Five Ways Some Churches Increase Attendance Without Really Growing

My first commercially published book released in 2010 from Kregel Publications was titled Sunday School That Really Works.  Whether you have a traditional Sunday School ministry, home groups during the week, or call your groups by some other name, the book is valuable and I hope you will check out. On page 51, I state that your church is not really growing unless the community is being penetrated with the gospel message, people are trusting Jesus Christ as their Savior, and the church is taking responsibility to lead those new believers (as well as existing members) to grow in their personal relationship with the Lord. Now that I have defined what it means for a congregation to grow, did you know that it is possible for some churches to increase in attendance without really growing? Here are five ways I have seen it happen:

  1. Seasonal Growth: Most churches can experience a mild surge of growth at the beginning of the academic year for schools and the Sunday’s that follow the New Year’s Holiday on January 1st. Everyone is back in town, new commitments have been made, new groups are created and attendance often surges. The dynamic is particularly true when comparing the attendance to the summer months when people are vacationing or the holidays when people are traveling. The illusion of growth can appear because attendance takes a seasonal surge which is common to most every church.
  2. Worship Driven Growth: While Sunday morning worship is both critical to church vitality and central as the primary gathering point for the congregation, you can sometimes be misled by an increase in attendance for this particular service. The Sunday morning worship is the gathering of a crowd. However, some churches grow the worship without growing the believers. How can you tell? If a church is making disciples and equipping the saints (Matthew 28:18-20 and Ephesians 4:11-12) then more leaders are being developed, an increasing number of people are serving, an increasing number of small groups are being created, and more new believers are being discipled.  Let me be clear that it is not about the numbers but the numbers do reflect something. For example, if the worship attendance expanded by 20% or more and you have no additional leaders or more people serving, the crowd is growing, but not the number of fully devoted disciples. Rick Warren once noted that you “measure the health of a church by its sending capacity, not its seating capacity.”
  3. “New” Driven Growth: When a church calls a new pastor, a new staff member, or moves into a new facility, at least a small surge of growth in attendance tends to take place. A church would actually do well to leverage this opportunity. It is also not uncommon, though not automatic, for some floundering of attendance to occur during the absence of a pastor in an interim situation. But the freshness of a new pastor leads some members to recommit though they may have wavered or to reconcile if they were disgruntled under former leadership. The attendance may increase but may not be reflected by more lost people having been reached.
  4. Split-Driven Growth: This is a touchy one. A church up the road has a crisis or conflict and families begin to bail. It may not be that the church splits in half but that several families left in a short time span and many follow their peers to a new church. The receiving church has done nothing wrong in this circumstance, but the addition of six, eight, ten, or more families, while increasing the attendance, may not reflect growth. Members are just being moved around. In this case, do not let the increase in attendance to allow you to have a false sense of security and dissuade you from reaching out to the lost and unchurched.
  5. Population Growth: An influx of new neighborhoods can sometimes result in an increase in attendance with little or no effort from the community church. A church that is friendly can particularly have an edge when this happens. The additional families who move from out of the area can be a blessing and the boost can help fill needs for service and leadership. Be cautious in that you should not substitute the addition of new Christian families in the community for reaching out to the unchurched of the community.

I want to emphasize that the church has not necessarily done anything wrong when they experience an increase in attendance for any of the reasons I have stated. Instead of misinterpreting the increase as growth, take advantage of the additional members to make more disciples and to more fervently reach out to more people who need the forgiveness and faith that comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Make disciples and equip the saints!