10 Really Big Questions About Future Church Attendance (And 10 Hunches)

church attendance

Talk to any church leader, and they’ll tell you it feels more challenging than ever to get people to come to church on a Sunday.

Even in growing churches (like ours), the competition for peoples’ time, attention and devotion seems to get more intense every year.

You’ve felt it too.

So what’s up? And where is future church attendance heading?

I’m a firm believer in the future of the church and the gathered church. It’s here to stay not because we always get it right, but because the church is Jesus’ idea, not ours.

Still, with everything in the culture changing, how do you navigate toward a better future?

One step is to start asking solid questions.

Why? Because usually the future isn’t pioneered by the clarity of the answers nearly as much as it by the quality of the questions.

Asking the right questions will lead you to better answers. Click To Tweet

Ask the right questions, and you’ll eventually get the right answers.  Fail to ask the questions, and you’re sunk.

Here are ten questions I’m asking right now and I’ve seen other leaders ask. I think they can help frame your discussion and move you toward better answers and a strategy to match.

I’ve also included my hunch when it comes to an answer to the questions, not because I’m certain it’s right, but because answering the question moves you toward a more strategic and proactive future.

So, with that in mind,  here are 10 really big questions about future church attendance.

1. Will infrequent church attendance become the universal default?

If you grew up in church, you were likely raised never to miss a Sunday. Well, those days are pretty much gone. I outline ten reasons for that in this post.

Frequent church attendance (say 2-3 weeks a month) seems to be most prevalent among

  • Volunteers
  • Long time (and older) church attendees
  • Families with very young children
  • Some new attendees and new Christians (at least for a season)
  • Quite honestly, lower-income families for whom travel is not an option

For everyone else, regular church attendance is giving way to non-engagement or online attendance.

As infrequent in-person attendance becomes more normative, it raises a series of other questions.

Hunch

Infrequent church attendance is usually a sign that people don’t see value in what you’re doing. And that’s a problem.

When parents who never ever miss their kids’ soccer practice regularly miss church, it’s a sign that they’re more engaged in soccer than they are in church. In other words, they just don’t see the value in attendance.

Want to drive engagement? Here are some ideas.

2. Does infrequent attendance lead to lower devotion among Christians?

Some might argue frequent church attendance is not an indicator of devotion to Christ. But the bigger question is Is infrequent church attendance a sign of lower devotion to Christ?

Obviously, there is nothing that inherently says that’s the case, but generally speaking, people are less committed to things they attend less often.

Naturally, the goal of faith is to get people to commit to Jesus, not to a local church, but still, as I outline here, Christ and his church are intricately connected.

But consider this: showing up at the gym once a month rather than 3 times a week usually communicates something. Skipping a weekly date with someone you’re supposed to be in love with is usually a sign of something deeper.

People usually commit to things they’re devoted to. Until they’re no longer devoted to them.

Hunch

Infrequent attendance is almost always a sign of lower devotion. We participate in the things we value most.

Infrequent attendance is almost always a sign of lower devotion. We participate in the things we value most. Click To Tweet

3. Will online church replace in-person attendance for many?

So if people aren’t attending church as regularly anymore, then what’s the new normal?

In addition to simply staying away, many are substituting online options for in-person attendance. The launch of Churchome’s Global App is one more step in that direction.

The last decade has seen an explosion of online options for Christians, most of which are free: from social media to podcasts and to services streamed both live and on demand.

The opportunities are endless and will only grow from here.

Even if your church doesn’t have any online presence, don’t worry—thousands of other ministries do. There’s no way to shield your congregation from a changing world.

And actually, come to think of it, there’s shouldn’t be. The church has always adapted to a changing world because Jesus loves the world.

There's no way to shield your congregation from a changing world. And actually, come to think of it, there's shouldn't be. The church has always adapted to a changing world because Jesus loves the world. Click To Tweet

Hunch

While I think that (at least at this point) increased in-person engagement almost always leads to higher devotion, for some people online will be their only form of church. I don’t love this, for reasons stated elsewhere in this post, but if you ignore your online strategy, you lose the chance to reach new people, even if it means some of your less-devoted people step back.

4. Does online participation feed consumption or drive engagement?

One of the key goals for Christians is to engage the mission in front of us: to share the love and salvation of Christ with the world.

But does online participation drive Christians into deeper engagement with that mission or does it drive us deeper into consumerism?

The challenge with technology, of course, is that we are both its parent and its child. We shaped it, but we’re unclear on how it’s shaping us.

