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tracking church attendance

My church is abysmal at keeping statistics. The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia appears almost frightened of them. We have no real idea of national church-attendance, baptisms, weddings; we do not know our clergy age-distribution, their qualifications, or where or if they trained; etc. This means we cannot observe trends or do any strategic reflecting or planning.

Compare this with the United Methodist Church. Every Monday, churches log in their numbers for attendance, baptisms, giving and other measures. All this appears on dashboards (image left). Pastors—and anyone else—can see how their numbers stack up against other churches. Every Tuesday the bishop logs in and can see the trends.

One danger, obviously, is to become obsessed by numbers rather than pastoral care, orthodoxy, holiness, or other important foci. Competition between clergy can take over from cooperation and collegiality between them (there may already be an element of that; I pointed out the notice boards of the closed church buildings don’t provide, alongside the information of where that particular community now meets, information about the nearby Anglican churches that are still functioning fine for local people thinking about coming (back) to church).

Contrary to the contemporary obsession with growth are the nineteenth century Anglo-Catholic stories of priests who, if they found their early Sunday Mass with increasing numbers, were concerned that the radicalness of the Gospel wasn’t coming through their preaching and practice!

There is also the danger that big becomes regarded as better. I want to affirm the positive value of the small church community. Populous can hide problems. Someone who founded what looked like a large, thriving Pentecostal church spoke to me about his concerns. Some churches worry about not having younger people – his worry was that he had far too few older, experienced people. He had done the stats. On average people stayed in his church for 18 months – and when they left, they didn’t go on to some other church or denomination, they generally left church for ever. His concern was how to change the culture to provide space for the life-long Christian journey.

In a smaller community where I was parish priest I would emphasise changing the culture from being surprised when a new person turned up – to being surprised when a new person didn’t!

I know of one church that has the names of its regulars embroidered on its altar cloth. How long and how regularly do new people have to attend before their name gets added?!

Although small has value, there are issues – particularly with younger people. Say you have a community of about a hundred. That’s one or two in each year cohort if you are (surprisingly) lucky in having a spread that mirrors the local community. Someone aged 53 will probably be able to find support in the fifteen or so people aged 45-55 if the ages are evenly spread. But a 13 year old may not identify so quickly with an 11 year old or a 15 year old…

What do you think…

Read more about the dashboards here and here

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13 thoughts on “tracking church attendance”

  1. I’m afraid the more I learn about your church, the weirder it starts to seem. Yes to basic statistics, no to those creepy Methodist dashboards.

    In the U.S. church we were required by canon to record stats on every public service we conducted; I assume we still are. The minute the recessional party broke up it was head to the Parish Record before you forget, and woe to you if you failed to count the warm bodies when you had the chance. Isn’t that also the law in England from time immemorial?

  2. I don’t think that the number of folks in the pew provides any useful information when that metric is taken alone. Perhaps as a percentage of total members it tells something.

    I would be more interested in WHO is coming. Disciples worship. Knowing that so-and-so only comes once a month, it might be helpful to encourage that person to come more often. Not for us, but for them – because worship is what God’s people do; and skipping out on that is a spiritual problem.

    But yes also, church attendance is only one mark of discipleship. “Good numbers” may only be telling you how great you are creating a Sunday morning social club.

    How many people make an offering? How many participate in a daily routine of prayer? How many hours is volunteered in the community? How much time was spent reading scripture? How is this church making disciples?

    1. I think, and this is especially possible in a small community, keeping track of who is at the service also is good pastoral care. We can show genuine concern – it can be part of our planning for the week’s visiting.

  3. Yes, it is strange. There may be no more moa, but the ostrich is alive and well down under.
    Collecting attendance stats is really very easy – do it during the collection and enter them in the book. After all it’s easier to count people than it is to count money – or is that done either?
    An email questionnaire to a few hundred clergy would immediately answer msot questions. What’s so hard about that?
    Or perhaps it would be a little painful to admit how low attendance is. Questions might be asked.

    1. To your question, do we nationally keep statistics about collection income, Kevin – I’m not aware of such a statistic being kept nationally. Is this a statistic that other churches publicly declare? I have only been aware of other churches having national statistics of the sort of things I listed.

  4. In the UK we have to record attendance and report average attendance monthly along with figures for weddings, funerals and baptism’s to diocese. This is about finance, parish share and fees for occasional offices. The figures provide a basis for planning at deanery and diocese for future mission and the ministry needs and resources in the future.

    At a recent meeting our Bishop spoke of re-imagining ministry not for one that we can afford, but one to meet the needs of our communities. This will involve new ways of deploying stipendiary ministers in partnership with self-supporting ministers and a collaboration with an empowered lay ministry. At long last, discipleship, growth and mission are coming to the fore, rather than the more negative decline, compromise and acceptance.

