As almost everyone by this point has noticed, even committed church attenders are attending weekend church services less often.
Online options are one of ten reasons I’ve previously outlined on why even committed Christians are attending church less frequently (here are the other 9).
But just how seriously is technology digging into attendance and what can a church leader do in response?
The question is challenging because the change happening around us is so rapid, and those who fail to respond will likely be left clinging to a model that worked a decade ago.
I’ll Just Listen When I’m Running
You only have to be in your twenties to realize how much things have changed in the last decade.
Ten years ago, there was no smart phone. Computers still mostly used cords to access the internet, and internet was painfully slow (at least by today’s standards).
If you wanted to listen to a message by a pastor who didn’t live in your town or access pretty much any Christian content, you had to order a CD, wait for it to arrive and listen then. Some churches were still rocking cassette ministries.
Fast forward to today.
Your phone has more power than any device you owned in the 2000s. It’s always connected, and as a result, so are you.
Consequently, you (and millions of others) have access to any preacher, anytime and anywhere, including all the influential communicators. For free. Which is what a growing number of Christians are listening to.
And even in small churches, parishioners now have access to their pastor’s messages on iTunes.
Throw a few bucks into the mix and you can even grab your favourite worship tunes.
Which means that the two ingredients that have been the mainstay of church services for millions of people in Western Culture—a great message and some music— have become largely downloadable.
The implications of this are huge.
Many Christians are thinking ‘why bother going at a set hour and fight traffic when I can listen when I’m running?”
It’s a great question.
And to simply dismiss that approach as unfaithful is a bit simplistic.
This is a great season for leaders to dig deeper and ask why do we do what we do? That’s true any time change comes.
It’s also the conversation we’ve been having at Connexus Church where I serve.
Some great questions for any church leader to ask include:
What makes the gathering of the church unique?
Why do we gather anyway?
Are there aspects of our gathering that you simply can’t download?
Will technology eventually kill the weekend service?
Those are questions we’re all better off answering sooner than later.
The internet is not going away any time soon, and church leaders who ignore it do so to their peril.
For sure, as Will Mancini discusses below, the conversation should just not be about running defence—ignoring the internet and trends and arguing the only faithful response is to attend.
You can listen to Will’s insights on the player below or go straight to iTunes to listen to my conversation with him (it’s Episode 23).
But with that in mind, the question remains, what do we do with our online presence and our gatherings?
Toward Downloadable and Non Downloadable Experiences
For starters, I believe the church will always gather. (I outlined that among 10 predictions for the future church).
We always have and we always will.
Perhaps the best strategy is to increase your online presence as much as you can while deepening your in-person gatherings.
We need downloadable experiences AND we need non-downloadable experiences. It’s both and, not either or.
A greater online presence allows your ministry to impact people every day through social media, online messages and more.
Given that virtually every unchurched person in your city is online, it provides a portal to the unchurched in your community few could have imagined a generation ago.
In other words, something leaders could only dream of two decades ago is at your fingertips (literally), and it’s not even that expensive.
So the upside for online impact is staggering.
But that doesn’t make the church entirely virtual or downloadable.
Is there something that happens when the church gathers that doesn’t happen when you listen to a message when you’re at the gym or in the car?
For sure there is.
5 Things You Can’t Download
The times we’re in will make us drill down further on what elements of our life together are unique to physical gathering and which aren’t.
As we all intuitively know, there are some things you can’t download.
Leaders who understand and focus on these ingredients will always lead better churches than leaders who don’t, no matter how robust their online ministry might be.
So while this is early thinking (the dialogue will only get better with time), here are 5 ingredients I don’t think you can download.
I conclude each point with a leadership question that can serve as a filter or guide as you plan your services, gatherings and experiences.
You might be able to download an artfully captured message and awesomely engineered music, but you can’t download community—at least not the deepest form of community.
And that’s what the church should be best at.
Don’t get me wrong, online community is great. I have thousands of connections online with people I would otherwise never meet. Some of the connections mean a great deal to me.
But they are not nearly as deep as the connections I have with people I know in my local church. People I meet with face to face. People I’m doing life with.
Churches that deepen community will always do a better job of getting people to gather than churches who don’t.
