For a long time, clergy have taken credit when attendance rose and felt guilty when it fell. Most people assume that the best measure of a congregation’s spiritual vitality is the headcount at weekly worship. But some congregations have begun to think beyond that metric and focus more broadly about how their ministry transforms lives. As a result, they’re finding new ways to think about worship, vitality and effectiveness.
What if worship attendance is no longer the best measure of the spiritual vitality of a congregation? What if it never was? Can a community that is declining in worship attendance still be a growing and thriving congregation?
Clearly, if worship attendance is declining along with every other benchmark indicator of health, a congregation is not doing well. However, some congregations are making the following observations: “Our budget is growing, our average pledge is increasing, membership is growing, and our programs are thriving. We haven’t lost members. People are simply worshiping with less frequency than they used to. How much of a problem is this? What kind of a problem is this?”
Stating the Problem
Let’s begin with the assumption that declining worship attendance is a problem. An adage by inventor and business leader Charles Kettering reminds us, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” The way we frame a problem either limits or empowers our diagnosis and idea generation. An effective problem statement follows several rules of thumb:
- Avoid problem statements that are either too narrow or too broad. “People aren’t coming to worship as frequently as they used to” is a simple and direct statement, but it doesn’t indicate what’s wrong with low attendance. On the other hand, observing that “There is a 20% decrease in attendance among millennials who grew up in the church and claim to be believers,” may be too narrow to help frame a larger conversation about the health of our worshiping community.
- Don’t create a problem statement that includes implied assumptions or solutions. “The problem is that we need to offer more worship options and venues.” Or, “The problem is that people today like more contemporary musical styles than we offer.” Each of these problem statements sends us chasing down rabbit holes before we fully understand the issues at hand.
- Don’t confuse symptoms of a problem with the problem itself. Simply stating, “Worship attendance numbers are down 10% from the same time last year” describes a symptom, not a problem. What condition does declining attendance point towards?
There isn’t a universal problem statement that applies to all congregations struggling with declining worship attendance. The statement you frame must address the specific issues relevant in your context. One congregation framed its problem statement this way:
“We are a congregation with a reputation for excellence in traditional worship. Average worship attendance is down ten percent from last year. Some of the people who are no longer worshiping with us now attend neighboring congregations that offer contemporary expressions of worship.”
Discovering the Root Causes
Once we have crafted a problem statement we turn to examining the causes of the problem. We can’t craft solutions until we better understand what is driving behavior. It is too easy to blame trends in the larger culture and to identify possible causes outside our control. We need to dig deeper.
Declining attendance may be an indicator that something is wrong, or it may point to an emerging unmet need. It could be that worship feels less relevant to people, so they attend less. It could mean we are more mobile as a culture or that people have more options to be elsewhere Sunday mornings. It may be a sign of how pressured people’s lives feel. Does it mean our people are less committed to their faith or their congregation? Does it mean our spiritual vitality has decreased? We don’t know until we research and ask.
One congregation discovered that many of their young families were skipping worship because the Sunday morning experience at church separated family members. The adults stayed in worship while the children attended Young Church and Sunday school. Young families were staying at home to create much needed family time.
Once leaders understood this, they resourced young families with worship materials that could be used at home. Those gathered in communal worship prayed for those worshiping at home, and vice versa. The church also initiated a “children in church” service once each month. Families stayed together in church on those special Sundays.
Invention or Innovation?
Once the problem has been articulated and the root causes have been clarified, we are ready to move into the generation of possible solutions. A mistake that many leaders make at this stage is failing to differentiate between invention and innovation.
Innovation theorists Peter Denning and Robert Dunham define an invention as the creation of a new idea, artifact, process or method. We invent a new worship service with a different musical style. We add a worship service on an alternative day of the week. We channel new resources into technology.
Innovation, on the other hand, focuses on the adoption of new practices. Invention is important, but creating new ideas is fundamentally different from getting people to adopt them. If you want a new thing to succeed, you must focus time and attention on getting people to commit to the new practices.
In the church that provided resources to young families for worshiping at home, the educator on staff made home visits to help families access and use the resources. She asked participating families to evaluate the resources and collected stories of home worship to share with the congregation. All this helped with adoption of the invention.
Finding Better Metrics
Increasingly, congregations are finding new ways to tend the spiritual vitality of the congregation. These new practices may or may not impact weekly worship attendance. If we continue to place all our emphasis on counting bodies in the seats on Sunday morning, we’ll miss opportunities for innovation. If we evaluate our clergy leaders only or primarily on what happens inside the sanctuary, we’ll miss other measures of vitality.
The relationship between worship and vitality is complicated. There is certainly some correlation between the two, but we need to be careful not to presume causation. We need to foster innovation and encourage progress that may not reflect itself in who shows up to be counted.