7 Ways to Respond As People Attend Church Less Often

7 Ways to Respond as People Attend Church Less Often

Everywhere I go, I talk to pastors who are experiencing the same thing.

People who attend church are attending less often.

People who used to attend every week are attending 3 times a month. People who were around twice a month often now show up once a month. And attenders who used to come once a month are showing up half a dozen times a year.

This is true of rapidly growing churches, mega churches, mid-sized churches, Bible churches and churches like Connexus (where 60% of our growth is from previously unchurched people.)

You can get mad at people…but that’s not really that helpful. If all people get is judgment or ‘should have done better’ when they show up at your church, why would they keep coming? You don’t line up to be judged either.

There are fewer and fewer of us every year who

Feel guilty when we miss a Sunday (I do…but I’m a dinosaur…I know it)

Have a natural instinct to head to a gathering of Christians on the first day of the week

Miss church when we can’t get there

Some church leaders I know wonder whether people will even attend physical buildings a decade from now. I believe they will, but maybe not in the droves people are even today.

So what’s going on? And how can you ‘compete’?

Well, culture is changing (in my next post I’ll talk about the changing characteristics of unchurched people).

But two of the biggest factors that used to drive attendance in the last 20-50 years are now reproducible online.

Two decades ago:

If you wanted to hear great preaching, you had to go to church. Podcasting and online campuses have changed this.

If you wanted great music, you had to go to church. Okay, maybe church music wasn’t that great 20 years ago. But somebody liked it. Now, for $20, all your favourite songs are on your phone wherever you go.

So what do you do?

Is the battle lost? Not at all.

Here are 7 ways to respond as people attend church less often:

1. Create an Awesome Online Presence. Launching an online campus is a goal for us, but between Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, app, website and blog, people can pretty much stay connected. And even giving to church online has never been easier. (70% of our offering comes in online.) Many people tell me when they’re not physically present they stay in touch via all of these media. Don’t judge your people for not being there, help them stay connected instead.

2. Elevate Personal Relationships. Somehow facilitating a personal relationship is easier and more effective in person. Churches that value personal relationships (even for thousands of people through groups) will always attract people who value personal connection (which is, I think, almost all of us).

3. Love People. Can you love fully love people without being fully present? Do human relationships go to their deepest level in person? I think so. 2 in 5 married couples meet online today. But even those 2 in 5 couples who meet online don’t stay online…they get married. Love can be expressed online, but its fulfilment happens deepest through personal contact.

4. Create an Irresistible Experience. There is something that happens when you are in the room and in the moment that doesn’t happen watching on line. A live concert is never quite the same as watching a song on YouTube or even a concert in full HD on a kicking home theater system. Church is more than the sum of its parts…between the preaching, music, creative elements, human interaction and hall way conversations. You get much of it online, but not all of it. At least not yet. (By the way, if your church is boring, you’ve already lost the battle. Start there.)

5. Offer Offline Surprises. Do something fun in the parking lot, foyer or service that you don’t podcast. Create some fun moments. Last year we handed out an awesome Canadian treat - gourmet butter tarts – to everyone who attended on a particular long weekend. People who missed it were completely bummed.

6. Create a Culture of Serving. Online church doesn’t allow many serving opportunities. When you get up early to set up and tear down, lead a 2nd grade small group, greet people with a smile, serve on the production team, or serve meals to the homeless, somehow you find a place in service of a goal greater than yourself. Make serving guest and others outside your community part of your culture.

7. Prioritize Kids and Teens. Parents can catch a podcast or watch online, but kids really miss out when parents miss. To be with their friends who are running in the same direction, and to have another voice (small group leader) who knows their name, favourite food and hopes and dreams saying the same thing a loving parent would say, is so far unreproducible in the online world. I believe that when the parents miss church, the kids are the biggest losers. The more you prioritize families, the more families will prioritize Sundays.

The shift in our culture is probably irreversible to some extent. But you have something unique to offer – online and offline.

What are you learning about shifts in attendance and the things that you can help people with offline and online?

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  • davpettengill

    It is unfortunate because when Pastors seek to help church members to understand that being a part of the Church is not about their entitlements or privileges but about sacrificing for the kingdom of God they usually face intense pressure from angry parishioners or are run out of the church so the members can bring in a new pastor who will pander to their wants.

  • CurtisMSP

    How often did the disciples attend church?

    • http://www.facebook.com/matt123415 Matthew Rissmiller

      just about every day. They went into holy communion with Jesus on his final night of life in the last supper. The sermons he spoke to his people were relentless.

