Reflections on Average Worship Attendance

Average Worship AttendanceMost American churches have relatively small memberships.  Since the accuracy of membership roles varies widely, average weekly worship attendance is often used to compare congregational size.

  • Median American congregation has 75 attend weekly worship (National Congregations Survey)
  • Average American congregation has 186 attend weekly worship (US Congregational Survey)
  • Half (50%) of all church attendance is accounted for by the largest 10% of congregations – those with 350+ average weekly worship attendance (National Congregations Survey)

(For more information check out Hartfort Seminary’s Fast Facts About American Religion)

Upsizing: Bigger is Often Better

I started ministry in a congregational context while in seminary. After graduating from seminary I served five Mainline Protestant congregations.  Each congregation I served had a larger average weekly worship attendance than the prior congregations: 145, 310, 640, 775 and 790.

These experiences helped me appreciate Susan Beaumont’s five reasons people are increasingly attracted to larger congregations (Inside the Large Congregation, p.11-16):

  1. capacity for excellence
  2. effective use of technology
  3. space for anonymity and intimacy
  4. presence of diversity
  5. capacity to make a difference

Downsizing: Medium is Big Enough

The sixth and seventh congregations I served were similar in size.  Each had a membership of between 250-280 and an average weekly worship attendance of between 140-160.

Unlike my permanent roles in the first five congregations, I served in interim roles in the next two congregations.  As interim, I spent a good deal of time learning what folks thought of the church I was pastoring and how it was they arrived at their perspective.  Both congregations had been declining for some time, but welcomed the opportunity for growth.  Both congregations struggled to attract and retain newcomers in part due to the inability to meet the five expectations listed above.

These mid-sized congregations (in between pastoral and program sized – especially when accounting for seasonal variations) were large enough to a lot well, to make a significant impact on their respective communities, and to offer multiple entry points for newcomers.  Additionally, they were small enough to feel welcoming and personable while not overwhelming those searching for a smaller faith community.

So What?

Small congregations increasingly face challenges disproportionate to their size (check out my recent post “Small Congregations – Big Challenges“).  Mid-sized, large and mega churches are more likely to be growing, and more likely to resonate with the majority of people searching for a faith community.

Regardless of average worship attendance, all congregations can and should excel.  It is essential for leaders to know what size their congregation really is today and why that matters.

  • What is your congregation’s average worship attendance? Overall does your faith community feel about the right size for you, too large or too small?
  • What do you think are the greatest challenges and greatest opportunities for small congregations? for mid-sized congregations? for large congregations?

Comments

  1. Does size have any bearing on quality of doctrine or resistance to scandal, etc.? Does bigger mean better in terms of a buffer against such?

  2. Terry, those are some interesting questions. Overall, it is my impression that denominations are helpful in lessening the likelihood of scandal both through their initial screening of candidates for ordination and their ongoing responsibility for the fitness of all of their ordained clergy. This is, of course, more the case in traditions that have a hierarchical structure. So, in a general sense denominational ties (especially strong ones) would appear to have a better correlation to less scandal than would size or other variables. When controlling for denomination, it is easier to have scandal in very small or very large churches.

    I am not sure I am qualified to comment on size as it relates to what you call quality of doctrine.

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