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It used to be 130, but now it’s 108.

As in the median worship attendance at a typical congregation has declined – again – from 130 to 108.

According to the new Hartford Seminary study, Faith Communities Today, the percentage of congregations with an average weekly worship attendance of 100 or fewer moved from 42% to 49%. More than a quarter of all congregations had 50 or fewer people in attendance.

And the megachurches (congregations with 2,000 or more weekly attendees)?

While the number doubled, they only make up 0.5 percent of all congregations. As David Roozen, author of the report “A Decade of Change in American Congregations, 2000-2010” and director of the Hartford Institute of Religion Research notes, “There are more megachurches but, in fact, they’re getting an increasing piece of an overall shrinking pie.”

Why is this happening?

First, let’s get the qualifiers out of the way about numbers.

I’ve written that the reporting fixation about the “largest” and the “fastest-growing” is, at best, awkward for me. You can read that post

But that doesn’t mean I’m against numbers, much less counting. I’m all for it, and we count rather meticulously at Meck. It matters to me whether there are more, or less, from one weekend to the next. If there is one more family in attendance, that’s one more family we are reaching for Christ.

Second, we all know that attendance is far from being the only metric that matters. Much has been said about the church’s true effectiveness being much more than butts, bricks and bucks (attendance, buildings and giving). The greater question is what is happening to those people, and the greatest question is whether God is being glorified through the church as both community and mission.

Yet attendance matters. You can’t equip people that aren’t there; it would be difficult to give God His glory through corporate worship if there aren’t believers being made, and then gathered.

All to say, the Great Commission has teeth; either you are reaching people for Christ, or you are not.

So a number like 108 concerns me.

Which brings us to the real question: why is it so low?

It’s simple. When we think about growth, we are not thinking about conversion growth. We are thinking about biological growth or transfer growth.

Biological growth occurs when a child of existing believers with ties to a church comes to faith in Christ through his or her involvement in the church. Essentially, this is winning your own.

In the southern state of Kerala, India, where Catholics have long been a large minority group, church authorities believe the state’s overall Christian population could drop to 17 percent this year, down from 19.5 percent in 1991. Worried about their dwindling numbers, the Roman Catholic Church in southern India announced a campaign to increase attendance by asking its flock to have more babies. It even went so far as to offer free schooling, medical care and even cash bonuses for large families.

Another way of growing is transfer growth.

This takes place when a Christian moves into an area and chooses to join a church, or when a locally churched Christian makes the decision to move to another church home. Such a person does not come to a church as a nonbeliever, nor does this person come from an unchurched background. At best, he or she is temporarily unchurched due to relocation or some other life issue. This type of growth, then, results from nothing more than the movement of existing believers.

Translation: sheep swapping.

I recall many years ago reading an article about a large church that was experiencing financial difficulty. When asked why the church was stalled in its growth, the pastor replied that when they started, they were the only evangelical church around. Now, there were several good Bible-teaching churches.

So people had a choice.

Which is why they weren’t growing.


In the South, you can add “prodigal growth” to the mix. A prodigal is someone without a recent church background or church involvement. This person embraces Christian beliefs and, in some cases, has maintained a certain level of spirituality. For one reason or another, however, this person left the church and may have lived his or her life outside Christ’s daily management and direct, personal leadership. A prodigal has certainly left the life of Christian community. Prodigal growth occurs when such a person returns to the church. Renewal and rededication may take place as part of the return and, at times, even rebaptism.

But missing in almost every church’s thinking is conversion growth. This type of growth occurs when a church reaches a non-Christian. Consciously or not, such a person has rejected the truth and claims of Christianity. To grow through conversion is to grow by reaching a person who has not entered into a life-changing, personal relationship with Christ as Savior and Lord.

If things don’t change, small churches will keep getting smaller; big churches will keep attracting larger numbers of the already convinced (often at the expense of the smaller churches), and the Christian population as a whole will remain in decline.

Because the real story of 130 becoming 108 is found in another set of numbers.

Refusing to leave the 99 for the 1.

James Emery White

“U.S. churches still losing members,” Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service, Saturday, October 8, 2011. Read

James Emery White, “The Largest and Fastest Growing.” Read

Catholic Church in India Says Have More Children, Fox News, October 10, 2011. Read

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