Re-interpreting Average Sunday Attendance (ASA)

He’s been our stable and reliable friend for so long, that Average Sunday Attendance metric. We knew what he meant and maximized his role. We accepted his gift of reliable information, integrating him into so much of what we do. He informed our reports to our denominations, our monthly leadership team reports, and our annual church reports to ourselves and others. When pastoral candidates were considering a call to serve with us, they wanted to know about our friend ASA. When we were describing our church to others in casual conversation this is one of the first descriptors we offer (even though most non-church people don’t know what it means and aren’t aware that bigger is better when it comes to church). Yes, we are fast friends with the old stable and reliable ASA metric.
Yet, even with this cherished metric, things are no longer what they seem. It turns out ASA has been experiencing a personal crisis of sorts, a life-makeover if you will, turning him into someone else who we don’t much recognize. Our cherished ASA metric friend has become a different person, not at all resembling who he once was.

So it is time to re-interpret our friend ASA. Here is some of what ASA means in this 21st century.

Worship attendance patterns are changing
We at Pinnacle enjoy the privilege of interviewing disciples in many different congregations. The people with whom we get to talk are the “insiders,” without much access to “outsiders.” So, we interview the active disciples in congregations. When it comes to describing their worship attendance the typical statements we hear are, “Yes, this is our church. We are very active here. We are in worship once or twice every month.” This is the typical answer of active, participating disciples. Some will remember the day when active insiders were in worship nearly every Sunday in any month.

Your ASA currently represents far more disciples than it did in the past
Way back in the 1990s, a congregation who averaged 200 in worship, interpreted that number to represent around 250 active disciples. Now, that same congregation who averages 200 in worship should interpret that number to represent 350-400 active disciples. Your congregation may be growing numerically, while your ASA remains static. In other words, your current ASA represents far more people than it did 20 years ago. Remember when we used to suggest staffing patterns like 1 full time clergy or program staff per 125 active persons? Our friend ASA was how we determined “active.” Now, what’s the rule of thumb since 125 average in worship means around 175-200 active persons?

Worship leaders cannot assume there is continuity in experience from Sunday to Sunday
(Or whenever your congregation gathers for worship)
When pastors move to a new congregation now, we hear them describing their struggle to learn names. Pastors meet a person one Sunday, but if they are not involved in the at other times during than worship, the pastor doesn’t see that person for weeks, making something as simple as learning names very challenging. Even more, designing worship experiences which build each week is difficult. With nearly a different congregation each week, sermon series are disjointed for those worshipping.

ASA was always a lag measure, not a lead measure
What are we really about in church anyway? Bigger numbers?
What so many of us yearn for is invigorated engagement with each other around living in the Way of Jesus Christ. We long to become disciples who reflect the extravagant love of God. We want to be part of faith communities (churches) who join God in transformation. This is what we are really about. ASA then only helps us describe how many people want to be part of our worship gatherings, not how well we are accomplishing God’s mission for us. We don’t have direct influence over lag measures. Lead measures describe parts of our corporate faith community life which we can influence, like opening ourselves to God and pursuing holiness and justice.

Since ASA has been through this identity crises of late, shouldn’t we change our use for our ASA friend? ASA may no longer be gold standard for measuring church effectiveness. It may be a lesser way to describe what we are really about. There may be disciples participating with our congregations who rarely if ever show up in ASA. Lives transformed, people growing, redemption happening, and culture changing toward the better…these are our goals. We aspire to be disciples of Jesus Christ who partner with God toward the transformation of this world; toward God’s kingdom. ASA is a friend in that endeavor, but he may not be the golden child of church measurement he once was.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA
Helen