The Numbers Speak: A Breakdown of San Diego’s Church Attendance

San Diego Church Attendance Breakdown Data Visualization designed by Zach Dinsmore.

The purpose of this Church-related series is to gain an understanding of the different gathering styles from small to mega-churches. My goal is to document the environments, spiritual values and overall objectives of these churches so the reader can make an educated decision on what gathering style they want to attend if they choose to do so.

Going to church is an experience unique to each person who chooses to do so. Some find comfort in large groups while others seek peace amongst small gatherings. Since the 1970s mega-churches (2,000-10,000 members) have been gaining traction but in recent years, there has been a boom in these massive gatherings. Due to this spike in megachurch interest, attendance in small, local churches has been steadily dropping.  

According to a 2023 NPR story, megachurches have been causing local churches to shut down operations across the country. The story refers to two 2020 studies done — the first one showing that “regular” or local churches have been on a decrease in attendance and overall interest. The second study found that a majority of megachurches have been thriving and are on the rise.

An area where this is sticking out like a sore thumb is San Diego. Awaken and The Rock are just two megachurches in San Diego but with their massive seating areas and many campuses they can take in around 22,000 churchgoers per week. This equates to just over 5% of San Diego’s entire weekly church attendance which doesn’t seem like a lot, until you consider how many other churches are in San Diego. According to SmartScrapers, there are 1,185 other churches in San Diego. So let’s look again, The Rock and Awaken, just two churches, take up 5% of all church attendance in San Diego which means if every other church in SD had an even attendance distribution of the remaining 95%, they would each take up only 0.0008%.

One of the churches that has not only remained open but has thrived in recent years is Communion Church San Diego. They sit on Balboa Avenue in the Clairemont area and have had multiple megachurches pop up around them. Awaken currently has two campuses on both sides of Communion. 

Lance Sherwood is the head pastor of Communion and he has been involved in small-scale ministry for most of his life.

“I grew up in a really small church in Pacific Beach, and when you grow up in a small church, there’s just a lot of access to participate or to lead,” said Sherwood. 

This background has allowed Sherwood not to get caught up in the production side of things and focus on what’s important. 

“When you first start a church, you’re kind of like, ‘I’ve got this new idea, and I think this is how church should look,’ and you’re a little bit rebellious in that way, and the Lord, I think, just kind of breaks you down and helps you realize the whole point is just to help people be present with God.” said Sherwood, “Not a new style or whatever it may be, but I really felt called to start a church, and I wanted to create a church that I would want to be a part of, and I think that was maybe where it stemmed from.”

The National Congregational Study estimates that there are around 380,000 churches in the United States. Of this number, roughly 1,200, or 0.3%, are megachurches that altogether seat around five million people each week. This number may seem small in comparison to the nation but that makes up almost 5 percent of the entire U.S. churchgoing population. A poll conducted by Gallup showed that 31 percent of all U.S adults say they attend church which is around 102 million people. This means each week when roughly 102 million people go to church, 0.3% of all churches take in around 20 million people.

In my experience, I’ve seen some mega-churches attain this attendance by using something called the “attractional model” (A.M.) wherein they believe if they can get you in the door, they can get the gospel to you. This can come in many different forms– some A.M. churches have bright and flashy signage, some have hallways and rooms dedicated to video games, some have wild rock bands leading their worship and others display their services as party-style events.

“At Communion, we’re trying to help people realize that they are consumers, and help them see that the way out of it is commitment to a community.” said Sherwood, “So, I think maybe the megachurches are catering to the consumerism, so that they get those people in the door and they can share the gospel, and I think for us, we’re battling against consumerism to say, ‘this is what you are and we don’t want you to be that anymore.’”

This is where the small churches have a hard time competing — megachurches have much larger budgets that allow them to have larger buildings, bigger productions, entertainment for kids and overall “cooler” experiences. Small churches have to work with what they got — Communion, for example, doesn’t have a big production or a ton of rooms. They ask members of the church to try and volunteer at least once a month in some way or another like filling a slot to teach the Sunday school lesson to the kids or helping out on the tech team or bringing cookies and coffee pitchers before service. Sherwood feels that keeping the congregation close-knit through the small things is important for helping his church thrive.

“Simplicity is something that we hope is woven throughout our church culture. It’s why we don’t have a stage, it’s why our chairs are in a circle, it’s why we don’t have a thousand different programs going, because we want to create this[simplicity] as a value for us as a church,” said Sherwood.

Bob DeSagun is an author of several books about the benefits of small gatherings including “Leading A Few: A Memoir of a Small-scale Ministry Pastor’. DeSagun is also the associate pastor at Communion.

“There’s so much fluff when it comes to church culture and when you refer to things like what the megachurch will use, the lights and the show, there’s a dimension of it that, to a certain degree, it does characterize you and it makes an impression far deeper than surface level.” said DeSagun, “But if you’re using that method of attraction, what are you programming in the people? What value are you instilling in them when it comes to church culture?”