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How can we tell if a church is successful? Crowded pews? Bulging coffers? A massive rummage sale, with people lined up around the block waiting for the deals?

One of the challenges in parish development is that, in some ways, churches are unlike any other organization. To even think in terms of “success” is false: How do we measure hearts that are strangely warmed, relationships that are healed, the lost finding a home?

And yet, to ask whether we are effective is a faithful question. We are entrusted with a wonderful mission, whether you understand it as being the body of Christ in the world, or building up God’s kingdom of justice and peace, or going out and making disciples.

Looking at attendance patterns is one way to measure how we are doing when it comes to living out our mission. Here is what the 2019 parochial reports tell us about attendance in the Diocese of New Westminster:

  • Number of parishes: Stable at 66 parishes; no parish has closed since 2014.
  • Change in size of parishes (based on average Sunday attendance): The number of parishes with over 100 average Sunday attendance has grown from 10 to 12. The number of parishes with average Sunday attendance between 50 and 99 remains the same, and the number of parishes with fewer than 50 ASA has decreased from 24 to 22. 48% of our parishes fall into this middle range (50 to 99), with one third being very small (under 50).
  • Change in attendance (number of parishes growing, in decline, and stable): A little over half our parishes (53%) have seen a decline in attendance from the figure reported five years ago; about a third are stable (33%); and almost one fifth are growing (18%). These proportions have remained pretty consistent over the last eight years. Compared to last year, we have one fewer parish that is growing, five more that are seeing a decline in attendance, and four fewer that are stable. The important takeaway is that just under half our parishes are either stable or growing.
  • Characteristics of growing parishes: Among the growing parishes, all are either mid-sized (50 to 99 ASA) or large (over 100 ASA). Two of the mid-sized parishes are at the small end of the scale (they each reported 50 ASA). Their locations are urban, suburban and small town. Four of the parishes have clergy teams.
  • How much are those parishes growing? The increases range from a modest six people, to several growing by 40 or 50, to the Cathedral, which has grown by 100 ASA since 2015.
  • Good news, overall attendance: We can confidently claim that, across the diocese, average Sunday attendance has been stable for the last three years.

What determines whether a parish is growing, stable or in decline?

There is no standard criteria for this, so when I started looking at these figures I decided that:

  • Growing means that there are an average of at least five more people worshipping on Sunday morning from five years previously.
  • Stable means that that the change is fewer than five people (increase or decrease).
  • In decline means that attendance has decreased by five or more people from five years earlier..

This standard is not helpful for large parishes; in those cases, looking at a percentage would be more meaningful.

A word about average Sunday attendance in a time of social distancing

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to hold attendance numbers lightly. They only tell us what has happened in the past, not where we are going in the future. We are still called to worship and pray, study, steward our buildings and money, evangelize, serve the needs of the world, and build community. We still want to know how many people’s lives we are touching, but what that ministry looks like and how we will measure it is a work in progress.