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5 Ways To Embrace Infrequent Church Attenders

There’s an urgent question many church leaders are asking , as we all try to figure out how to respond as people who attend church now attend less often.

The question is this:

How do you interact with infrequent church attenders who don’t seem to be embracing the mission of your church the way you hoped they would?

I think it’s simple.

You embrace them anyway.

I chose the word ’embrace’ on purpose. Because I know there’s something deep seated in many of us that wants to reject people if we sense they’re rejecting us. And people who don’t come out to church much on Sunday can feel like rejection if you’re an insecure church leader. (Which, by the way, is many of us on this side of heaven. Here are 5 signs that will tell you whether you’re an insecure leader.)

When I started in ministry in the mid 90s, if someone didn’t attend church for awhile, it was almost always was because they left.

Today, I don’t actually sense that the people who haven’t been at our church for a few weeks or a few months are rejecting us. In fact, when I run into them, they tell me they love our church. And that they can’t wait to get back at some point.

So no, they haven’t left. They just haven’t been lately.

So what do you do?

There are at least 5 things you can do.

Before we go there, post is the third part of a 5 part series on why people are attending church less often.

Part 1: 10 Reasons Even Committed Church Attenders Are Attending Less Often

Part 2: CNLP Episode 23: Why People Are Attending Church Less Often—An Interview with Will Mancini.

Part 3: 5 Ways to Embrace Infrequent Church Attenders

Part 4: 10 Predictions About the Future Church And Shifting Attendance Patterns

Part 5: CNLP Episode 24: Churchless: Why and How America is Learning to Live Without The Church—An Interview with David Kinnaman

If you want to access the podcast interviews easily on your phone or other device, the best way is to subscribe to my leadership podcast for free on iTunes or Stitcher

Now to the 5 things.

1. Develop some empathy

Many of today’s church leaders grew up in church. We remember a time when church attendance was simply the thing you did every Sunday. And as church leaders or volunteers, it’s what we still do every Sunday.

So at times it can be a little hard to empathize with people who don’t see things the way we see them.

Personally, I think participating in the mission of a great church weekly (including Sundays) is one of the best things a Christian can do. Unless I’m fooling myself, I think this is a personal conviction, not just a vocational conviction. If I stopped doing vocational ministry tomorrow, I would still want to participate weekly in the mission of a local church, including the Sunday ministry.

But just because I see it that way doesn’t mean everyone sees it that way.

And…here’s the danger…if you start judging people for not seeing it your way, you almost certainly turn them off. People—especially teens and young adults—can smell judgment a mile away. Judgment creates barriers.

So what do you do instead?

Empathize.

It’s not that hard to do if you realize you probably have an attitude about other organizations similar to their attitude toward your church.

Take going to the gym for example.

I have a gym membership. Truthfully, I haven’t been there in two months. But I spin on my bike trainer at home, do push ups and hike. I watch what I eat and I do other exercise. To me, my goal is fitness and health. It’s not going to the gym. The gym is a means to an end, and it’s not the only means for me.

Am I going to make the cover of next month’s Muscle Magazine? Nope. But that’s not my goal.

Many people think the same way about church. Especially if you’re reaching unchurched people. If a formerly unchurched person shows up 12 times a year, that’s far more than they’ve ever been in church! They might think they’re doing great, and maybe they are compared to how they used to feel spiritually.

So rather than judging them for it, tell them they’re doing great. And invite them in to a deeper conversation about faith and life.

I realize the gym analogy breaks down because I don’t think the Christian faith is an individual pursuit like fitness can be (more on that in part 4 of this blog series). And clearly, I would be in better shape if I went to the gym three times a week and had a personal trainer.

But if you stand there with a scowl on your face every Sunday angry about empty seats, why would anyone want to sit in one?

2. Separate the mission from the method

Somewhere along the way a lot of us end up confusing the mission and the method.

Your mission is to lead people into a relationship with Jesus, not to get people to show up for an hour in a box every Sunday.

Please hear me…I value our time together on Sundays as a church. And I think it’s presently one of our very best vehicles through which to advance the mission of the church (more on that in Part 4 of the series).

But our mission is not to fill seats on a Sunday. It’s to lead people to Jesus.

You should be obsessed with your mission, not with filling seats.

Truthfully, some of us are more in love with the method than the mission. If that’s you, repent. I have. I am.

That shift will create a whole new mindset in your team.

As Will Mancini said, that will help you run offence, not just defence on the issue of declining church attendance.