The challenge with technology, of course, is that we are both its parent and its child. We shaped it, but we're unclear on how it's shaping us. Click To Tweet

So, given the rise of digital options, are Christians increasingly seeing their faith as something to be consumed?

The Gospel by nature demands sacrifice, engagement, and risk.

Christianity at its best has never been about consuming much and contributing little. We shouldn’t start now.

In many respects, online consumption builds the kingdom of me. We’re called to build the Kingdom of God.

Hunch

When you design your online strategy, you can shape it to fuel consumption or to fuel engagement. While many churches will shape it to fuel consumption, the more effective churches will shape it to fuel engagement.

Click To Tweet

5. What happens to evangelism in a low attendance world?

Of all the things that concern me most about lower attendance patterns, this one is the highest on my list.

If you’re consuming your faith online and only attending sporadically, how do you invite your friends into that? That’s right, you don’t.

Sharing a pin on Instagram is not the same as personally sharing your life with a friend.

Sure, theoretically, you can share your faith around a kitchen table. But let’s be honest, not many people actually do that. And something tells me that most people who attend infrequently rarely share their faith.

Christians should live like the good news is good, not just for them, but for everyone.

If you're consuming your faith online and only attending sporadically, how do you invite your friends into that? That's right, you don't. Click To Tweet

Hunch

Many Christians will continue to see their faith as something to be enjoyed, not shared. But they won’t be the future church.

The future church will be followers of Jesus who unite around a mission to change the world through the love and hope of Christ.

Many Christians will continue to see their faith as something to be enjoyed, not shared. But they won't be the future church. Click To Tweet

6. What happens to discipleship in a virtual environment?

Christian maturity is not marked by how much you know, it’s marked by how much you love.

And love has an outward thrust.

Christian maturity is not marked by how much you know, it's marked by how much you love. Click To Tweet

Sure, to grow as a disciple you need to consume. So listen to messages and podcasts, take online seminary classes… do what you need to do.

But consumption has never been the goal of true discipleship. Jesus never asked you to be a disciple; he called you to make disciples.

If your mantra in avoiding other Christians on Sunday and consuming what you feel like on Monday is to build yourself up, you’ve lost the mission.

Hunch

The future church will be filled with Christians who realize they’re called to make disciples, not just be disciples.

The future church will be filled with Christians who realize they're called to make disciples, not just be disciples. Click To Tweet

7. How much of a virtual experience actually translates?

With more and more congregations streaming their services, it raises the question of what happens on the other end?

First, I suspect the attention span of viewers and listeners is fractured and intermittent. Watching while running on the treadmill is not the same experience as being in the room live when something is taking place. Listening while cooking dinner and while the kids are running up and down the hall is not the same as being seated and attentive for a sermon. Sure, people have been distracted in church for centuries, but it’s a different kind of distraction.

Second, even if you sit in rapt attention to what’s being streamed on your device, is it the same as being in the room? If you only watched online for a year or attended for a year, would your faith be different?

Hunch

Because so online content consumption is often done while people multi-task, it will lead to a distracted discipleship if that’s the only form of church people experience.

8. Is a digital relationship with Christianity enough?

As physical attendance continues to decline and digital engagement increases, will it be possible to have 100% or near 100% digital relationship with Christianity, much the way you have a completely virtual relationship with gaming, movies or Hollywood?

I really think something gets lost by a mainly digital experience.

A high percentage of couples today meet online. But no couple who meets online wants to stay online: the goal is to meet in person and (maybe) start a life together.  Should Christians be different?

If the goal is to do life together, to engage in a mission together, to quite literally change the world together, well… that involves actual human relationships.

But in a world where more and more are choosing virtual connection over real, we’ll have to see what that produces.

Church online will increasingly become a front door for growing congregations, and back door for declining congregations. Click To Tweet

9. What happens to kids whose parents only attend online?

This one bothers me more than most. Parents will often skip out on attending church because they’re busy or want a day off.

And parents can easily catch up on a message and maybe even still get to a small group.

But what about kids?

We’ve built a relational ministry at our church for all ages based on the Orange strategy and curriculum because, well, I think the Gospel is inherently relational.

You can’t download a relationship or a friendship.

When parents skip church, kids lose far more than the parents.

What happens to a generation of kids who grow up relationally disconnected? Actually, I think we’re seeing the results of that already. Just read the news.

When parents skip church, kids lose far more than the parents. Click To Tweet

10. Will fragmented individual believers carry the mission forward?

Whether the future trends are toward more online engagement or just more sporadic attendance with no online supplementation, the question is whether fragmented individual believers will carry the mission forward?

