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.