Here are the most important (and sometimes surprising) church attendance statistics you need to know as you lead and manage your ministry in 2023.
There has been a significant decline in church attendance since the turn of the 21st century, according to multiple surveys of church attendance from several research institutions. The chart below made with data from Gallup's recent survey illustrates the trend:
What percentage of churchgoing people attend regularly depends on your threshold for what you consider regular attendance. If once a week, only 20% of Americans attend church at that rate, down from 32% in 2000. If we lower the threshold to once a month or more, the number of Americans in regular attendance jumps to 41% (this combines all respondents who answered weekly, almost every week, and about once a month in the Gallup survey).
39% of Millennials report attending church on a weekly basis, according to Barna's recent State of the Church report. This is a significant increase over years prior and places them at a much higher rate of attendance than Generation X and even the Boomer generation, which had previously been more faithfully in attendance than their younger counterparts.
Though most churches are still below pre-pandemic attendance rates, many church leaders are seeing a return of past members, as well as an increase in guests. Read our article on Getting Your Church to Come Back in 2023to learn how you can reach past members and see growth in the year ahead.
Many Millennials never had strong ties to religion in the first place. My generation was not brought up in the church in the same numbers as generations prior, leaving us without much connection to the church as we entered adulthood.
Millennials are also reportedly turned off by the high-profile church leadership scandals and the increasing political polarization in many American congregations, causing many to lose trust in churches and religious institutions altogether.
However, there are some hopeful signs. Millennials make up the largest surge in returns to church as the pandemic has ended. We are entering crucial life stages that make us open to church as a way to connect and find guidance.
For decades, mainline protestant denominations were losing members at alarming rates, while the conservative evangelical traditions grew or at least maintained their numbers. For instance, between 2000 and 2015, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ lost 40% of their members. In contrast, Protestant Evangelical churches and denominations saw a slight increase in church memberships during the first decade of the century.
Now that is no longer the case. Reporting of church attendance by denominations and traditions of all stripes show the lowest attendance rates never before seen in America's history, including conservative evangelical churches.
Interestingly, nondenominational churches are what has seen the most growth in recent years. The US Religion Census found an additional 6,000 nondenominational churches in North America since 2010 and 6.5 million more people in religious attendance.
Pre-pandemic, approximately 3500 people left the religious congregations every day. That's a rate of 1.2 million walking away from church every year. While each church is unique, leading experts say a church should expect to lose about 10%-15% of its members year over year.
The number accelerated due to widespread church lockdowns and many churches are still recovering. Now that lockdowns are behind us and the pandemic has waned, churches are seeing some past members return and new guests arrive. However, on average, churches are at 85% of their pre-pandemic attendance level.
It's difficult to determine current attrition rates for most churches or how many people are leaving the church each year, due to the unique circumstances of the last few years. It may be yet another year or two before we can know what was lost and what was gained with any accuracy.
According to Barna, 16% of Christians who regularly attended church services before COVID no longer attend at all. Surprisingly, Boomers had the highest dropoff rate, with 22% self-reporting as no longer attending church services either in-person or online.
In comparison, 13% of Millennials who attended regularly pre-pandemic have abandoned church services now. As noted earlier, Millennials make up the biggest surge in returns to the church.
According to Missional Marketing's 2018 study of non-churchgoing young adults (ages 18-30), Gen Z is looking for two things:
Young people are looking for connection to a faith and a community that will help give them direction while also making a difference in the world. They're interested in addressing more than just basic theology and religious beliefs, but topics that have immediate relevance in their lives. These topics in include mental health, questions and doubts about God, identity and purpose, social justice, environmental issues, and many more.
This graph from the study reveals the interest level respondents had in each topic presented in the study.
Throughout the 20th century and into the early years of the 21st century, being a regular church attendee meant you were at church once a week or more. As church attendance waned after the turn of the century, attending church twice a month was what most church leaders viewed as the threshold for regular attendance.
That threshold was lowered again in the early months after churches began to reopen. Many leaders counted anyone attending at least once a month as a regular attendee.
However, members tend to have a different perspective. Members are more likely to consider once a week attendance to be the standard for regular attendance. 59% of members report weekly attendance to be the threshold, while on 16% of pastors hold the same standard.
Pentecostal and Charismatic religious traditions are the fastest-growing in the world and have been for the past several years. Globally, charismatic churches have the highest rates of growth and are doing so through new conversions. These faith traditions are spreading rapidly across Africa and Latin America.
However, in the United States, non-denominational churches have seen significant growth over the last decade. According to the US Religion Census, over 4000 new non-denominational churches have opened since 2010 and have seen 6.5 million more people in attendance since then.
AEI Survey Center on American Life's 2022 study on Evangelical church attendance rates found that attendance has dropped noticeably. All frequency categories (Regularly, Occasionally, and Infrequently) saw a decrease in self-reported attendance compared to pre-pandemic levels. The only category that increased was the Never category.
Nearly all churches have returned to in-person worship since the lockdowns ended in addition to their online services. Yet most churches still have not returned to their pre-pandemic attendance rates.
Churches surveyed by Lifeway Research last year were found to be at 85% of their pre-pandemic attendance levels on average. Many churches have recovered many of their former members, but are now facing the choice to continue reaching out to those last stragglers or moving on without them.
Interestingly, 23% of pastors of small churches (fewer than 50 in attendance pre-pandemic) report being up to 90%-100% of pre-pandemic attendance rates! This is much higher than for larger churches.
This has greatly shifted the landscape of American congregations. Before the pandemic, two-thirds of all churches had an attendance of around 125. Now 2 in 3 churches are at less than 100 in attendance, with nearly 1 in 3 churches below 50.
In response, some church leaders are shifting away from using attendance as the primary metric for growth and looking to engagement instead.
Church attendance is on an upward trend. However, we're coming off an all-time attendance low, meaning the only way to go was up.
Church leaders should look at these statistics with hope, motivation, and some concern. The rapid disconnection from church and faith communities has led to a public health crisis that could lead to a great deal of harm.
Yet people are still returning and new people are entering churches for the first time. Now is a chance to increase religious commitment by focusing on outreach, evangelism, and meeting the needs of our communities.