Pick a number, any number? 4 reasons to focus on Bible study attendance

Let’s say you have just enough time and energy to focus on one number that is important to your church. Would you pick worship attendance or your Bible study/Sunday School attendance? Arguments could be made for both, but if I were doing the picking, I’d focus on the second one, Bible study attendance. 

Now, before I go further, let me say that I believe tracking worship attendance is important. It’s the largest gathering of the week for most churches. Right behind it is the attendance level of the church’s Bible study ministry – it’s the second largest gathering of the church each week. I would not focus so heavily on worship attendance that I don’t track and care about the Bible study attendance of my congregation. So why would I focus on the Bible study numbers? I can think of four good reasons:

  1. Bible study is where relationships are formed and the church becomes “sticky” – If you want to close the back door of the church, Bible study groups are where that takes place. When people join groups, they build relationships. Relationships become the glue that holds a congregation together. A worship service may be only as sticky as the worship style or the charisma of the pastor. If there’s a change in either, people often walk away. It’s harder to walk away from your friends in a Bible study group.
  2. Your future leaders are going to come out of adult groups – If your adult groups are growing, the pool of potential workers for preschool, kid, and student groups also grows. You’re not going to let non-members teach preschool, kid, or student Bible study groups. Those leaders are going to come straight out of  your adult groups.
  3. If people unplug from a Bible study group, they’re probably gone for good – People can stop attending worship for any number of reasons. If they choose to unplug from their Bible study group, chances are good that they are saying goodbye to key relationships and will not be back. It’s more difficult to leave a group than to leave a worship service. If people are leaving their groups, look out – you may have bigger problems than you think.
  4. The gap between worship attendance and Sunday School/Bible study attendance is highly revealing – “Mind the gap” they say in England as you step off of a commuter train. The gap between the train and platform can trip you up if you aren’t careful. It’s good to “mind the gap” between worship and Bible study attendance – it can reveal whether or not you’ve got a serious problem in either venue. In churches I’ve served as an education/discipleship pastor, we’ve had a very small gap between worship attendance and Bible study attendance. In some churches, though, the gap is very wide – as much as 30-40% wide – and that tells me there’s a problem somewhere.

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Attendance and Enrollment – Joined at the Hip

If you are a Bible study group leader, I know you want to see more people attend your group. If you lead your church’s Sunday School ministry (insert the name you call it here!), I know you are concerned about reaching new people and seeing all your groups grow.

If you want to see individual group attendance grow, or you want an increase in your overall Sunday School attendance, you must consider the relationship between attendance and enrollment.  In almost any church, Sunday School attendance is approximately 50% of enrollment.  The same principle works for groups.  A group that has 24 people enrolled will almost surely have 10-12 people in attendance on any given Sunday.  If you want to increase weekly attendance, increase enrollment.

The Connection Between Attendance and Enrollment

I’ve led Sunday School ministries in the past. If my Sunday School averaged 200 people per week and I wanted to set a goal of averaging 240 people, I’d need to enroll at least 80 new people.  80 new people would give the Sunday School an increase of about 40 people (remember, attendance is normally 50% of enrollment).  On a group level, if a Bible study group was averaging 15 people and wanted to have an average attendance of 30 by this time next year, the group would need to enroll 30 new people to have an actual increase of 15 people. These 15 new people, added to the current 15 group members, would give the group its 30 person total.

Pray for God’s blessing and be wise in the way you lead your Sunday School or your Bible study group. Don’t feel bad about setting enrollment goals…after all, numbers represent people (there’s a whole book of the Bible called “Numbers”!).  And remember, one way to increase your attendance is to increase your enrollment.

Simply enrolling someone won’t necessarily increase your attendance, though!  Once a person is enrolled in a group, they must become the target of ministry.  Love them, support them, encourage them, contact them, and get them involved.  Do those things, and you’ll see attendance rise.

Increase Sunday School Attendance by Increasing Enrollment

If you want to see your overall Sunday School attendance increase, consider the relationship between it and enrollment.  In almost any church, Sunday School attendance is approximately 50% of enrollment.  The same principle works for Sunday School classes.  A class that has 24 people enrolled will almost surely have 10-14 people in attendance on any given Sunday.  If you want to increase weekly attendance, increase enrollment.

If my Sunday School was averaging 200 people per week, and I wanted to set a goal of averaging 240 people in one year, I’d need to enroll at least 80 new people.  80 new enrollees would give the Sunday School an increase of about 40 people.  On a class level, if a class was averaging 10 people and wanted to have an average attendance of 15 in one year, the class members should enroll 10 new people to have an increase of 5.

Now, back to the 80 person example.  Those 80 people will come from all age groups, right?  So how many preschoolers, children, students, and adults should you enroll to achieve your 80 person goal?  The answer lies in your current attendance patterns.

Every church has a pattern of attendance in their Sunday School.  Gather your Sunday School attendance records for several years, and select about 24 random dates.  Determine your average attendance, and then determine your average attendance in your preschool, children, student, and adult classes.  Now divide the average attendance in each age group by your total average attendance, and you’ll get each age division’s percent of total attendance.

Let’s say that you do all the above and determine that on a typical Sunday, your preschool attendance is 15% of your total attendance, children are 20% of your total attendance, students are 10% of your total attendance, and adults are 55% of your total attendance.  These figures won’t change much over time unless something very dramatic happens in your church.

Now, let’s go back to the 80 new enrollees you need to increase attendance by 40.  15% of those new enrollees should be preschoolers (12), 20% should be children (16), 8 will be students (10%), and 44 will be adults (55%).  Now you can set enrollment goals for each age division and follow up each month to see how you’re doing on meeting your enrollment goals.

One final word of encouragement:  in the example above, you’d only have to enroll 1 new preschooler each month in order to achieve your enrollment goal for that area of ministry.  You’d have to enroll 1.3 children each month, .67 students per month, and 3.67 adults per month!  When you break enrollment goals down, you’ll discover how manageable enrollment goals actually are!  80 new enrollees may seem daunting, but remember the saying, “It’s a sinch by the inch, it’s hard by the yard.”

Don’t think that the secret to Sunday School growth lies in a numbers game.  There is a God factor that is bigger than all that.  Pray for God’s blessing and be wise in the way you lead your Sunday School or your Sunday School class.  But don’t feel bad about setting enrollment goals…after all, numbers represent people.  And remember, one way to increase your average attendance is to increase your total enrollment.   Simply enrolling someone won’t necessarily increase your attendance, though!  Once a person is enrolled in your Sunday School or a Sunday School class, they become the object of ministry.  Love them, support them, encourage them, contact them, and get them involved.  Do those things, and you’ll see attendance rise and you become responsible for those whom God sends to your church.