You’ll start to think of fresh ways to help people on their journey toward Jesus.

And—don’t miss this—if you really help people move into an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ, they might show up more regularly in your church on Sunday. Ironic, isn’t it?

3. Use technology to help people every day

Church leaders today have an advantage that we simply didn’t have a decade ago.

Social media and even email are great ways to help people deepen their journey with Christ, not just sell your latest program.

What if you started viewing your social media channels and email list as an opportunity to come alongside people and help them grow in their faith?

You have to be careful how you approach this, because if you’re just trying to drive attendance, people will notice.

But if you encourage them, inspire them, challenge them and help them, they’ll welcome your presence.

I wrote a post on how to write email people actually want to read here, and Casey Graham and I touched on using email and technology as a way to reach out to your church in this podcast.  I also outlined 9 great ways to use social media in this post, along with 3 common mistakes many leaders make.

If you run your social media and email content through a helpful filter, people will be thrilled to hear from you. And it will deepen the bond you have with infrequent attenders. They’ll come to see you as a friend, not just one more person trying to sell them something.

Be the favourite person in their inbox, and their favourite thing to see on their newsfeed.

Never underestimate what being helpful does for everyone involved.

4. Start measuring outputs

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me personally from my interview with Will Mancini was Will’s insight that church leaders are programmed to measure inputs, not outputs.

We measure how many people showed up, what they gave, who they brought and even online traffic. But rarely do we measure outputs.

What if the church became as much a sending organization as a receiving organization?

What if you developed ways to measure spiritual growth? Like how much time people spend with God personally each day reading scripture and praying? The stats are surprisingly low. According to a recent study, 57% of Americans read their bible four times a year or less. Only 26% read it more than 4 times a week.

What if you helped the people around your church change that?

And what if you got innovate and started thinking through whether people were better off five years after joining your church than were before? Or whether they feel closer to Christ? Or whether they’re making a difference in their workplaces and neighbourhoods? What if you helped them be the church, not just go to church?

Leaders get passionate about what they measure. So measure thoughtfully.

5. Celebrate wins

It’s strange that when a child takes their first steps, we applaud wildly, but when a Christian takes their first steps, we call them immature.

Sure, so a new Christian doesn’t read their bible every day or attend every week or give the way you want. I get that. Many long time Christians don’t either.

Rather than judging them, why not love them?

Why not celebrate when they take a step?

Send a handwritten thank you note to each first time attender.  Welcome them when they come back. Throw a party when they show up again 3 months later. Celebrate like crazy when someone gives their first $5 gift. Jump for joy when someone decides to serve or high five them when they decide to get in a group.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a big. The point isn’t to get weird.

The point is to celebrate. As Andy Stanley says, what you celebrate gets repeated.

Want to know how to celebrate? Follow my friend Bob Goff.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with a bigger heart than Bob, or who take more delight in things others might ignore or despise. Read his book. Stalk him (okay…don’t stalk him, but do follow him). Let some of his Kingdom of God joy rub off on you. If the church approached ministry the way people like Bob approach life, the church would be a far more attractive and contagious place.

Wait…Can’t You Be More Practical?

What about more practical ideas? Most of what’s above seems so…intangible.

Two years ago, I wrote about 7 more practical ways to respond as people attend church less often in this post. All 7 ideas are still relevant.

But I wanted to focus on the bigger picture…which is really getting all of us to admit that a new day is here.

The trend is not going away.

You can fight it or you can fund it.

History tends to be on the side of people who fund innovation, not on those who fight it.

Why not innovate for the kingdom? (More on that in Part 4 next week.)

The irony in all of this, of course, is that if you really do shift your mindset on this and start helping people, they’ll want to be around you more. In fact…although this might not be your direct goal…your attendance might actually increase.

So…what are you learning?

What’s the hardest part of this discussion for you?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

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  • Vicki M.