      • CurtisMSP

        And Christians today can do the same thing. But it doesn’t necessarily involve attending church in a big building with professional clergy. And if a Christian today did attend church in the manner if the disciples, would they show up on anyone’s count as having attended church?

        • http://www.facebook.com/matt123415 Matthew Rissmiller

          no, but Christians are called to follow Christ… didn’t see anything in the bible requiring us to follow those who call themselves Christians. We are called to love one another as he has loved us.

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  • Wayne

    Carey,
    I found your comments refreshingly current and extremely accurate in many areas. As one who was extremely involved in a mainline denomination for over 50 years, I found “worship” there to be increasingly banal, vanilla, and all too often just warmed up feel-good-Christianity. I found that I was not getting to the heart of worship. There was no sense of Praise of God, no teaching of the Word, where worship had often devolved to pageants, where mission was about the people going, and with little fellowship beyond smiles and handshakes. The last thing many mainline churches will do is to stress community, small group, accountability, or participate in learning by working in the Word. There is enough politics on the evening news. Church conferences seem to be about how to build the walls stronger to keep the few souls in. At the age of 60 and after serving on every committee known to human and wanting to cry, I left and found a Community Church near us where each week we assemble to Praise God, to reach out to each other, to serve in Mission (not to take selfies), to grow in small groups, and to be fed in challenging teaching that makes us uncomfortable at times. It is not about numbers in Pews. I don’t think our Lord cared about how many followers were with Him. That accounting of numbers will come–See Revelation. Pastors that truly share the Word are needed, but the whole mainstream Church hierarchy needs serious re-examination. Many of the lay leaders in Churches are just burned out. Laity are as much to blame as the paid staff. The lay members must be accountable and demand excellence,and take back the leadership. The numbers not physically attending church regularly is but one small sign of a bigger problem. The Great Awakening, and the Revivalist Movements of the past faced the same relevance issues. If the Church is truly the Body of Christ and His gift to us, then it will survive but maybe not in the form we think. Can we be open to that? Oh, Great God, I pray it is so.

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  • Brad

    Another helpful thing for pastors is preach sermons of substance. We’ve sat through too many “safe” and vapid sermons. It’s obvious that a lot (not all, of course) of clergy have decided the mission is “butts in seats” and have eschewed sermons of substance for sermons of convenience. Of course the joke is on them because as pastors and churches have become more politically correct, their memberships have waned. But they’ll never get the correlation. As a fellow parishioner from a church we attended for years but finally left said, “I’m tired of going to church and never hearing any meaningful commentary of what is happening in the world.” Many things in the world and our country are going to hell and a lot of pastors don’t seem to notice are are too afraid to discuss it. Many pastors will gladly go all in on giving, tithing, and a whole host of guilt ridden sermons referencing the comparison of the camel going through the eye of a needle being easier than a rich man going to heaven. Ok Pastor Fearless…now lets hear a sermon about the infanticide movement euphemistically calling themselves, “pro-choice.” How about the immorality of moral equivalence? How about teenagers “hooking up” who (in addition to violating multiple commandments) permanently damaging their psyches while weak, enabling parents look the other way, terrified to make “judgements.” How about the sanctity of marriage? Anything in the Bible we might find that references this timely topic? Unfortunately too many pastors are cowards, afraid of offending anyone and unable to see that they are the ones oftentimes driving out their congregations. People yearn for the truth, too many pastors are terrified to speak it.

  • Riley

    Truly people can’t be expected to take weekly church attendance seriously if they’re never taught to keep the Sabbath, in winsome and positive way, can they?

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  • Scott Douglas

    Great article Carey, We are looking for ways to make our offline experience a “can’t miss” event out in the parking lot. I now have a couple of ideas, and a reminder of how important those personal touches are from one dinosaur to another. Thanks!

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Love that Scott. I was not aware I was a dinosaur but appreciate the info. :)

  • Christoph Koebel

    having a topic like this is a reflection on the spiritual condition of our churches. With a Pastor having 5 weeks vacation. 2 weeks paid further education and 4 weeks paid by the church mission trip that making 11 weeks..So he missed Church more than many faithful members

  • newgirl

    I’ve gone to churches that offer either a weekly or monthly after-service meal. It’s surprising how many people will come out on the food and fellowship days.

  • Voices Of Flint

    I don’t go to church because……… one wanted my W-2 and the other would not let us leave until they got 250 more dollars………I got up and left and never been back. Never was a member. Then they try to make you say amen…..I might not want to……they be like say it say it…….I’m not a sheep and the preachers are not God……..but the flock treat them as such.

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      So sorry to hear of your bad church experience. I hope you find a community of grace. And us preachers are definitely not God. You’ve got that right.

