When attendance drops

Case study suggests a systematic methodology that takes time and effort, but will produce a more reliable conclusion.

By Mark Simmons

The Case Statement: “Attendance was up, now it’s down.  How can we find the root cause?”

Dan is the executive pastor of a six-year-old church that has experienced rapid growth — until recently. Dan writes: “We are a church that grew fairly rapidly from 2003 through 2008. Most recently, we grew 8 percent in 2007 and then saw growth slow to 2 percent in 2008. We saw a plateau-to-slight-decline of -1 percent in the spring of 2009 and then a significant drop over the summer when our senior pastor was on sabbatical. We have not bounced back this fall, with attendance now running 5 percent YTD below last year.

“My question: How would you approach this issue to get to the root cause? What questions would you ask? What data would you gather? Who would you talk with?”

Church Executive asked Mark Simmons, business manager at Christ Community Church, Milpitas, CA to suggest a response to this church’s situation. 

—   Editor

The Case Solution: Implement best practices to find the root cause(s)

First of all, you are to be congratulated for not jumping to a conclusion. In my experience most churches (and public companies too) tend to rush to conclusions without proper analysis. In part, this happens because of our methodology. We get a bunch of leaders together in a room, give them the top level attendance trend data and then ask for opinions on why this happened.

To illustrate this point, we exposed your brief description of the situation to several church leaders, and they were asked to respond. Predictably, several started trying to answer the “why” question based on the scant data offered. Some thought the senior pastor’s sabbatical was the cause, even though the reversal in your growth trends started a year and a half before his sabbatical. It’s not a good methodology and since that is what you really asked for, let’s launch into how to approach your problem. Clearly you are in need of some analysis.

Potential causes identified

Before you can with any confidence answer the question of what caused this to happen, you have to first identify what changed, specifically around the times when you saw a significant change in your attendance. It looks from your statements that you had at least two, possibly more, times when your attendance trends changed significantly:  1. Sometime late in 2007 to 2008; 2. The beginning of summer 2009; and 3. You implied you may have experienced a bounce back in the fall that didn’t occur this year. There may be others yet to be uncovered.

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The reason I say around those times is sometimes there is a time lag between the cause and the effect. Make sure you look at external as well as internal factors too. For example, one church I was a part of experienced an attendance change due to people moving from our relatively high cost area to a lower cost area that was experiencing lots of job growth. That is an example of an external change.

Note too that the changes are not the causes, but rather are a list of potential causes (and there may be others you uncover elsewhere). Again, it’s important not to jump to conclusions.

Some things to look at statistically

•  Changes in the influx of visitors around those times.

•  Changes in attendance patterns (Did people start coming less often, leave the

church, or what?)

Was there a shift in demographics at the church? For example, if the people leaving are predominantly young married couples that may give you a clue as to focus your efforts. You’d focus on understanding changes that affected the young married couples (both internal and external factors).

Then comes the filtering

Now you can start to eliminate (whittle down) the list of potential causes by taking the available facts and see what doesn’t fit.

Hopefully by this time you have a handful of possible causes. At this point it is probably appropriate to collect some data from the people who actually left. Unfortunately, you can’t just ask people: why did you leave?

The vast majority of people will not give you a direct answer for a variety of reasons: You don’t want to be confrontational, think you’ll try to convince them to come back, at some level they may know it’s not really a “good” reason, or they may not even know.

You need to ask open-ended questions. “What’s most important to you when choosing a church?” If they left for another church: “Before you decided to join [NEW] church, what was most important to you in deciding what church to attend?” “What were you looking for?” Often the answer to those last two questions will correlate to the thing they found lacking at your church. “What did you like about [OLD] church?” “If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about [OLD] church what would it be?” And peppered between each of these questions you encourage them to talk more by saying things like: “Tell me more?” “Anything else?” “How so?”

As far as methodology is concerned, notice that these are not true/false, multiple guess, or yes/no type of questions. The question requires a more elaborate response. Also these are not written surveys, online polls or anything of the sort. These are face-to-face or at least live phone-to-phone conversations. If you have a skilled interviewer among your leadership or who is a trusted member of your congregation — use them. The interviewer really makes a huge difference.

That’s how I’d approach it. Yes, it is a fair amount of work. But isn’t turning around your attendance trend a big deal?  Isn’t it worth some effort to get it right?


An issue could be that your church is just bumping up against a natural growth barrier. I love Ken Hemphill’s book, The Bonsai Theory of Church Growth.  Bonsai trees are kept small on purpose. They are trimmed back to prevent growth. The roots are trimmed back. They are kept in small containers. In churches there are leadership containers, educational containers, worship space containers, parking space containers.

— Kelly

When I was taking ski lessons years ago, the instructor said, “If you’re not falling every now and then, you’re not trying hard enough.” I think that’s probably true for churches, too. Those that don’t experience attendance decreases now and then may not be challenging people enough — intentionally or unintentionally. Jesus certainly had times when the crowds grew and times when they thinned.

Attend to the essentials and “do it heartily as unto the Lord” and if numbers fall, at least you know my ski instructor would say you haven’t settled for just performing within your comfort level.

— Marshall


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