    I’ll give you an example from my life that perhaps speaks to empathy and being an insecure leader. I am not able to attend my church regularly throughout the year for a couple of reasons: I am committed to helping take care of my elderly parents (one of which has Alzheimer’s) two states away. And, I live in a remote area on top of a mountain, almost an hour from my small town church (where most other attenders live 5-10 minutes from the church). Most months, I am out at least one Sunday, sometimes two, just because I am in my hometown with my parents. And then, if it’s flash flooding, snowing or icy out, I can’t get down the mountain, which can knock me out another Sunday. As you can see, these reasons have NOTHING to do with my feelings towards leadership or my lack of spirituality. Some people understand this, but you’d be surprised how many sighs or sideways looks I get or comments like, “Well, did you finally decide to show up?” from fellow church members and leadership alike (even the ones who know my story). They sometimes forget to focus on the fact that we tithe and we drive almost an hour (each way) as much as we can because we believe in the mission & method of that particular church. When a leader makes a sarcastic comment about my lack of attendance, it’s like when a preacher stops in the middle of his sermon to beg for “amens” or to say, “You should be writing this down.” To me, these are all signs of insecurity in that leader that says, “Affirm me!” I shudder to think about times I may have been insensitive to others in these ways in the past. I also think that church culture, in general, used to be much more legalistic, including in the area of attendance. As a pre-teen girl in the South, I was expected to wear pantyhose with my dresses to church! I have never require my teenage daughter to wear pantyhose to church. My elementary-aged brother had to wear a three-piece suit & tie! (He now wears boots & jeans to Cowboy Church in the Austin, TX area). The “dress code” is more relaxed now, for better or worse. In fact, sometimes I miss the days when we dressed up more. I have the freedom to dress up if I want to, but I wouldn’t go back to a time when it was required of me because that’s what the culture expected. For me, I think the key is relationship. I am friends with my pastor’s wife. Her mom also has Alzheimer’s. She seems to totally get my absences and doesn’t judge because we’re in relationship. She just encourages & will occasionally say, “How’s your Dad?” or “I’ve missed you! Let’s get together this week, just us.” (Not that every pastor’s wife can do this with everybody. This is just our situation.) She’s not focused on something pre-programmed to say or do. She’s focused on our relationship. It’s just natural. Just some food for thought. (Sorry for the length!)

  • BGary

    I read all these suggestions about how the church needs to do this and do that and quit doing this and quit doing that, etc (and many of these are Godly suggestions and brought up as points to consider and from Godly men and women). It is, however, sad, week after week, to listen to all these suggestions and to hear very very few on the subject of PRAYER!! 2 Chronicles 7:14 – in case no one has read it – the effectiveness of the / any church I believe is directly proportionate to the quality and quantity of time put into coming before our Father, humbling ourselves and crying out to Him for the souls dying out there every day that know Him not. It is not about building, programs, etc. but about doing all that we can in order that some might be saved. For those churches that think a 1 hour a month prayer gathering is going to phase / be effective against a practiced enemy that has had several thousand years of practice of deceiving and stealing men and women’s souls from the truth & power of the Gospel, it is time to stand up on our knees in repentance for our sins, for the lost, and also every day for the American church that is seeing the beginning of the great falling away from the Gospel.

    • Thank you for your fervent call to prayer. I so appreciate it. As I’ve said in many comment threads, prayer undergirds all my posts and I hope my approach to ministry. It is a given. I do agree prayer is a top priority. Sadly though, there are praying churches that are still dying.

  • Clive Lawrinson

    Jesus Christ loves the individual. Thank you for typing wiser words than me so that I could share all 5 tweets from above.

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  • MrsBlah

    The first point, empathy, really resonates with me. I recall when I was a leader for our university group with everyone split off in different towns and cities, and whenever I did see them, I would ask them how they were doing. I was sincerely wanting to know, but they always interpreted the question as a lead-up to “Why didn’t you come to fellowship?”, which was not my intention at all. Now that I’m a less-than-regular attendee, I have to fight the automatic inclination of being judged for showing up at all, and in the beginning, just thinking about the possible questioning looks would keep me from stepping out the door.

    Thankfully I’ve found a church that doesn’t question (or seem to anyway – I’m still working on my own potentially skewed perception) when we show up after a 3-week absence, even if we arrive late. I’ve been looking for a church that is a sanctuary, not a spiritual correction facility, and I think I’ve found one.

    • So happy for you, and so thankful you persisted. Great points! Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂

      • Wrswaim

        It’s interesting that on one end church leaders are suggested to follow up with people who miss with and say “it should be the hardest thing for a person to leave your church” but then the other side say “don’t bother them so much if they don’t come is just the way they are.” After 30 years of ministry the wide wonder why you didn’t care to text, call or send a card. It comunica ages to them they’re not valuable to you so they eventually go elsewhere. Tough balance to maintain.

        Theoretically I can agree with focusing on outputs but then it occurs to me – inputs come first.

        Overall thought – provoking, thanks.

        Walt

        • Thanks for the comment. That’s why I’m so passionate about groups. People in groups all know each other. 🙂