No secret—church attendance has fallen on hard times in the last several decades. Churches are closing, and even growing churches see people attending less often.
How do you know how to lead when everything seems to be shifting all at once as North American culture becomes more post-Christian every year?
For a few years now on this blog, we’ve been talking about engagement being the new church attendance. After all, Jesus didn’t say ‘attend me’, he said follow me. And early Christians didn’t attend church, they were the church.Jesus didn't say 'attend me', he said follow me. Early Christians didn't attend church, they were the church. Click To Tweet
In the future church attendance won’t drive engagement; engagement will drive attendance.
If you want your church to grow, stop trying to attract people. Start trying to engage people.
In the future church, only the engaged will attend because only the engaged will remain.
So what does that mean? Does it mean attendance doesn’t matter anymore?
I’ve heard a few leaders say just that—that attendance doesn’t really matter anymore. For the reasons outlined below, I’m not sure that’s true.
Just because gathering a crowd is harder these days doesn’t mean it’s not important. In fact, even in a post-Christian age where there are a million digital options, a 24/7 culture, travel sports on weekends for kids, and an infinite sea of options for people, it may be more important than you think.
Here are three new realities about church attendance, engagement and devotion.Just because gathering a crowd is harder these days doesn't mean it's not important. Click To Tweet
1. The more casual the attendance, in all likelihood, the more casual the devotion
So why does attendance still matter?
I can only imagine the deluge of upset people commenting on this point, but I’m going to say it anyway: generally speaking, the more casual the attendance, the more casual the devotion.
This is true of in-person attendance and online attendance. And although it may still be a minority view, I think it’s a mistake to discount online attendance as though it didn’t count. It does. Whenever someone’s leaning in, pay attention and take it seriously.
Infrequent attendance (online or in-person) is often a sign of diluted devotion.
Please hear me. No, I can’t judge someone’s spiritual condition. I’m not pretending to do that. And no, this is NOT an absolute rule. But it is a correlation I’ve seen again and again.
This isn’t a description of what should be or even of what always is (as I wrote about here, there are some very devoted Christians who don’t attend any church), but it doesn’t take much careful observation to notice that Christians who attend church casually usually have a more casual commitment to their faith.
Think about it. If someone used to be fully engaged in the mission (serving, inviting friends, giving, attending and in group), and now they’re doing none of those things and showing up once every two months, do you usually discover that they are closer to God than they were before, or that they’ve drifted further away from God? In my experience, that is almost always a sign of drift.
And if someone is going to begin a relationship with Christ, would you recommend that they do this 100% on their own, only occasionally seeking guidance, support and mentoring from a wider Christian community? Didn’t think so.
Infrequent attendance is almost never a catalyst for spiritual growth.
Which leads us to the second reality.Christians who attend church casually usually have a more casual commitment to their faith. Infrequent attendance is often a sign of diluted devotion. Click To Tweet
2. Attendance does not equal engagement, but engagement almost always involves attendance
So how exactly should we see attendance then?
I suggest this way: Attendance does not equal engagement, but engagement almost always involves attendance.
Showing up at church does not mean you’re engaged in the mission. You can still sit in a back row as easily as you can listen a message half-distracted while running on a treadmill. So attendance in itself doesn’t have particularly high value.
However, you’ll also notice that engaged people—people who serve, invite friends, give, and participate in the community, attend.
Hence, attendance doesn’t equal engagement, but engagement almost always involves attendance.
I would still look at the signs of engagement as a much more accurate gauge of spiritual health than attendance alone, but regular attendance is a partial indicator of engagement in the mission.
So why does this matter? Because we live in an age where what we say and what’s true are often worlds apart.
I’ve heard more than a few infrequent attendees say they’re still engaged because they watch or listen, but there’s just little evidence that they are at all engaged in the work of the Kingdom in their lives or in community. Faith has become about what they think, not a reality which they live out.
And I’ve heard some leaders say attendance doesn’t matter anymore.
But look closely, and you won’t see momentum there. You’ll see reverse momentum.
Things are almost always getting worse when attendance is declining, not better.Church attendance does not equal engagement, but engagement almost always involves church attendance. Click To Tweet
3. The future belongs to engaged attendees
For the reasons outlined above (and more) the day of counting heads and proclaiming your church to be a “success” are (thankfully) long gone. A full room is not a sign of a fulfilled mission.
No, the future of the church doesn’t belong to attendees; it belongs to communities of engaged attendees.A full room is not a sign of a fulfilled mission. The future of the church doesn't belong to attendees; it belongs to communities of engaged attendees. Click To Tweet
You can’t build the future of your church on disengaged people any more than a leader can build the future of any organization on a disengaged team.
If you have a sea of disengaged people, your job is to engage them or raise up a new generation of engaged people (here are 7 ways to do that).
But as the churches of the future emerge, you will see gatherings of engaged attendees emerge as the difference makers of the next generation.
The future belongs to leaders who don’t just draw a crowd, but who can build a core that becomes a crowd.
Those are the movements that change the world. And the world needs changing.The future belongs to leaders who don't just draw a crowd, but who can build a core that becomes a crowd. Those are the movements that change the world. And the world needs changing. Click To Tweet
Connect Better When You Communicate
How do you engage people better?
Well, there’s a lot to it, but you can’t ignore the quality and direction of your preaching. In fact, 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 preach in 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.
What Do You See?
What do see as the correlation between attendance and engagement these days?
How are you sensing they’re related to momentum and devotion?
Scroll down and leave a comment!