In-person Attendance has Declined

Friday, May 19, 2023

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Dear Pastors

In-person Attendance Has Declined…….

……and according to a number of studies continues to decline. Even the very committed are less regular. And all this has been accelerated since C-19. Some churches in NZ report a 25-33% lower attendance since the pandemic.

It is tough. You are a pastor because you love God, you love His Word and you love His people. But those people are showing up less and less. What is even harder is that some of those people you have given hours of your time to…..hours and hours, others have shared leadership responsibility with you and yet others have become your friends as you have done some life together. It’s little wonder that so many pastors are doing it tough both emotionally (discouraged), physically (tired) and financially (tight). I agree it’s a tough gig right now for perhaps 75% of pastors.

This blog is written to help us all put some words around the problem of declining in-person attendance in NZ. I have chosen to keep it to 6 ‘key’ reasons as to why people are attending less. Please note two things. A) This blog is not about why people leave the church altogether (The Dones) and B) five out of the six reasons I have noted below have come about due to changing social trends, technology and C-19 and are therefore outside our control.

I think we all agree that church biblically understood is about the gathering of the people of God. ‘Ekklesia’ - a congregation, an assembly, the called out ones.

So what constitutes ‘regular’ attendance? In the 60’s and 70’s even early 80’s regular attendance meant every Sunday morning of the year unless you were dying. In some church circles it also meant attendance on a Sunday night (though that was disappearing fast) and a home group on Wednesday night. But even without Sunday and Wednesday nights regular meant 48-52 Sundays a year (and at least a fortnightly mid-week small group). Today that has dropped to 1 in 3 Sundays or 18 Sundays a year (and perhaps only around 33% of adults, at best, attending a small group). That is a huge drop off whichever way you look at it.

So Why? It is a multi-layered problem but here as I said, are a few of my top-of-mind thoughts that I have assembled after reading a fair few studies and talking to some pastor mates around NZ. In no particular order of importance.

  1. Kids sport (and other activities). This has been around since the 80’s but it has definitely ramped up in the last 10 years and sometimes those sport fixtures or family activities require travel. Playing sort on a Sunday is now normalised and mainstream.
  2. The Kids are independent. There is quite a bit of evidence that some adults, perhaps many, are attending for the ‘sake of the kids’. In other words it is not their choice of church. Now that they are late teens/young adults the pressure is off. Formerly faithful attenders can at last sleep in, go out for brunch, play a game a golf, watch on-line…….you get the idea.
  3. On-line options including your home church. Why worry about not attending when I can watch our service later or another church’s where my favourite preacher is speaking. And what’s more I can fast forward when I have had enough. When asked were you at church last Sunday, the answer almost invariably is, a resounding YES.
  4. Boutique Spirituality. A growing number of Christians are ‘assembling’ their own spiritual menu. I’ll do this but I won’t do that. This is a topic all of its own but suffice to say some of the reasons for this are in this very list. With so much content readily available this is a growing trend. There was a huge upswing of this practise during the pandemic. As a result the Pastors (and the church’s) influence is waning.
  5. Irrelevance and boredom. Two quite different reasons but also related. If people no longer see the value of attendance and then find the whole thing boring week after week then obviously they will attend less often and when they do attend they won’t really engage with their hearts. I have heard it said more than once, “I go to church for the kids and catch up with my friends”.
  6. Decline in trust of authority and institutions. This is part of a wider cultural trend in all of modern society. But there is no doubt about it people are less trusting in the people and institutions that they formally (implicitly) trusted. That means that pastors (authority figures) and churches (dependable institutions) are viewed similarly. This is especially true among millennials. But certainly not only. Many people of my age (Boomers) are saying things leaders and institutions that I didn’t hear even 10 years ago let alone 20 years ago.

I could go on. And frankly it is all a bit depressing. However, the only other option is to not think about these things, ignore reality and bury our heads in the sand. At least by identifying the issues and talking about them will we have any hope of addressing any shortcomings in ourselves and our churches, address social trends in our culture and speak into the challenges of the day. If we do this patiently and lovingly my guess is we will see some positive change. Jesus did say He will build His church and that HE will always be with us.

Next week I want to talk about the solution side of this issue. I want to talk about the need to look closely at length of service and sermon. How to have more conversation, the role of creativity and special events and most importantly sermons that engage people’s heart and mind.


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