Sunday, March 31, 2013

Church attendance and predictive models

Happy Easter, to those of you who celebrate!

I did in fact make it to church this morning, which weirdly enough got me pondering predictive models.  The connection's not as tenuous as you might think.  The church I've been going to is incredibly large...the building that is.  My best guess is it could easily hold 1000 people.  From what I've counted*, there seems to be about 100 people there on typical Sunday mornings, which makes the place seem quite cavernous.  This morning I was not able to do my normal count (I let a seven year old pick where to sit, and ended up in the front row), so I was only able to get a brief glance at the crowd.  It occurred to me that it's extremely hard to estimate the size of a crowd that is in such an outsized space, especially when that crowd distributes themselves as New England churchgoers tend to.

All of this got me to browsing around the web, looking for any data on church attendance, which led me to this article for church leaders about attendance trends.  It's a bit long, but it has some interesting research in to who goes to church and who says they go to church.  What struck me as interesting though, was point number 7, on page number 5.  If you don't feel like clicking on the link, it's a model of how church attendance in America will look by 2050 (percentage of population down, raw numbers up).

What struck me about this was what a funny thing this was to model.  In order to model church attendance, one must fundamentally presume that it is a purely sociological phenomena that is likely to trend consistently for 40 years.  While I think that can make for some interesting numbers on a screen, it actually seems to violate some assumptions most Christians themselves would hold (i.e. that there is a Divine force involved that might not work on a linear scale).  I'm not saying he shouldn't have modeled this, but it did get me thinking about what types of behavior lend themselves to modeling and which ones do not.  Some phenomena change linearly, some exponentially, some decrease/increase step-wise.  I'm not sure which one church attendance fits in to, but I'd be interested in seeing the rationale for picking one over the others.

I've had a few people send me some studies that relied on models, and I think I'm going to try to take a look at some of them this week.  This could get interesting.

*I count people during hymn singing time.  I probably started doing this when I was about 4, as far as I can recall. 


  1. Having spent some time running the board (and having my own unpopular ideas about what role the congregation should have in the mix) I've tended to try to estimate what fraction of the congregation is singing. ("The more drum and electric guitar, the lower the fraction of people who can hear themselves well enough to sing" is my hypothesis)

    But wrt changes in attendance, remember C.S Lewis God in the Dock?

    The ‘decline of religion’ so often lamented (or welcomed) is held to be shown by empty chapels. Now it is quite true that chapels which were full in 1900 are empty in 1946. But this change was not gradual. It occurred at the precise moment when chapel ceased to be compulsory… The withdrawal of compulsion did not create a new religious situation, but only revealed the situation which had long existed. And this is typical of the ‘decline in religion’ all over England.

    1. It's a bit similar to the situation with divorce rates...with the advent of no fault divorces, the divorce rate climbed, then slowed, then leveled. These things rarely go linearly all the way to the axis.

      Your first paragraph needs to be turned in to a formal study. You've likely just added a new element to my counting habit.

  2. As for music, you need a critical mass or it's an uphill battle. I say this having been a worship leader in a very small New England church. I am reveling in the drum and guitar work at the larger church, carrying some of the weight.

    Part of that was the congregation, a very educated, reserved, mainstream-raised group. My son joked that the archetypal hymn-singing for us was for everyone to stand and read along silently while Kathy played. Yet this was also a group that had lots of musical background.

    As for church growth, that church collapsed eventually. Reading ECC church-planting as a source sets my teeth a-grinding. The hard facts are that churches grow when their areas grow, seldom otherwise. Growing churches nonetheless take spiritual credit that they have done something right that others should emulate. It is true that churches seldom appeal to more than one culture. The liturgical churches hold a few cradle Lutherans or whatever, who won't leave because their identification with the whole strong enough to overrule disconnect from the local church. But in general, it is a one-culture deal. In fact, any church that looks multi-cultural I would examine more closely immediately, to see if there is a cultural unity such as education or politics that is trumping racial and age characteristics.

    1. The most racially diverse churches I've been to inevitably draw from grad student/university professor populations.

  3. I can't say I agree about the corellation between drums/guitar and the number of people joining in worship. My experience is almost the exact opposite. But my sample size is really small...

    Yet I must agree with AVI. A body of believers has to have some cultural unity to remain together as a body.

    (Caveat: I've visited a rather large church which manages to have one group attend traditional services early on Sunday, with two different, more-contemporary-styled services later on Sunday. So it's not impossible. But that may be a special case, of a church with some other dominant cultural unity finding a way to keep peace between various sections of the membership.)

  4. I think the congregation should be the loudest thing you hear in congregational singing.

    I'm not fond of ultra-loud pieces, but if the congregation is into it with all their heart and lungs--glory to God. (I may not like it, but they're doing it right.) But too often I hear only the two or three voices with microphones on--the intro (conversation crusher) song is usually the loudest.

    The new music leader is better at picking out things the congregation can manage instead of largely the more popular (and vocally demanding) songs on Christian radio.

    It shouldn't be so hard to mix different cultures in the same service, but AVI is right--it does seem to be. Of course sometimes those cultural differences get wedded to theological differences (quiet liturgical vs prophesying in the aisles pentacostal).

    1. Interesting thoughts. The situations I'm familiar with are measured on a similar metric.

      Is the event closer to performance by the musicians/singers, or something that the people join into?

    2. It varies. Some songs are easy and well known and the congregation joins in hard on the chorus; others are harder or not so well known and you can't hear a thing that isn't from the speakers. And it depends some on the team working that week. Some like to "rock out" and really get into it on stage.

      Sometimes I wonder if having the choir off out of view Greek-Orthodox style is a good plan. But the congregation needs cues... At least most of those I've been in lately do. Black church participation styles are often way different.

      Seat for seat you generally get more volume out of the more elderly worshipers in the "classic" service than the "contemporary" one.

  5. On the more general subject, church attendance is hard to measure and model.

    You've got:
    --people attending because they desire the religious experience
    --people attending out of habit
    --people attending because it is a social gathering

    Sometimes, the same person comes for different reasons at different times of year (or seasons of their life).

    And then there are spikes in attendance. Easter/Christmas. Or the seasonal variation...some guys just love communing with God in a natural setting certain times of year. (What, you think he's out fishing?)

    Anyway, there's another odd factor: if the building was originally built for a larger (or smaller) crowd, spikes become much more visible to everyone. But the discrepancy between capacity and typical number of attenders can make the baseline value hard to judge.