    I can only speak for my Parish (5 churches x 1 Vicar x 1 Curate) where Pastoral Care is stretched, but is shared with a lay leadership team across the benefice.

    We do ask about people who come, and we look for trends, where we review what we are doing and what worship or activity is promoting discipleship and bringing in new people while encouraging those regular or irregular attenders.

    We are fortunate to have active Volunteer youth leaders, who operate a successful youth group across the villages and have many other small groups doing different things under the umbrella of the Parish Council(s) and in partnership with local voluntary groups and our schools. It works quite well, but I’m sure that someone could suggest better ways to do things to take some of the pressure of the Vicar.

    It seems to me that statistics are useful, but are purely that, what is important is that the heart and soul of the parish is dedicated to God, promotion of the Gospel and ensuring that our inclusiveness is known, is obvious and that we have a visible presence in our communities.

    1. Thanks, “UKViewer”. With some understandable exceptions, my expectation is that people will use their real, ordinary name here – there was, presumably, nothing controversial in your comment that required your pseudonymity.

      In today’s Sunday newspaper there is an extensive article about church “services” that sound almost indistinguishable from concerts, with some appalling theology to boot. This echoes my paragraph of the particular Pentecostal church I described, and highlights that aiming for growth in numbers may, in some cases, be counter-gospel. As you indicate, statistics are one tool amongst others that I think we need to employ.

        1. Sorry about the pseudoname. I blog under it, and use it elsewhere, so just habit. Won’t repeat the mistake.

          Thanks for your insight. I think that growth in our Bishops eyes is a natural outcome from discipleship being actively promoted. Training in parish and diocesan level. I don’t believe that he envisions it it the terms you describe, rather natural growth as a consequence of the activities I described.

  5. My degree is health studies. My introduction to computing in 1989 was a mainframe and minitab (ahaahahahha)

    Statistics are useful. But can also cause division. Let me give you an expample.

    It is well reported that male members are low in church. But this has meant that local Church made a beeline for my husband. He was invited to the Bible groups, a men’s weekend away. I was asked to ensure I was not working that weekend so enable him to go. I said NO if we are weekend off it is family time!!!!

    One of the church members came to David asked him for his Email so that he could feel included, and then just looked sheepishly at me. I was of no consequence. Then there is the male only prayer group. Recently I was left in a long service at Ripon Cathedral (daughter is a chorister), that bastion of patriarchial sexism, as my husband was invited to the local real ale pub to the quiz night on grounds of meeting men on the fringes of the church, under the guis of ‘evangelism’.

    Then there is the FGMF (Full Gospel men’s Fellowship), whom meet monthly for a meal and fellowship.

    Ohh this is not unique to me. I am asked by my neighbour to baby sit her four kids so she can go to an ‘Aglow’ meeting whilst her husband attended an important cricket meeting in the middle of Winter.

    Then there is the charity Christian men on vision, a male only evangelism, due to this skew in gender attendance in churches.

    You know what? Men if you want the blinking church as a club you can have it. One huge headache. In Heaven there is no gender division we are all equal we will not need male pudenda, or homophobia for that matter.

    Bosco just praise God that there are people in your pews.


    God Bless,

    1. Lorraine, thank you so much for this comment. My primary ministry is with young people, you possibly realise. A huge issue I see with the church’s obsession with youth is that young people are not fools – they realise that so often people are not there for the young people, the young people are there for them. To make them look good, hip, with it. To make sure that someone will be around to care for their pretty building later (and for them). We need to learn to be there for the young people – whether they end up warming our pews or not. [Hope that makes some sort of sense – it’s what struck me in a similar way from what you said]. Blessings.

  6. Hugh McCafferty

    We do count attendance fill in stats that are submitted to the diocese annually. We publish such things in our yearbooks don’t we? As a church are not really organised as a national body and the province has the complication of its three tikanga structure.

    1. Greetings, Hugh. Can you quickly tell me from your diocesan stats the age distribution and training of your clergy please.

      “As a church are not really organised as a national body and the province has the complication of its three tikanga structure.” You are correct – our church is international, and covers several nations and languages in the South Pacific. I’m not sure what you mean when you say our church is not organised as a province: our prayer book, our doctrine, our appointment of bishops, all major decisions are made provincially and at General Synod. What makes it so complicated to collect the diocesan stats you speak of provincially? If email isn’t working, surely smoke-signals and drums are still fine? Please explain how the governance by three tikanga affects collection of statistics? And are you suggesting we used to collect those statistics provincially, but stopped doing so when we changed to three-tikanga governance? Blessings.

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