From a Washington Post article on March 29, 2021: “Church membership in the United States has fallen below the majority [of the population] for the first time in nearly a century … First time this has happened since Gallup first asked the question in 1937, when church membership was 73%.”
Some caveats here: Gallup uses a “scientific” yet relatively small number of respondents for their surveys. However, Pew Research uses a far larger number of respondents. And Pew has been seeing a similar, dramatic decline when it comes to not only whether people are formally affiliated with religious institutions (i.e., membership), but also a significant decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christian. Second caveat: This Gallup survey was focused on formal institutional affiliation, and Americans have become increasingly cynical about almost all institutions, not just religious ones. But again, I would refer you to multiple Pew Religious Survey results which have been revealing significant declines not just in formal church membership, but in people self-identifying as Christians by faith.
Now back to this very recent Gallup survey. From a long-term historical perspective — something Gallup provides — this current survey should be something of a “wake-up call” for church leaders. One more quote from the Washington Post article: “In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque.” This Gallup survey “also found that the number of people who also said religion was very important to them has fallen to 48%, a new low point in their polling” going all the way back to 1937.
Not surprisingly, the Gallup and Pew Research findings are being reflected in decreasing worship attendance. And this worship attendance decline was painfully evident in a majority of Lutheran congregations long before the current pandemic.
In the last issue of this newsletter I wrote of ways to improve what your congregation offers to online worshipers. And I do consider online worship as a needed outreach strategy in the years to come. However, do not think you can afford to give up on offering quality in-person worship. Those who already are — and soon will be — worshiping in person deserve your congregation’s best efforts. Below are some specific, practical suggestions regarding how you can incrementally increase in-person worship attendance: “One Sunday at a Time.”
As mentioned, a majority of Lutheran congregations were already dealing with decreasing worship attendance even before COVID. Needless to say, this can be demoralizing for faithful members on a “number” of levels. First of all, for them this is about more than numbers, because this decreasing attendance represents friends who are “missing in action”; whether due to inactivity, their having moved, or illness. Whatever the factors involved, low worship attendance is perhaps the single clearest indication — to members and visitors alike — of a congregation in decline. Given this fact, anything that pastors and lay leaders can do to noticeably increase attendance will most likely improve congregational morale and bring added energy and enthusiasm to worship services.
Perhaps the best, initial strategy would be having the pastor and a few congregational leaders commit to meeting monthly to coordinate the implementation — one Sunday at a time — to the following, multiple strategies. (Disclaimer: This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I realize your congregation might already be employing some of these ideas.) I encourage you to utilize at least one of these ideas on any given Sunday.
1. Special Music – This could be a solo, a duet, a vocal ensemble, or an instrumental performance. Offering this not only improves the quality of your worship celebration, but it also requires the presence of the above musicians; many of whom bring one or more guests to hear them perform.
2. Congregational Sermon Survey – In preparation for the next Sunday’s sermon these very short surveys can be filled out by worshipers during the previous Sunday’s worship service. Tell them not to sign. Mention that you will be using some of their comments and opinions in the pastor’s next sermon (or sermon series). Odds are this will be an encouragement for some otherwise infrequent worshipers to definitely show up the following Sunday.
3. Drama Skits – There are excellent Christian drama skits available. One example: Drama Ministry at dramaministry.com. This Christian ministry offers over 750 small-cast scripts for performance. Obviously, a short (usually under 10 minute) drama means the guaranteed presence of not just cast members, but probably their families, and maybe some friends. Note: Many of these scripts are quite humorous.
4. Refreshments Following the Service – Provide a light “brunch”; if not weekly, then perhaps monthly.
5. Involve Children and/or Teens in Some Part of the Service (They typically come with parents!) – This could be a musical performance, or as Scripture readers, or ushers and greeters.
6. Celebrate and Honor People from Your Community – Do this as part of your worship service and invite not just members who qualify but non-members from the community as guests on this Sunday. Some examples include schoolteachers, first-responders, veterans, fire fighters, police officers and especially in this time of COVID, health care workers.
7. Enlist Additional Volunteers to Celebrate Church Year Festival Sundays – Maybe enlist members who are infrequent worshipers to help out on these Sundays. In addition to Christmas and Easter, do not forget the first Sunday in Advent, Epiphany Sunday, Palm Sunday, All Saints Sunday, and Pentecost. Plan for creative ways to utilize these volunteers.
8. Use Special Video Resources – While this strategy does not increase attendance on a given Sunday, it can improve the overall quality of your worship celebration. And that will most likely improve attendance over time. Free resources on the internet include live performance music videos from Mercy Me (“Even If”) and Chris Tomlin (“Is He Worthy”); and many more. Obviously, you need to be sure that showing any given video does not violate any copyright laws. There are also short sermonettes online that could emphasize the pastor’s theme for a given Sunday. Additional video resources that involve a reasonable fee include drama skits from “The Skitguys” at skitguys.com, and video messages available from the ministry Sermonspice at sermonspice.com.
Obviously, this is only a partial list. And you can no doubt come up with more and better ideas for your congregation. But remember the principal that underlies all of the above: Working on the quality of your worship celebration not just for your faithful worshipers, but in the hope of connecting with new people over time. So why not organize that small team, involving the pastor and a few lay leaders, to strategize and plan for worship attendance growth: “One Sunday at a Time.”
Note: In the next CORE newsletter issue I will cover the theme of “How to Disciple Online Worshipers.”