Church Answers released information this week on church attrition: “Why Your Church Has to Replace 32% of Its Attendance to Stay Even Each Year.” In it, Thom Rainer noted that for every 100 persons in attendance, a church will lose each year; 1 to death, 9 to moving, 7 to transfer to another church in the community, and 15 to declining attendance frequency. Anecdotally, I have read varying statistics over the years putting the attrition rate in the 10-15% range annually.
In our church, for the 15 years prior to the Covid pandemic, we averaged between 8-12% in annual attrition. Meaning that we had to add 8-12% of our attendance in any given year just to maintain. I am interested in reading more about the research methodology from Church Answers, especially related to losing “15 to declining attendance frequency.” This is very vague and seems high and potentially context-dependent. There is no question though, that attendance patterns have changed dramatically in the past decade.
What should churches take note of in considering such alarming statistics?
Outreach and evangelism are as important and even more important than ever before. Gone are the days of cultural Christianity in the United States where some people went to church because it was a respectable thing to do. If we do not intentionally go with the good news about Jesus, they will not come to us for the most part.
Genuine hospitality needs to be extended when we gather. If you were to attend the church you go to now, as a first-time guest, would you return? Would you stay? Are we offering Christian community and fellowship where people can grow in their faith?
A church that is not intentional in outreach and evangelism will die more quickly than ever before. Let’s say the new attrition rates are a bit high. If you considered a 20% attrition rate, and a church only adds 10% per year, for example, over a 5-year period the church could potentially decline by 50%. These are drastic numbers.
Another trend to keep an eye on is what the attrition rate means for areas with declining populations. This could include an entire state, like West Virginia where our church is, as well as the vast rural areas in the United States where the Gospel need is great but churches are declining and closing at a high rate.
Church attrition rates are important, and so is church planting. A Lifeway Research Study reflected that 4,500 churches closed in 2019 and about 3,000 churches were started. Sometimes people say we need to help the existing churches and this is true. Revitalization and replanting are incredibly important. We also need to follow the New Testament model of making disciples and planting new churches.
There is no such thing as neutral when it comes to the posture and progress of a church. A church is either advancing or retreating. By God’s grace, I pray that we can stay focused on the main thing and advance as a faithful part of God’s kingdom.