Counting sheep

If you have 10 people coming to church every Sunday, that gives you an average attendance of 10.

But if that changes so that you have 12 people on the rolls, of which three-fourths come every Sunday, your average attendance is now 9 – a ten-percent decrease.

Or, looked at another way, the total number of people involved in your worship life has gone up 20%.

That’s pretty much the point made by Baptist George Bullard in “Think attendance in your church is declining? Think Again.”

More people attending church less often – sounds about right to me.



  1. I live in a small condominium association of 50 units and am on the board of the association. 7 units are currently vacant. 4 are occupied by Indians who are ostensibly Hindu. There is one Bosnian family who are Muslims. That leaves 38 units. Of those 38 there are 3 who attend church regularly, more than one Sunday a month. I would say most of the others do not attend at all or a few perhaps on “holidays.” At work in my unit of 5 people, I am the only one who attends regularly, 3 do not attend at all, and one on “holidays.” Of my high school age son’s 5 closest friends, he is the only one that attends at all. 2 did until they were confirmed. Of my closest non-work friends, only one besides me attends regularly and 1 or 2 on “holidays.” I think that counting “units” is a shell game.

  2. The diocese I used to live in counted by units. The parish I was a member of, for example, consisted of roughly three thousand plus family units. However, I would bet that two thrids of those family units consisted of one or two people, and this is one of the author’s points, since the area is a retirement mecca. So in actual numbers we are probably talking far less then say 12,000. The church could seat around 1,200. The diocese ordered a full head count for all parishes during the month of November. As I remember, the parish totals were under 2500, and as I could look out over the congregation from the organ most had grey hair. We had a lot of funerals too.

    1. @Earle Luscombe – comment #2:
      I often see references to congregations that consist mostly of seniors, and generally the implication is that the congregation is on its last legs. Sadly, this was the case for many inner city parishes as the children and grandchildren moved to the suburbs. However, in this case, “the area is a retirement mecca”. If the congregation is outgoing and welcoming, I would expect the numbers and demographic to be stable even as the membership turns over as existing members die and new members join.
      When the composition of a neighborhood turns over, why does the Church seem to be so reluctant to reach out to the newcomers? There has to be a sweet spot between poaching from Protestant congregations and totally ignoring people who aren’t Irish/German/Polish/Italian.
      By the same token, we must get away from the notion that all parishes must be centered on young, growing families and meet the needs of senior communities.

  3. In counting who comes to worship at any given point in time, I wonder whether anyone is mapping in those people (whose numbers are increasing) who worship in the digital domain — for whatever reason that may be. An audio app for the Divine Office, for example, let’s people worship in community — not only is there a community of voices audible, but you can check who is praying with the app online while you are in prayer too. Has the time come to re-think liturgical presence and participation, in more expansive ways than you kneels in the pews?

  4. Congregations, as indicated by Chaves random sample studies of congregations, have focused their mission on transmission of religious culture through worship and religious education, hence the importance of attendance.

    That was sufficient in the past when congregations existed within strong ethic, family and community social networks that maintained themselves.

    Since American Grace we now understand that religious social networks of families, close friends and small groups are essential to the positive effects of congregations and church attendance, namely health, happiness, and giving of time, talent and treasure to religious and civic organizations.

    Transmitting religious culture without social networks is not an ecclesia. Being alone in the pew has little positive effects on one’s life. There is no relationship between transmitting any specific idea, such as “love your neighbor” and health, happiness, etc.

    However, congregations and worship are essential to making the religious networks effective; the networks do not seem to do it alone even if prayer is an important part of their networking. Exactly why is not clear.

    Now congregations have to build religious social networks since their existence can not be taken as a given.

    The basic questions I would ask in the twice yearly surveys are: 1) with how many extended family members do you discuss religion or pray? 2) how many close friends do you have in the congregation? 3) in how many group activities of the congregation are you involved? 4) how many Sundays a year do you worship in some congregation?

    Half sheet of paper summarizing the results of the research findings would be sufficient explanation for this congregational self assessment. Give sufficient space between the questions for comments and suggestions with an invitation to continue on the back of the sheet.

    Ask first three letters of last name, birth date, and sex as an ID, e.g. DOL 05/01/1950 F. Add house phone# for households. Easy to sort and analyze in a spreadsheet and match survey to survey.

    I would give the surveys at least six months apart but slowly cover all the months of the year. e.g Sept and Mar, then Oct and Apr, Nov and May, etc.

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