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5 Reasons Engagement Will Drive Almost All Future Church Growth

As culture changes in front of our eyes, you might be wondering, what will drive future church growth?

In addition, you’re probably frustrated that the things that used to help a church grow don’t ‘work’ anymore (here are 9 things that have stopped being effective).

You’re definitely not alone in your experience or your frustration.

As Western culture becomes increasingly post-Christian, our approach to church needs to change because our culture has changed.

None of this means the mission of the church has changed. The mission is the same in every generation.

But the methods we use—our strategy—has to change, as I outlined here.

So what’s one of the biggest changes we’re going to see?

Simple. If you want to see your church grow, stop trying to attract people and start trying to engage people.

Here’s why.

future church growth

5 Reasons Engagement Will Drive Almost All Future Church Growth

The current approach to church has largely been driven by getting people to attend. The idea is this: get them in the door, and then hopefully at some point they’ll engage in the mission.

Why is that approach becoming less and less effective?

And why will engagement emerge as the main way to spark church growth?

Here are 5 reasons:

1. Attending church is a relatively new concept

Flip back to New Testament days.

Jesus never said ‘Attend me.’ He said ‘Follow me.’

The only reason you would follow Jesus (in Jesus’ day) is because you were either intrigued by who he was and what he did, or because you had come to believe that he was who he said he was.

In other words, you were engaged.

You didn’t attend Jesus. You followed him.

A similar dynamic emerged in the first century church.

Early Christians didn’t attend church. They were the church.

If you look back at the genesis of the Jesus movement, the idea of attendance as a hallmark would have been completely foreign.

You only attended because you were engaged. Period.

2. Attendance naturally grows out of engagement

As the Christian movement grew and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, mere church ‘attendance’ became an option.

Fast forward to our lifetime, and even in growing, effective churches,  attendance had become an established path to engagement.

The big idea was this: come, and eventually you’ll get engaged.

That worked (quite effectively, actually) when people used to flock to church.

But in an era when the number of unchurched is constantly on the rise and even Christians don’t attend church as often anymore (here are 10 reasons for that), that strategy is becoming less and less effective.

Yet, many churches (even growing churches) are still counting on getting people to attend, hoping it drives engagement.

The shelf life on that strategy is limited because the number of people who want to attend church drops every year.

Consequently, in the future church attendance won’t drive engagement; engagement will drive attendance.

The goal will become to get people engaged faster and to engage people more deeply in the true mission of the church. (I’ll blog on how to do that next week).

In the future, the engaged will attend because, in large measure, only the engaged will remain.

3. Trying to attract people in a post-Christian culture can work against the mission

I am all for making church as attractive and accessible as possible.

But in the future if that’s your only approach (better lights, cooler vibe, hoping people will come), you will get diminishing results. (I wrote on the death and rebirth of cool church here.)

Why is that?

Well, as outlined above, when attendance was more normative and in some senses ‘automatic’ in our culture, attraction was a decent strategy.

Because people would go to church, creating a better church was a good approach.

But (and here’s the underbelly), it also fed into consumerism.

Consumerism has defined the last century of North American and Western culture.

To some extent, the attractional church has played into consumerism. Build something attractive and people will come.

Again, that strategy was very effective when people instinctively flocked to churches, not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of baptisms and authentic faith-building. And you shouldn’t make your church inaccessible or unattractive on purpose. That’s just…weird.

But in the process, building attractive, relevant churches has had an unintended side-effect: people have come to evaluate church by what they get out of it, not by what they put into it.

That’s a mistake.

Along the way, discipleship has even been redefined in many circles to mean consumption of knowledge. The more you know, the more mature you are. I believe that’s a flawed approach (here’s why).

Authentic discipleship has always been about dying to self.  It’s about giving far more than it is about getting.

Again, I’m not slamming the attractional church. I’m all for building bridges to the culture, not erecting barriers.

Anyone who knows church knows that at the heart of every attractional church is a core of Christians who sacrifice—who give, who serve and who invite.

What’s exciting is that selflessness will move to the forefront in the future church because those who remain will be engaged in the mission.

