The Case of the Missing Church Members

July 26, 2005 by

Remember Encyclopedia Brown? He was cool. Solving all those complicated cases with quick thinking. Maybe the Southern Baptist Convention should call Encyclopedia. You see, they’re missing 10 million members.

Of the SBC’s 16,287,494 members, only 6,024,289 show up on the average Sunday for their church’s primary service. That means only 37% of church members actually go to church. So if your church has 200 people on Sunday morning, you likely have 500 to 600 people on the membership roll. Yikes.

So where’d everybody go? Some are probably sick or out of town. Or perhaps they’re in the military or are elderly shut-ins. But that hardly accounts for 63% of a church’s membership not showing up. Where’d all the churchgoers go?

I suspect they went to a different church. My hunch is that the membership rolls aren’t kept up to date and they may be packed with people who long ago left the church or have since died. That might just account for 10 million missing church members, especially if they left one Southern Baptist church for another and were double counted.

I’m no Encyclopedia Brown, but if I’m right you really have to wonder about the point of those membership rolls. If more than half your list is bad data, you don’t have a very good list. That means 63% of every mailing is money down the drain.

And I could be wrong. But whatever the reason, somebody’s got to account for 10 million empty seats in pews across the country. Maybe we should call Encyclopedia Brown.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
Read more posts by | Want to write for us?

11 Responses to “The Case of the Missing Church Members”

  • Geoff
    July 26, 2005

    This explains why there are more Baptists in South Carolina than people.

     | Permalink
  • corey
    July 26, 2005

    I’ve experienced this in SoCal as well. Many of the (what I would call struggling) Lutheran churches are showing membership and congregation counts in the 1k to 1500 range, when, in actuality, there are only 200-400 bodies in the seats on Sundays. This is a marketing blog and not a doctrinal or theology-in-practice blog, but I would speculate that some of the more conservative and traditional/liturgical congregations are struggling to compete with the commercialized and heavily marketed mega-churches that speak a language of inclusion in their marketing pieces. Speculative statistics say that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod will be all but gone in the next couple of decades if some changes are not made. Perhaps those changes involve keeping “placeholders” on the rosters for those who’ve passed on. Part of the danger of traditional thinking is “this church has been here for over a hundred years and we’ve never needed commercials before. Why now?”

     | Permalink
  • Anne Jackson
    July 26, 2005

    That’s interesting (and understandable as I grew up as an SBC PK) – we (westside family church – the church i work at) are SBC but we only have about 1600 members and close to 4000 that show up on sunday.

     | Permalink
  • Anthony D. Coppedge
    July 26, 2005

    I think Corey’s attributing part of smaller churches feeling the pressure to “compete with the commericalized and heavily marketed mega-churches” needs reconsideration. Churches for decades have been more focused on membership than attendance – well before there was such a name or category as Mega Church.
    Go check out the minutes from the Southern Baptist General Convention from 20-30 years ago and read how for decades Pastors were introduced as pastors of XXXX member churches.
    I think the real issue could be that back when there was a viable count of both worship attendance and Sunday School, the total numbers were simply added togther. This was also before church database software was plentiful, so it was just easier to say “we have an XXXX member church” based on these numbers.
    In today’s world, where accurate counts are easy to tabulate and track, churches still (for the most part) want to tell you about how big their “membership” is. The only other group of people who I know are more interested in membership over attendance are fitness clubs, where up to 50% of their “members” don’t show up – and they count on that both for income and to ensure they have enough machines/space for everyone!
    I find this interesting, because attendees are those who show up. The 20% of the 80% who do the financial giving in most churches are attendees. The group of volunteers is mainly (if not nearly completely) comprised of atendees.
    So why do we still count membership over attendance? For some, it’s simply a trained behavior of “we’ve always done it that way”. For others, it’s an ego-protection device to justify their position in a stagnant or declining church attendance. I suspect that it’s mostly because the vast majority of churches are still using outdated databases and are too lazy to take the time to not only count attendance, but – more importantly – use that data to ensure inreach and outreach are being done by the staff and lay leadership.
    My 2 cents,

     | Permalink
  • Where Did All The Church Members Go?