The church has always been strongest when it’s been a movement of people gathered around a common set of mission, vision, values and strategy.

The hyper-individualism of our current culture (I’ll do what I want when I want to) runs at crossed-purposes to the Gospel and the mission of the church.

I realize many Christians argue they’re done with church (I wrote about that here… the comments will curl your hair), but that still doesn’t change my view that the only one who believes Christians are better off alone is the enemy.

The only who believes Christians are better off alone is the enemy. Click To Tweet

76% of people say preaching influences church attendance

art of better preaching

As much as worship and so many other touch points impact how we are the church, 76% of people say the message is a main factor in whether they attend a church. No surprise, since it’s the majority of the service.

So how do you preaching a way that connects with today’s culture WITHOUT selling out?

The Art of Better Preaching Course is a 12 session video training with a comprehensive, interactive workbook that will help you create, write, and deliver better sermons. The course contains the lessons Mark Clark (lead pastor of  Village Church, a growing mega-church in post-Christian Vancouver) and I have learned, taught, and used over decades of being professional communicators.

This is the complete course you need to start preaching better sermons, including:

  • 7 preaching myths it’s time to bust forever
  • The 5 keys to preaching sermons to unchurched people (that will keep them coming back)
  • How to discover the power in the text (and use it to drive your sermon)
  • The specific characteristics of sermons that reach people in today’s world
  • Why you need to ditch your sermon notes (and how to do it far more easily than you think.)
  • How to keep your heart and mind fresh over the long run

And far more. Plus you get an interactive workbook and some bonus resources that will help you write amazing messages week after week.

In the Art of Better Preaching, Mark and I share everything we’ve learned about communicating in a way that will help your church grow without compromising biblical integrity. We cover detailed training on everything from interacting with the biblical text to delivering a talk without using notes, to writing killer bottom lines that people will remember for years.

Don’t miss out! Check it out today and gain instant access.

So… What Do You Think?

I really don’t want this to sound like a negative post. I am hugely invested in the digital space, as is our church. But I see the digital world as a front door into a more meaningful encounter, not a back door into something less powerful.

I do believe the future will be amazing for the church if we ask the right questions, seize the moment prayerfully, and begin to innovate.

These questions above aren’t just strategic questions, they’re theological and philosophical questions.

The church is far from dead, but asking the right questions will breathe life into it.

Is there any question you’d add to this list?

Any hopeful answer you’d like to offer?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

10 Comments

  1. Jonathan on December 13, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    I’m not a pastor but volunteer leader and while I agree with these points for most situations, this doesn’t deal with places without reasonable church options. I moved overseas with my family for work a few months ago and due to language barriers and outright bad teaching at the English speaking options, we decided to do home church and engage our kids in worship via YouTube, prayed together, and did homemade lessons and crafts. We are hoping to start a small group, so the kitchen table idea you doubt is our most viable option for fellowship and evangelism. And I can tell you that listening to online sermons have taught me more memorable lessons than most of my in-person attendance over the past several years, so I would argue that good recorded sermons are generally more valuable than mediocre in-person teaching. So I just wanted to say I’m thankful for the online resources we have, and would encourage leaders to consider better ways to drive meaningful engagement with long-distance attendees. And send more missionaries to plant churches!

  2. Chris Logan on December 13, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    You wrote “When you design your online strategy, you can shape it to fuel consumption or to fuel engagement. While many churches will shape it to fuel consumption, the more effective churches will shape it to fuel engagement.”
    Given especially the issue of #9 (and thank you for pointing that out, most people seem to forget the implications of a hyperindividualist faith on their progeny), I’d love to see some thoughts on how to do this. Our online presence is currently limited to instagram, a facebook page (not a group), and our website. We don’t do them amazingly well due to how much time it takes to invest (but post at least weekly from instagram that cascades to facebook) and I’d like to strategize about how to maximize our digital footprint effectively in a way that helps drive people to in-person engagement.
    So … what have you done?

  3. Lizari on December 11, 2018 at 2:25 am

    I love this! It got me thinking of like 5 potential sermons. Thanks for the insight and food for thought!

  4. Harry Court on December 10, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    Thanks Carey.

    What you didn’t talk about was the loss of momentum when people come occasionally, don’t commit, don’t carry a volunteer load, don’t give regularly (they give emotionally) and even may attend another church occassionaly because their teen is friends with a teen from another church………that loss of momentum is very much experienced by pastors and volunteers who get discouraged.