4. Our culture is ripe for an alternative to consuming

One of the frequent criticisms non-Christians levy at Christians is that we’re self-indulgent and hypocritical.

Those critiques are not without warrant.

As a more selfless church emerges (even excellent, selfless churches), that will drive more curiosity and interest from unchurched people.

While you can debate what Millennials really want out of life, there appears to be a growing attraction in our culture to rebel against consumerism, as the Minimalist movement of the last few years has shown us.

People are longing for an alternative to life as they know it. The church is that alternative.

Christians obsessed with giving away their lives awaytrump Christians obsessed with themselves and their preferences.

5. People become the most passionate about the things with which they’re most involved

A final reason that engagement will drive future church growth is simply this: people become most passionate about the things with which they’re most involved.

Just talk to a football dad or a baseball mom. Or your foodie friend who just found yet another recipe. Or your triathlete friend who set another personal best.

Engagement fuels involvement. Involvement fuels passion. Passion fuels invitation.

That’s why your friend wants you to try that recipe, to watch the game with them and at least attempt a 5k.

Engagement leads to invitation. Invitation leads to unchurched people following Jesus.

In many ways, this can only be a good thing.

Over to You

What are you seeing about the decades old use-attendance-to-drive-engagement strategy?

Leave a comment.

In my next post, I’ll outline specific strategies to outline engagement. If you want to catch that, subscribe to my email list where you’ll get a summary of our posts plus hear about some great opportunities I love to share with my subscribers. Sign up here.

In the meantime, scroll down and leave a comment.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  • Darren McLaud

    The thing that will drive church growth is when the church stops trying
    to drive church growth. This is not wall street. Knock it off.

    • It seems to me like you may not have visited a lot of churches or spoken to thousands of church leaders. If you had, you wouldn’t be saying “knock it off.” I personally know many church leaders who are hungry for change and for seeing people reached for Christ. This kind of thing is often helpful.

  • gary

    I would add this thought: Engagement that really matters, happens outside the confines of the Church building and outside the confines of what the Church “normally” enjoins itself to. People today have the best bologna detectors in the world, and they know the difference between genuine engagement that is led by the true to desire to live like Jesus, and the false engagement designed to just get them in the doors of the Church building or the Church buildings “proxy”.

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  • I totally agree with this. We saw it in our church with the MOPS group, women came to our building to check out the MOPS group, they became engaged in the ministry, then naturally the women (and their families) began attending our church.

    Our subministries …. MOPS, youth, women’s ministry, men’s ministry, etc are all bridges that will lead people from outside the church into the church. They are a gateway, where we can invite the unchurched in to get to know us as people. We use these ministries as a way to break down the misconceptions of church or fears of those who are unchurched.

    Once they are engaged in this way, we must have the next step as Karen pointed out… what to do with people once they get inside. A natural funneling of people into small groups where they can learn more — or discipleship/mentoring groups where they can begin to learn for the first time.

    People are lonely, more now than ever because we are physically disconnect despite the social media connection to everyone. Opportunities to engage people into relationship will become the invitation to the church.

  • Carey, this is not a new idea, but it’s new again. In the ’60s and ’70s, churches moved quicker to get people into volunteering. the 90’s and 00’s gave us spectator church. I so agree that people want something meaningful to invest themselves in. We are indeed “ripe” for an alternative to consumption.

  • One thing to add: this is also important for current church YOUTH and KIDS. I have a 9yo playing guitar on my worship team once every three months or so. He’s not amazing by adult standards, but he puts in the time and we adapt the music so he can play well. And he’s TOTALLY hooked! It’s a wonder we don’t do this INSTEAD of youth ministry … kids won’t leave the church if they have been co-owning it with their parents and grandparents since they were 8 …

  • Karen Bensink

    Although it starts with an invite, you’ve gotta do something with people once they get inside. Totally agreeing with the thoughts. My new shoes don’t bring me half the joy of the shoes I got for someone who didn’t have any. And giving begets giving. AND- you can’t force anyone else to do it, or feel it. And it’s a frustration to sit in a room surrounded by people who can’t see outside of their own personal box of requirements…

  • Good post. It does seem that attendance or non-attendance is symptomatic of our heart’s engagement to Christ.