  • Chris Synesael

    Check out ‘Everyday Church’ by Chester and Timmis. Great read on this subject.

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Thanks for the tip Chris.

  • Tim Walker

    Fantastic article! As a pastor and church planter in the inner-city, I really appreciate your wisdom and insight. I’ve come to the realization that the hardcore followers of Jesus don’t need most of the things mentioned ( with a few exceptions) but those on the edge, who haven’t made that level of commitment, need a variety of things to help them stay connected. Too often church leaders discard them as insincere, lukewarm or any number of other religious tags we’ve created for them out of our frustration. You’re helping us not just reach the “sold out,” but those who aren’t sure they’re even willing to “buy in.” Thank you so much!

  • Andrew

    The overall problem with your article is that you have not addressed the heart of issue of those that have chosen not to attend. The whole reason we attend church is to come together to give glory to God as a body of believers not to see what we can get from the service. The heart issue is that the people are worshiping themselves and are selfish. It is all about them and many of your recommendations centered around making it more about them and less about God. Center your service around the worship of Jesus Christ and preaching boldly the gospel of Jesus Christ that is what we need and should seek

    • cnieuwhof

      Andrew. I think that sounds great and I admire your devotion, but both Jesus and Paul took the situation of their ‘audience’ into mind. Jesus addressed the disciples, the woman at the well and the Pharisees all within their particular context. Paul always contextualized his message, even explaining his philosophy in 1 Corinthians 9:22. I think churches that fail to do this fail to connect with the people they are very much trying to reach.

      • Matt

        Where’s the line between contextualizing and consumerizing? And if you had to decide which side of the line would you choose to place after service giveaways as a tactic to regain attendance? I think we need to find better ways of making our services deeper, and communion seems to be the best place to start for me and at the same time it is the element of worship I hear mentioned the least.

        • guest

          Ding ding ding!!!!! What is the ONE THING you really can’t get unless you attend worship? Actually holding Jesus in the palm of your hand.

          Why do we want people to come to church, anyway? So the full pews make us feel warm and fuzzy? So we can tell the world how awesome our church is because ____ number of people come? Or because we want them to have a real, personal, encounter with Christ?

          So, you can either offer them a real, personal, encounter with Christ, right there in their hand, and on their tongue, or you can give them free donuts in the parking lot because we’re the coolest, totes magotes. One of those two will result, over time, in a sustained relationship of trust in Christ, and one will not.

  • Clay G.

    Also, there’s the changing generational perception that church happens outside of four walls. :)

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  • Trent

    Yes maybe there are more people tuning in online, but I submit to you that more people are becoming non believers. They are being influence by the media, the internet, their friends and their family. You see it everywhere, there’s a definite shift in Christianity in the world today. The word GOD is forbidden in virtually all that we do and see. Sad but true…

  • lindsey

    Thanks for your leadership and heart you shared at the orange conference. It was my first time attending, I found it very helpful. I was introduced to your blog, you have some tremendous material here! Keep up the good work.

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Lindsey, thank you! I loved Orange Conference and was honoured to serve this year. Inspiring! And glad the blog is helping.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bonnie.acosta Bonnie Barba Acosta

    In the little fellowship I attend, every one of us have valid reasons, some more frequently than others, to be absent. The thing that is wonderful is that we aer connected well enough that when someone is absent, or planning an absence, others are aware of the why, and ready to meet a need, pray for the sick, lend a hand, or give a ride. Several have elderly parents who live elsewhere, and need to make regular visits to them, some have rotating work schedules, or plain old work exhaustion and a need to rest. The important part is being connected, and the blessing of being able to hear a message on the radio, online, or by tape, having others call or stop by to make sure you have any help that is required, or just to give a hug. If people are connected, this happens,

  • http://twitter.com/NarrowGauge Narrow Gauge

    There is really nothing new here. These are all being done in church after church and people are leaving the church at unprecedented rates. I think this has been tried and proven to be ineffective.

    While I agree with several of your suggestions (Relationships and People) I respectfully disagree with many of your other suggestions. I agree with the agnostic who responded. People don’t go to church and continue to attend because they might get an unexpected treat in the parking lot or a free butter tart just for being there. If that is why they come, then you better have that every week, because once you stop, they won’t come back. Are you seriously suggesting this as a way to get people back in to church? Give away a free Galaxy IV next Sunday and I think you’d pack the house!

    Children and Teen ministries have been a priority for the church for the past 20 years. I do agree that any church without something decent will not have a lot of families attend. But parents have so many other options to keep their kids entertained, if they don’t see the value of attending church, I don’t think the kids program will be that effective in bringing the whole family. Many parents will just drop the kids off and go shopping. We’ve all seen that happen!

