Every year we do a church attendance survey for BUGB, this
year done in September. We know that on a typical Sunday in January we have
about 60% of the regular Sunday congregation present. The recent survey suggests
that in the holiday months this falls to about 50% or less. So what are the
factors behind this? I suspect the following all play a part.
- Holidays. Most ministers recognise that school holidays see
a decrease in attendance as families go away, not just in the summer but at
half terms as well. But our congregation seems to have nearly as many people
away in June and September as those who are not restricted to school holidays
go away. On top of this a number in the congregation have holiday homes or
caravans (both static and touring) which mean they are often away on Sunday.
- Family. Many people have family who live a distance away so
visiting them is often something restricted to weekends. This might involve
visiting children and grandchildren or visiting parents. In addition some have
children away at University. The really unfortunate have the double whammy
effect of children who live away and parents (who are increasingly in need of
care) who also live in different parts of the country.
- Work patterns. Changing work patterns have impacted in ways
that are not immediately apparent. Some of course work on Sundays but in many
families the trend over recent decades has been for both spouses to work. One
effect of this is that all the families domestic routine now has to be fitted
into evenings and weekends. If families want to have some leisure activity
together this often happens on Sunday.
Other than the fact that fewer people turn up to Sunday
worship what other impact does this have.
1. It makes sequential teaching on Sunday morning more
difficult. Less than half the congregation listening to this mornings sermon
will have heard last weeks. Increasingly I find myself structuring Sunday
morning preaching round a single main theme each term, but this has
implications for how we read and understand Scripture.
2. Communication. I’m not naïve enough to believe that people
pay lots of attention to notices or the newsletter but irregular attendance makes
it harder to ensure that people know what is going on.
3. Community. A sense of community is fostered by shared
experiences and opportunities for interaction. In a medium sized church there are never
occasions when everyone shares in something but the lack of attendance makes
any sense of community even more fragmented.
4. Consumerism. The result is that church worship gatherings
feel like occasions where people come because it meets a need, teaching and communication become slick event driven performances and church commitment is
like brand loyalty.
Some will of course respond by lamenting the fact that
people aren’t as committed as they once were, that they no longer prioritise
gathering together in worship. But perhaps it is time to rethink what we mean
by gathering for worship?