Consequently, if you still see church as a random gathering of dozens, hundreds or thousands of people, perhaps you’re creating an experience that can be downloaded.
But if you give people meaningful spaces in which to gather, to build relationship (small groups remains incredible for this) and to experience things together as a community, you will be getting back to the kind of experiences the early church knew and that will define the future church.
And don’t miss this—churches that broker authentic community create experiences the world is craving
Before you think you’ve passed the test, dig deeper.
Many churches claim to be great at fellowship, but they’re not. They’re great at cliques.
But a church that brokers authentic community for dozens, hundreds or thousands is offering people something nothing else can compare to. Especially because Christ is at the centre of that gathering.
It’s the community so many are longing for but no one seems to know how to find.
Leadership Question: Are we moving people toward authentic community in everything we do as a church?
One of the theological questions this discussion raises is this: “Is God present differently when the church gathers than he is in our personal lives?”
I think the answer is yes.
If you look at how God moved in the early church, it was often through groups of people. It’s not that God wasn’t with people individually—he was, and is—it’s just that the corporate presence is different and powerful and often changes the world.
I agree that often we misuse and abuse the concept of God’s presence as church leaders. We think God was present because the room was full, because the preacher was strong, or because the offering was good.
It’s not nearly that simply or straightforward.
But sometimes God is present—meaningfully, powerfully—when the church gathers.
While you can’t engineer God’s presence, but you can pray for it and anticipate it.
When we gather for communion, when we invite God to be present, when we make space in our services for God to speak…something often happens that you can’t quite control.
Even practically speaking, the focused attention a physical gathering demands can draw people into greater connection with God than those moments when we distractedly listen to a message at home while we’re frantically making dinner for the kids.
And remember…unchurched people long for an experience with God. If the church can’t facilitate that, who can?
The church should be the best in the world at moving people into the presence of the living God.
Churches that facilitate this will simply reach more unchurched people than those who don’t.
Leadership Question: Have we invited God into this and left space for him to move?
The church is not an institution or even an organization; it’s a movement.
And movements by nature gather people and make an impact.
Cycling down a road all by yourself, listening to the latest podcast certainly is peaceful, but wouldn’t you rather actually be part of the movement?
If your church is gathering for the sake of gathering (you’ve lost the mission), there will be no sense of movement.
But the closer your church is to the mission of the original church, the greater the sense of movement will be.
The church at its best is a movement of saints and sinners, saved and unsaved—people from every walk of life and socio-economic background whose lives are being intersected by a saviour who rose from the dead.
The church at its best is an outward movement that changes families, cities and nations.
Leadership question: Is there any sense when we gather that we are part of the broader movement of the Kingdom of God?
Perhaps the most exciting part of leading in the local church for me is that we never have a Sunday where only Christians gather.
We’re a church that we pray unchurched people will love to attend, and they do. It’s been a decade and a half since we had a service without an unchurched guest present.
The ministry of personal evangelism is important and a bit undernourished these days.
Even the person who’s best at personal evangelism ultimately wants to connect their friends to a wider circle of Christians.
It’s hard to invite your friend to a podcast. It’s easier to invite them to church.
And every Christians who feel insecure or ill equipped to talk to their friends about Christ (which is most) can still easily say “why don’t you come to church with me.”
The crisis in the church today is that most churches are not places anyone would want to bring their friends to.
Imagine if that changed.
Churches that facilitate gatherings that work for outsiders and insiders will be the most effective. If you want to know what that looks like, I think the best explanation is found in Andy Stanley’s Deep and Wide.
Leadership question: Are our services great experiences for the churched and the unchurched alike?
In the same way you can’t download community or invitation, you can’t download serving people either.
The church is one of the greatest places in the world to serve.
To serve each other.
To serve children.
To serve teens.
To serve unchurched people.
To serve the brokenhearted.
To serve the poor.
If all I do is download my favourite Christian content, the only person I end up serving is myself.
If volunteering at church becomes less about staffing positions and filling slots, and truly becomes about serving each other in love, the world will take notice.
When the church gathers to serve, we break the gravitational pull of selfishness.
Leadership Questions: How do our gatherings model serving one another in love?
What Would You Add?