There two numbers in the life of the church are too often miles apart. Although there are legitimate reasons why one number would be generally greater than the other. There is almost no good reason why there should be a vast gulf between the two figures.
The two numbers I have in mind are the church’s membership and the church’s worship attendance.
I’m a numbers guy. I love to look at well-organized charts, graphs, and figures. So I’ve always been a sucker for my denomination’s annual statistical tables—first in the RCA and now in the PCA. You only have to spend a few minutes in such tables to realize that most churches have more members than they typically have people on Sunday morning. I’m sure this is a phenomenon not unique to Reformed and Presbyterian denominations (although the numbers were closer together in the RCA, because we had to pay assessments on our members). I know the same thing happens in Methodist churches, Baptist churches, and probably every other kind of church.
It’s no surprise that the two numbers do not exactly match, and within reason it’s not a big deal. If you have 80 members and average 65 people on Sunday, that’s fine. There’s no exact formula, but a 10 percent to 20 percent variance feels reasonable (although the variance gets more pronounced the bigger the church—if you have 4,000 members, and average 20 percent less than that on a Sunday, you have 800 people to account for). But we all know churches (maybe our own church!) where the gap between membership and attendance is vast: a membership of 600 with an attendance of 150, or an impressive membership of 5,000 with 1,800 on most Sundays. This should not be.
Granted, there are a number of legitimate reasons why some members would not be present on Sunday. Your church may have shut-ins, college students, snow birds, missionaries, and helping professions (like doctors, nurses, police officers, and firefighters) who, understandably, are missing from worship (at their home church) on many Sundays. You may also have volunteers in the nursery and kids scattered across various classes (if you count covenant children as members). Add that all up and you have a legitimate gap.
But not a massive gap. In most churches, those categories don’t add up to a large percentage of the church. And besides, most churches have a host of non-members (e..g, students, visitors, grandparents, other friends and family) boosting their average attendance across the year. If your church is growing, such that there are more people on average in attendance than there are members, that’s fantastic. Keep the pipeline open to make those regular attenders faithful members. But setting aside that happy scenario, there should not be a large gap between a church’s membership and its average Sunday attendance.
Identifying the Problem
Why do so many churches have vastly more members than attenders on Sunday?
One reason is simple negligence. Some churches don’t manage their rolls carefully. They have adopted the Hotel California approach to church membership: you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. This is a mistake. Hebrews 13:17 tells us, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” If our members have moved away, drifted away, or gone to another church, we owe it to them (and to ourselves) to make this new arrangement clear. We shouldn’t keep people as members who haven’t functioned as members for years.
Another reason for the gap is pride. It looks better in the denominational report or in the newspaper or on the website to say that First Presbyterian (or First Baptist or First Whatever) has a membership of 2,500 even if that number is from the glory days of yesteryear (and was probably a bit inflated back then too). I’m tempted by pride as much as the next pastor, but Hebrews 13:17 scares me too much to let pride get the best of me. I don’t want to be held accountable for a raft of people who haven’t been to my church in years.
An unhealthy view of membership is a third reason for the gap. Some members insist that they be kept on the roles for family reasons, professional reasons, or out mere tradition. Likewise, some churches think of membership as a marker in time rather than a vital, continuing commitment. In both cases, we need a better understanding of church membership.
So far, I’ve been laying most of the blame at the feet of pastors and elders. And rightly so: They are entrusted with overseeing the membership of the church (even in congregational polity, the officers lead the way). But there is a final reason for the gap between membership and attendance, and this one has everything to do with the members themselves. Increasingly, church members only attend their home church once or twice a month. On the one hand, this is to be expected in a society with cheap and easy mobility. Children visit their parents. Grandparents visit their grandkids. Numerous professions require frequent travel.
And yet, if we are honest, those aren’t the only reasons (or the main reasons) members attend church less frequently. Too many members are putting youth sports ahead of church. Others prioritize the beach or the mountains. And then there are those who simply consider church attendance a flexible requirement, one that need not come before football on Saturday night, sunshine on Sunday morning, or homework on Sunday afternoon. Consequently, a church of 500 may only have 300 of its members around for church on any given Sunday. Once you get to Easter, you can see the membership is full strength. This is an unfortunate capitulation to a consumer culture that has rendered the Lord’s Day, even among Christians, a matter of convenience rather than covenantal commitment.
Pastors and parishioners, there is much at stake in the gap between these two numbers. Let’s do what we can to bring them closer together.