaps even have gotten some year around new parish members.

      Another local parish is doing one of their Sunday Masses with the contemporary Christian music group that does a Sunday evening Teen Mass that rotates among several parishes during the year. CCM all sounds the same to me, perhaps that is why they have a handout with only the words. But the pastor introduced the group, and the teens in the parish that regularly participate. People seemed to appreciate it. Perhaps there is a teen or college group in your area.

      Thanks for giving me some idea of how the statistics are used.

  8. Having played the organ in a large parish on Cape Cod, I can say that during the summer at most Masses, it was SRO. To a slightly lesser extent at the Methodist Church down the street. So where you are located can play a factor. I also think age plays a significant role. Many, if not most of, the parishoners at both churches were over retirement age, and they went to church. Finally, I think, that for the first time the personality of the priest(s) and parish politics plays a role that it used not too.

    1. Thanks for the reminder that vacation areas are different. We had SRO during the summer in the parishes around where our family cabin was. While they increased the number of Masses, nothing much was done about the quality. They just took the money to the bank.

      Fortunately we were able to find a nice parish a little further away that had a talented young women leading the people in singing. She (or her accompanist) had the wisdom to choose songs that I knew and liked.

      1. I consider people who choose songs that I know and like wise as well. ;^)

  9. Isn’t this a symptom of people’s changed perception of the Mass? If it’s not important enough to attend during the summer, why is it important during the academic year? This makes no sense to me. The Church says I have an obligation to attend on Sundays and HDOs. What on earth does the weather have to do with it? BTW here in S Florida we do get the SRO Masses during the “season” (Christmas to Easter). As a musician I am also appalled likable music brings people to Mass. Perhaps the reformers did their jobs too well. We’ve forgotten what happens at Mass. A good priest friend once said that “If people really believed what happens on the altar at Mass, we wouldn’t be able to build churches fast enough.”

  10. Sorry to not get back to some of the questions sooner – work and family had some surprises for me this week!

    Karl – I did not include statistical controls for air conditioning and the like (the model was just too complex). However, most of the non-liturgical conservative churches in the study were in older, often recycled, buildings that lacked air, offices, and other amenities. Some were mega-churches with all the latest technology, too. Conversely, most of the liberal, moderate, and liturgical churches were in newer buildings with air and good heating systems. I know that this is a very important thing, but I don’t think that it is the variable that makes the results spurious.

    Jack – the stats came almost universally from attendance counts made by ushers, although a couple of the congregations used sign-in pads that were then verified by church staff after the services (if they knew somebody was there but didn’t sign in, they added them to the count). This was the thing that made me most nervous about the study. As for their uses, I don’t know if they were used for pastoral hirings/firings or not, but several churches used them for programming (i.e. – Mother’s Day is great, print extra programs) and to track membership growth and/or decline. One of the pastors used the attendance pads to check up on members, and if somebody wasn’t in church for 2-3 Sundays in a row, he called or visited them. Easy to do in a church of 150, not soe much in a typcial…

  11. I think that Michael has asked some million-dollar questions. My experience has been that many evangelical Protestant churches ask a lot of their members – through small groups, giving, evangelism, and personal sacrifices, but in terms of the worship experience, showing up is good enough. Kevin McEllmury, a grad student at Missouri, calls it being “alone together.” It is like being at a movie – you are entertained, but you don’t play a very active role in the performance.

    This is my hunch, but I don’t think that the Catholic Church would see a huge boom in attendance at any time of year by adopting an evangelical form of worship, although a stripped down “emerging” style might be appealing to some. Religious groups appeal to certain niches, and style of worship is one thing that attracts people. I don’t think many Catholics would view that style of worship as authentic Catholic worship in the same way that my wife refuses to enter a Lutheran church with a drum set. There isn’t a one-size fits all type of service. I think churches need to say “This is who we are, and this is exactly why you should be here” and then proceed to help their members create the best worship experience they can each and every week. Control what they can control and never program for low attendance.

  12. Paul, yes, that is my experience in observing the non-denominational “denomination”. They really involve people in all sorts of things and the people respond. However, these activities seem to me to replace the sacramental life that we enjoy. Not sure how, but I get that feeling that they need more than a “good talking to” on Sundays. BTW I would die if I had to listen to a 45-minute sermon every Sunday. Anyway, what I really feel has happened in the U.S. and Europe is that the Church has played down its role in Salvation too much. We have tried so hard to not offend other denominations that our own people have gotten the message that the Catholic Church is in competition to “attract” members in the same way a social club would be. I don’t think you can have it both ways. Catholics will attend Mass if they really believe that is necessary and not just “good for you” in some vague sense. Finally, if people understood more of the ritual nature of the Mass, they might buy into the repetitive nature of it. That’s what rituals do. They repeat the same texts and gestures for all people and in so doing, connects them in time and space. For creative people (musicians, artists, architects) there are outlets within the constrictions of the Rite and uses.

    1. In Puritan New England, sermons went on for 2-3 hours – once in the morning and again in the evening. New Englanders were famed for their wordiness, but it was probably the most literate society from top to bottom known to history to that time,

  13. That’s certainly true, but I’ve heard very few ministers or priests who can consistently justify the lengths of their sermons/homilies on a week-to-week basis. I do wish, especially, that more priests would understand that the homily is not the high point of the Mass. It’s not even part of the liturgy.

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