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Church Research: Fix Your Attendance Frequency Problem

Acentric Blog
Published by Craig Kolb in Research application · 19 October 2021
Tags: Churchresearchattendancefrequency
Have you been given a clear view on how to increase attendance frequency? Before conducting this research I found a lot of speculation and theorizing from various commentators and consultants, but very little empirical evidence on what drives church attendance frequency. So I decided to conduct a survey, but not just any survey, a survey which was designed to be as scientific as possible. I realise as a pastor it is very difficult to plot a clear course of action without having a clear view of the problem. So it is my hope that this research will give you a clear view of what to do to to increase attendance frequency, and ultimately congregation size. If you are wondering what congregation size and attendance frequency have to do with each other – I’ll explain later, but first lets look at how the research was conducted.

Methodology

A national sample of those who were brought up in the church as children or teenagers was recruited.
The sample was national rather than church specific, to ensure that those who no longer attend church or do so very rarely, were also included in the sample. The questionnaire took around 10 minutes. Respondents were asked how frequently they attended church and were then shown 19 belief / perception statements and asked to indicate their agreement or disagreement with each statement. The survey – fortunately – was completed in early March 2020, meaning it avoided the Covid lockdowns, which would have distorted the results.

A non-probability sample was drawn from an online panel. Incentives were offered to improve response rates. In order to improve demographic representation, sample weights were estimated using a RIM algorithm.

The Law of Double Jeopardy

When attempting to try to increase congregation size, it is important to consider frequency of attendance. I say that because of a well-established law within the field of marketing research called the law of double jeopardy.

The law of double jeopardy states that: small brands are punished twice, not only do they have a smaller customer base, that customer base also buys them less often on average.

So when applying this to churches, we need to modify the terminology somewhat. When we talk about customer base size, we’re actually talking about congregation size. To be more precise I mean the percentage of people within the target population who attend church at least once, within a fixed time period, such as a month. The target population could be defined in many ways, one example would be the population within a certain radius around your church, or specific suburbs around your church. The second option is a bit easier to implement though, since suburb population data should be available from your countries national census bureau.

Results

The seven top predictors of church attendance frequency are shown in the table below. These were identified – not by asking directly, as that may have resulted in biases – but indirectly using a statistical technique from a family of techniques called Generalized Linear Models. I won’t go into any more detail than that, as the technical aspects not important to the objectives of this article.
Those who answered yes to each of these top seven statements had much higher average attendance frequencies; and keep in mind, this is after controlling for other factors that impact on attendance frequency. This means these seven have a unique contribution all their own, independent of things like age, gender, ethnicity and income as well as other beliefs. So let’s have a look at the table. The first two, are perhaps not surprising, and I would group them together into a social factor. The third “The bible is accurate”, along with “Noah’s ark is a true story” I would group into a scientific defense factor. The last two “Church answers my life questions” and “Sermons answer my questions” could also be grouped into the scientific defense factor, because if you don’t believe the bible is defensible then you are not likely to accept the answers provided by the church or the theology contained in sermons. However it is also possible that these relate to apologetics issues and theological issues – but only is as much as they rest on a rational defense of the bible.


Now let’s look at the opposite side of the coin (see the table below). Music seems to have no impact at all on attendance frequency. This might be a surprise to some as so many churches have come to emphasize music as a way to attract new members. However, since the secular world can provide the same or even better offerings, it is not a good attribute to try to differentiate on.
Hearing scientists criticize evolution doesn’t seem to matter – unsurprisingly as the quality of argument matters, and I suspect many won’t have had the opportunity of hearing scientists like this.

Short and enjoyable sermons in fact have the opposite effect. Those who answer yes to these statements are likely to attend church less often on average. I have to admit I was surprised by this at first, but after thinking about it a little bit, I realized that one possible reason might be that if you feel sermons don’t answer your questions, you might then want them to be as short as possible. So allowing members to submit questions each week so that you can try to answer questions in the following weeks sermon might be one way of addressing this Another approach might be John Macarthur’s practice of having live Q & A sessions in church. Last one – why would enjoyable sermons be detrimental? I suspect that enjoyable sermons are probably not touching on the core issues, and dealing with the hard questions. They’re light and fluffy, but they’re avoiding difficult areas – more 'feel good' than anything else.

Suggestions

So then, let’s get practical. What can you to make changes in your own church? I would suggest three steps.

Step 1

The first step is to run a baseline survey to determine where you are right now as a church.

Step 2

The second step is to follow this up with programmes to increase the percentage agreeing with the 7 top statements. For example, partnering with organizations like Answers in Genesis or the ICR, to enable a scientific defense of scripture should improve belief in biblical accuracy. Dealing with perceptions of financial waste may involve budget reviews aimed at a reduction in internal expenditure and an increase in expenditure on congregants who need help and assisting the surrounding community with investments in hospitals, old age homes and other areas churches have abandoned to the secular world over the years.

Step 3

The third step is to track progress by repeating the survey at least once a year and then adjust your interventions accordingly.

Note: a video of this article is also available.




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