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?
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!