I can remember my first six months as a student pastor so clearly. It was my first full-time staff position at a church. I was ready to do the hard work of ministry and see God move in powerful ways, or so I thought. One month in, we had thirty students in Sunday school. To my knowledge, that was the largest number of students our church had seen on a Sunday in a long time. We could not be more excited. But that was all about to change. Within a few months, our attendance slumped to 12–15 students, with several students completely walking away from church altogether. I spent some of the darkest days of that season wondering how this could happen or if something was wrong with me.
The reality is that every pastor will experience attendance decreases and struggles at some point. Healthy churches will grow in the long run, but seasons of plateau and decline are a natural part of life. Furthermore, many young pastors are tasked with revitalizing unhealthy churches, where attendance growth is even harder to find. Instead of panicking over low attendance, here are six steps pastors can take to address low attendance numbers.
1. Don’t Make Attendance your Identity
Too often, pastors react to lower attendance by blaming the man in the mirror. We make attendance a part of our identity as a servant of the Gospel. When numbers are down, we assume that we failed or even doubt our calling as ministers. What’s worse, we may even blame others around us for creating the problem. Some pastors may experience depression because they question their own worth. We can only step back and address the real problems when we understand our identity as unconditionally loved, and called by God.
2. Pray for a Movement of God
The church has never experienced a movement of God without prayer. The first disciples spent weeks in prayer before Pentecost. The modern missions movement hinged on the earnest prayers of men like William Carey, Andrew Fuller, and those five students at the Haystack Prayer Meeting. Pastor, pray for a movement of God in your church! In my own ministry, I saw a major change when I decided to dedicate the last thirty to forty minutes of my Wednesday to prayer walk our youth room, begging God to change our students. If we will humble ourselves and pray, God is faithful to respond.
3. Count the Numbers (All of them!)
Pastors in SBC life normally care about three numbers: Sunday school attendance, worship attendance, and baptisms. Those numbers are surely important, but they cannot explain where the problems start. Pastors need to track all of the numbers. How many visitors did the church have in the past year? How many were assimilated into membership? How many people made professions of faith? How many actually followed through in baptism? What are the church’s age demographics? Does your church have a way to track gospel conversations or discipleship focused relationships? What is the frequency of individual attendance? All of these questions will give you a more nuanced picture of what’s going on.
4. Evaluate Where the Problem Starts
At HBC, every ministry has a written discipleship path. The idea is to create a picture of what it looks like for an unchurched, unsaved individual to turn into a faithful, multiplying, Jesus-loving disciple. When you have tracked all of the numbers, you can see where you are falling short on the discipleship path. It may be that your church is not doing evangelism well. It may be that you have a lot of unchurched or newly saved attendees, but you are not discipling well. Those are two vastly different problems. Know where your church’s struggles start. Otherwise, you will continue to stick a square peg in a round hole.
5. Focus on the People in the Room
Now that you have looked at all the numbers and have a good idea on where the problems start, it’s time to focus on the people in the room. Programs will not change a church. The Senior Pastor, by himself, is not enough to change his church. The people in the room create the movement. Pastors who shepherd their people well can lead change effectively. The people trust him because he has been there in their struggles. On the other hand, a congregation can tell when they are not good enough for their pastor. They will not follow him if they think he is only interested in building his kingdom, instead of God’s.
6. Equip Your Leaders to Help
A huge part of focusing on the people in the room is identifying and equipping leaders. When pastors spend time to specifically equip leaders, they will multiply their influence and increase their bandwidth to do more ministry. That means taking leaders through steps 3 and 4. Every leader in the student and college ministries at HBC knows our discipleship path. They also know where every student is on that path. We meet regularly to discuss how we can help students take the next step on the path. Leaders who know the what, why, and how of ministry will help the pastor implement effective change.
Pastors, you can implement effective change, even in your darkest days. Get rid of your insecurities and place your identity in Christ. Pray earnestly for his movement. Examine and evaluate every number and every aspect of your church’s ministries. Do the difficult part of ministry: shepherd the people in the room and equip your leaders to lead. Then rest and leave the results to God.
Teaching Pastor and Elder at Harvest Point Church. PhD student in OT.