  5. Daren Wride on December 10, 2018 at 3:51 pm

    One of my hunches is that there will be (already is) a place to leverage online marketing practices to get some of the infrequent and non-attendees out to special events, with more regular attendance as a possible outcome. However, the more regular attendance will only happen if such attendance is not an end in itself, but an equipping for life and ministry, vs just learning. Churches need to shift from being teaching centers to equipping centers. Many already are.

  6. Charles Stoicu on December 10, 2018 at 3:44 pm

    Hey Carey,

    I really enjoyed the post and I also enjoyed reading your recent book…
    Ive been a student of most of your recent posts and podcast was well.
    Over the past few months of listening to podcasts, reading your posts, and reading you book, I was struck by a quote on pg. 101 “What if leaders started thinking of themselves as a digital organization with a physical presence, instead of a physical organization with a digital presence? After all , everyone they want to reach is already online”.

    There was a mash up of ideas from the book, you interview with the methodist “thinking Church” and a slew of other inputs that got me thinking about what it could/would look like to flip the paradigm of church..

    So many churches have great personal presence but only port their messages, content, marketing, etc… to create a digital presence…

    What if churches created a digital first organiztion, that could be global even, with converations that people would be inclinded to be part of, ( alot like a coffee, or meal, or the random conversation in the office before the weekend) where they disccussed things like (racial reconciliation, baptism, grace, how to win at being married… etc) then in the course of the conversation had opportunites for people who were listening to take a next step in person. (heres an organization that builds relationships, join for a baptism at a local church, Connecxus is hosting a relationship conference on Jan 13th… ) Where we used Online as a tool to Gather in order to Connect every person to their Next Step?…

    Its very similar in my mind to what the music industry is doing… You send music out to be enjoyed at the gym, in the car, on a walk, in any and every place 168 hours a week. but… at some point the band goes on tour and you then invite people to the transcendent experience in person.

    The idea being… Incarnation as individuals or small groups, transcendent as a worship experience…

    Again, Its only an idea but… It addesses lots of the issues we think about technology, the activation of indivuals in their life mission, with a clear expression of the local church experience.
    Like how cool would it be to see that there were 2500 people engaged in LA who you could rent a venue out to and host an experience of worship, gathering the people who already are beginning to follow Jesus online… or in my context at my church where we look to send 1000 people beyond borders this year, have people sign up from all over the US and meet in the airport-for a trip to serve people in Turkana?…

    Im convinced that if we want to reach people we haven’t reached we’ve got to do things that haven’t been done… and this seems like something up that vein.

    Cheers,
    Charles

  7. Robert on December 10, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    This is your best post ever. Point #9 is the heart breaker.

  8. T Duncan on December 10, 2018 at 10:28 am

    I have been wrestling with this and loving all your posts for some time. Thank you. I lead children’s ministry at a small but active church with a very small group of children. Most left when we dropped our “contemporary” service. I have a vision for adding back a “second” service but a very different one that engages the next generations, the unchurched, or those that like on line church. My vision is for non traditional services during the month. I don’t have names for them but it’s something like this:
    Family meal Sunday: come for a pot luck and worship
    Serving Sunday: participate in a project: operation Christmas child packing, food packing, writing to missionaries, writing to soldiers, project on church grounds, visiting shut ins, serving at soup kitchen, providing serving opportunities at church or away, for those at church include lesson and worship.
    Study Sunday: break into groups to join a bible study after a brief worship and lesson ( then continue on with that group, offer virtual and week night and week day options)

    The idea is to do something active in loving and being the love of Christ. Too often church is all teaching, why can’t sunday have both. And this doesn’t need to be every Sunday but hopefully it engages families more actively and encouraged them to come to the regular service. Christ did not say church was sitting in a pew for an hour. This is also church.

  9. Cecil Seagle on December 10, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Provocative! I will come back to this post over and over, much to consider. Like Dale, i believe groups are key to some of the challenges you suggest. Perhaps a forum to discuss group leader equipping would be helpful. We are in the midst of the journey of groups development. Leadership is essential, development seems vital – what does that look like? Not so interested in a new publication as i am in hearing from practitioners who are sensing and seeing traction and community emerging.

  10. Ryan on December 10, 2018 at 10:07 am

    Thanks for the insight. What if the church thought outside of Sunday mornings and began having relational church experiences in homes throughout the week? I would love to speak with you on what I’m seeing from leading groups at our church and sensing from the Holy Spirit. I think the emphasis on living in community throughout the week greatly impacts engagement on Sunday morning. We’ll need groups and relational discipleship to keep Sunday filled up with believers and unbelievers. It’s going to take hard work and major culture shifts but it’s being vigilant and wise for what’s to come.

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