    If you mean by “Irrestistable Experience” that those who attend walk away committed to following Jesus, strengthened in their faith, willing to sacrifice for their King and Savior, laying down their lives to become more like him, then I agree with you! But if you mean we give them a great show, entertain them for a few minutes in their busy week and send them out the door unaffected and not caring enough about the call of God on their lives to follow Him, then you are wide of the mark. All too often, that is what I have seen in a great church “experience”

    The people I have talked at length with about this topic, would get back into attending church if it was effective at helping them follow Jesus. Isn’t that the purpose of the Church? For far too many of us, the church model being shoved down our throats is more harmful than helpful. I wouldn’t want to serve in a church that had these 7 ideas on how to keep people in church.

    • cnieuwhof

      I sincerely hope you find a church like the one you describe or are a part of one. I guess I just have a different view on what the kind of church I’m describing produces. When I meet a good number of the people who attend the kind of church described above, I actually meet authentic disciples of Jesus. And many new authentic disciples of Jesus. For sure it’s not a perfect model, but no model is.

      • http://twitter.com/NarrowGauge Narrow Gauge

        Hi Carey,

        It is harder, I think, when you are pastoring, to see the overall big picture of how the church at large is doing. We can become, rightfully so, focused on the flock that we oversee. We don’t really know the big picture of how “The Church” is doing.

        I’ve been there, and have been a full time senior pastor, church planter, associate pastor, worship pastor etc for over 20 years. I am very happily a volunteer now.

        My perspective on this matter is shaped from visiting over 30 congregations, all over the country in the past 5 years (I travel a lot as a musician) I have seen a lot of the same thing, no matter what the church affiliation is. Of course, brother, I have not been to your fellowship.

        I have met some great people in those congregations, for sure. But the model of church ministry that most leaders embrace (which I also embraced for years) is ineffective in the large scale. The stats are in and they are there for anyone to look at. People are fleeing church. Those who stay are the most theologically illiterate in recent church history. The people in the pew know very little about God. The bigger and most important question to be asking is: why is this happening?

        I am part of an imperfect congregation that is thriving, reaching tons of young people, and has, for the most part, rejected the typical church model. People are hungry for the real thing, they are starving for it, and most won’t find it in the current church model. Without a doubt, some do and will.

        I value dialouge on this topic. I’ve been where you are, and I have also been where the congregation is. Who knows, in 10 years you may have a very different view of the kind of people the current church model produces. I know I did!

        • cnieuwhof

          Thanks for the reply and for the honest dialogue. It helps me to hear your story. I have been 18 years in ministry so for sure I don’t have your experience. Increasingly I see 1 Corinthians 12 as applying to churches, not just individual people. For the body to be the body, it’s going to take many (different) parts. And of course that leads into 1 Corinthians 13 which is about love and respect for each other. The longer I lead the more I realize it’s going to take every church to make an impact. I’m glad when we can all work together on a common mission.

  • Randy

    Carey, Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience.
    Have you written on How to Create a Culture of Serving?

    • http://twitter.com/cnieuwhof Carey Nieuwhof

      Hi Randy. I have not yet. Good idea. Wonder if anyone has links to some great existing resources they can share.

  • http://leadright.wordpress.com/ Brent Dumler

    Well, not related to weekend worship service attendance…this comment is on team meetings. We recently held a very different/important meeting for all our kids ministry workers. Roughly 90 invites went out and we had 30 show up. We were casting some pretty big vision info and we couldn’t afford for 60 volunteers to not hear it. So, the day after the ‘live’ meeting I gathered my notes and MacBook in my office and re-created the training experience in a podcast. Then I emailed it to those who missed. This worked wonderfully and we received some really good feedback!

  • LAA

    Thanks Carey, I love your posts, this in particular has meant a lot as I was starting to get angry when noticing people not attending as regularly, not with them, but blaming our leaders. It is interesting to see this isn’t only happening on our Church, and it brings me off my soap box (one I hadn’t realised I was standing on until reading this). What really matters is loving God and loving others, without these two things we wouldn’t need a church – full or not :)

  • Ron

    #2 is HUGE for us right now, too! If I have a personal relationship and find out they are going to be at church on Sunday, it’s more likely I’ll show up to hang out with them and catch up in person. This is even more true if I have 5 friends that might not hang out with each other, but I know they’ll all be in the same place at the same time!