    The guys over at had a great post yesterday about church membership. I remember one of the churches I was at had a church membership role that confused everyone. There were people’s names on there that nobody could

     | Permalink
  • Don Solin
    July 27, 2005

    Roll call is the so friggen silly. When it was about care and concern for those that “didn’t make Sunday… maybe, maybe that was cool. Or when people were loyal to the denomination or church. Now– forget about it… those days are long gone. I have seen with my own eyes how silly the counting thing has gotten. It’s not about care– its about ego and just plain guilt. “Oh you weren’t in church for the past 5 years.” No kidding… it took that long to get your EE people out here. Where is the Senior guy…? I want a visit from him. Roll call, give me a break.

     | Permalink
  • relentless grace
    July 29, 2005

    LOST: 10 million Southern Baptists

    Church Marketing Sucks: The Case of the Missing Church Members Remember Encyclopedia Brown? He was cool. Solving all those complicated cases with quick thinking. Maybe the Southern Baptist Convention should call Encyclopedia. You see, they’re missing 1…

     | Permalink
  • darren smith
    August 1, 2005

    One of the biggest reasons that church attendence is so low is the fact that the church is not relational. We have a system that is designed to generate funds to keep itself alive rather than build peoples lives. The church tries to make programs to please people instead of pleaseing God.
    People are looking for a cause to believe in not entertainment. For the same reasons the church is not the life changing force it should be. We over market and over analize everything to try to build our market share and we lose touch with the people. for this very reason the church is plauged by sin amazingly the statistics for divorce are the same inside the church as in the world. Funny most in the system are more worried over the numbers than the condition of the people.

     | Permalink
  • Justin Long
    August 7, 2005

    The comments are interesting but the truth may be a little more simplistic. The original article did not include much about how the figures were derived. Probably sick and shut-ins count for something, and probably people who are no longer attending count. Another large share may be people who simply weren’t there on the Sunday morning that the survey was taken. Not everyone goes 4 Sundays out of the month – some may miss a Sunday out of the month. Summers are notorious for this as people are travelling on summer vacation. I would guess in many churches its not the same people attending every Sunday?

     | Permalink
  • thoughts
    August 30, 2005

    2005 Summer Blogging Review

    With the summer winding down and me blogging like a mad man all over the place (except maybe here), I thought it’d be a good idea to take a page from the Jason Kottke book and do a summer blog…

     | Permalink
  • Charles Evans
    April 15, 2011

    Church Marketing Sucks may be the one that’s not cool. It appears that they lump all SBC churches together and neglect the fact that membership, attendance, and how counted is a problem in all denominations. As a SBC pastor – our church updates its membership very often (try not to let more than 2-3 month go by) and removes folka who are not attending except in very special circumstances i.e., shut-ins, active military duty, etc. Also, I have pastored other for denominations and they have the same problems. And when I read my Bible, it seems that we are to lift one another up and not shoot the wounded. Our Association has made a great effort to try and insure the accuracy of the number of member churches and we do all we can to insure the accuracy of our numbers. One problem across the board in all denominations is churches are afraid to apply church discipline and we have too many spiritually weak and sickly members. Possibly anemic from too many internet sites. Part of the blame, I personally feel, falls on folks who beat up on the church and seem to try to hold themselves above the rest of the body of Christ. Lastly, someone missing church isn’t always a sign of a weak or dishonest church, it could be that some churches understand that they are hospitals for struggling sinners and not stages for celebrity saints. SBC churches are not perfect but they care about the lost and about building stronger believers. If any of you critics happen to find the perfect church, please don’t join as it will no longer be perfect. The pastor of this church is a sinner, but he’s a sinner saved by grace. He’s also grateful for the opportunity to minister to an imperfect body of sinners, who sometimes miss more church than I’d like, but are also sinners saved by grace who are growing in sanctification and doing better today than yesterday because we loved them through the hard times. One last point, our church has no fund raises, few special offerings, and ministers primarily to the people nobody seems to want – the homeless, the sheltered, seniors who are alone… Maybe that’s why its so easy to keep track of our numbers. Ilove my church and every sinner in it – even when they miss church.;

     | Permalink