    I think sometimes we worry too much about the frills and attracting people whose heart isn’t in it… even for a piece of candy or special experience…

    • cnieuwhof

      It was all about a relationship in the first place – with Christ and with others. Wonderful to see that this will help the church reclaim and recover our mission as we move forward.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1215222732 Lawrence W. Wilson

    Carey, our average rate of attendance is about 56%, meaning the average person is there about half the time. Still amazes me, but it’s true. We’re working on #2, elevate relationships. I don’t think we can produce an experience that is more irresistible than a Colts game, but we can help people experience authentic connection. That’s usually why they came in the first place. Good post.

    • cnieuwhof

      Lawrence thanks for sharing. How do you get the exact percentage. Do you track individual adult attenders?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1215222732 Lawrence W. Wilson

        Carey, we do track individual attendees. We’re a mid-sized church, so it’s still manageable to have a team of people who “take attendance” every week. It helps greatly with knowing when to check in on people for pastoral care, and when newcomers have crossed the invisible line that says “we’re here now.”

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    Carey, great insights! All of these are true and something we’re struggling with as a church. Do you have any recommendations for getting your church services to stream live or to place them online to view? That’s the next move I feel our church needs to make and it’s been a struggle figuring out how to do this.

    • cnieuwhof

      Hi Joe…I think having a reliable high speed connection (we’re in theaters, so we’re not there yet) and having excellent quality are two benchmarks. We’ve been upgrading our cameras, switchers etc in preparation for a launch in the next year. You want to export a good version that represents your church well for outsiders, not just a handycam at the back with a room mic. :)

      • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

        Thanks for the insights into what you guys are doing. We’ve got the high-speed connection and I believe our cameras are high quality. Any recommendations for switchers and service providers?

  • http://twitter.com/fbealer Frank Bealer

    Fantastic article! We have been using the check-in data in our eKidz program to evaluate attendance trends and have been challenged by what we have found. Some might get discouraged, we are simply taking it as a challenge to create a stronger connection for families to the local church.

    • cnieuwhof

      Frank that’s such a great approach. We’re doing a similar thing. We’ll have to compare notes.

  • Cyndi

    How about once again teaching people that God made the church, imperfect as it is. That it is his instrument. That we go out of obedience. That sometimes guilt isn’t a bad thing. That online and personal relationships are not the same. That way too often people just don’t like anything messy even though it is people that create messiness. That most excuses people will give, even the spiritual sounding ones, are just that, excuses made by people who want to do what they want to when they want to. There is strength in committment and obedience.

    • cnieuwhof

      Yes. :)

  • CVR

    Just to throw in the perspective of one of those people the article’s talking about (used to attend church regularly, but isn’t now)…

    I’d go to church if I was sure in my heart that there was a God that deserved my undivided attention and worship. I’d go to church if church was like no other group gathering because there was a supernatural being at the centre of it all. I’d choose physical church over internet-based church if I experienced there the same kinds of things there that came with Jesus in Bible times – radical teachings, unconditional forgiveness, miracles, healings, the dead raised – which you can’t get online. I’d go to church if I was convinced that I needed the forgiveness of a saviour, and that saviour was the Jesus of the Bible.

    I won’t go to church for butter tarts or a “live concert”. I won’t go to church because I feel guilty when I don’t. I won’t go to church because of efforts that can be articulated without mention of God or Jesus.

    • cnieuwhof

      Hi CVR…thanks. I should say that if I was you I would be concerned about those things too. We are. It is implied, not explicit in this post. Jesus is the center of it all, even if our expressions of worship and church might vary culturally.

      • Scott

        There is some gold nuggets in this article but I also find what is wrong with church today. Making church about who can hand out the best goodies and entertainment. It turns the body of Christ into business marketing scheme. I believe people are looking for what CVR says. They want real. They want to see and experience God. I’m a pastor and everytime I get drawn back to center… back to Christ… I’m made to feel like I have to compete with other churches. I have to be more entertaining. I have to have more bells and whistles. I have to have this and that or people will go on to a church that has it. That’s not what church is about. I’m not trying to say that is what you or church is about. I don’t know. I just know that it was comforting to hear RC Sproul once say, “Small church pastor… your goal isn’t to be like us mega-church guys. Its to be faithful I don’t think that is expressed enough.”

        • cnieuwhof

          Thanks for this Scott. I have been to small churches without the authentic power of the Gospel and to large churches without it. And I have been to small and large who have it in abundance. That said, I also realize I am not always the best judge to say where God is working and where he isn’t. Good points.

    • convert

      Go to a catholic church if you want to feel the presence of Jesus. He is always there in the Eucharist!

    • Frank Mandt

      You might try a Unitarian Universalist church if you want spirituality without dogma. We support a free and open search for truth and meaning in this life.