3 New Realities About Church Attendance, Engagement, and Devotion

church attendance

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

There are at least three things I think are very true about the times in which we’re leading (you can read more about these principles here and here):

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.

Infrequent attendance 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

art of better preaching

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!

13 Comments

  1. Roxton Spear on January 8, 2019 at 3:18 pm

    Carey, I wholly agree with your point of casual attendance likely pointing to casual devotion. Many want to push back on this point. My response when church attendance is downplayed is this: “It’s very difficult to ‘one another’ without one another.” My thought is that church attendance, while not salvific, can certainly play a huge role in spiritual growth. And lack of church of attendance is very often an indication of something going on in the heart. Thanks for your writing.

    A question that I’m working through: “Why should a person be engaged in church?” Perhaps you could address that in a blog post. It’s very easy for us as pastors (which, I am), to emphasize how important it is for people to be involved and engaged in a local congregation, but rarely answering the “why?” question. The Church is pretty good at the “What”.

    Blessings

    • Jim on January 8, 2019 at 8:03 pm

      Here we are with another “Pastor” pointing his finger externally. Placing the blame for the Christ denying society that has developed after years and years of humanistic religion’s misguidance on those who have been awakened. Are you preaching that one can only ‘one another’ in a religion, denomination, or building labelled a church? As for your comment regarding church attendance and spiritual growth…look around you! We have mega-churches, churches on every corner, churches in storefronts…and I remind you again with all this our nation has abandoned God and Jesus Christ. This is indicative of the failure of those who claim to be church leaders. Do not point outside…check yourself inside. Take responsibility for your part in this godless society. God is not mocked…He knows where the problem is. Love has to be tough sometimes.

      • Dave on January 10, 2019 at 4:20 pm

        So a blog written to church leaders is not addressing church leaders? Carey is talking about macro level trends around North American churches to an audience of church leaders. And to pick out that specific line without addressing the context it’s written in misses the point of the article and this site altogether.

      • Jim on January 10, 2019 at 7:37 pm

        I am not sure what you are talking about. I responded to comments made by Roxton Spear in which he flashed his “Pastor” badge and insinuated that those who have awakened to the chaotic state of the Christian organizations are the ones with a problem. The bottom line is that the worry of this blog written to “church leaders” seems to be on their little kingdoms, their pious positions, and their numbers. All the while our nation and many others are rejecting God, Jesus Christ, and the organized Christian entities have placed the Holy Spirit in the role of a euphoric feeling rather than a Spiritual Guide. The fact that anyone would try to fix the human contrived religious system that has obviously failed is a flaming red flag indicating a serious lack of spiritual understanding. I apologize if I am commenting against the grain of the pecking order of professed church leaders. Wow, that brings back memories of my religious upbringing.

  2. Josh on January 8, 2019 at 1:41 pm

    It seems, as I read Isaiah 5:8-17 that there may be a prophecy here for the modern day “church.”

    We have joined houses together into big beautiful buildings that will soon be empty. We work extremely hard to see any fruit out of all the lands we are trying to cultivate with our giant processes. Somehow we are surrounded by people and find ourselves alone in the land.

    People are going into exile, honored men are going hungry, everyone is thirsty.

    Verses 16-17 say that the LORD is just, the lambs will soon just eat in their own pastures. The nomads (consumers who wonder from building to building?) will soon take over the big beautiful houses.

    I’m excited, the church is shaking free of the bondage of buildings, power in knowledge, and processes and learning how to engage their communities as Jesus and the early church did. The sooner the church embraces this reality, the sooner we will shed our overhead that we find in buildings, processes, and payroll and learn how to equip their sheep in the fields where they are staying. I see this as online tools, encouraging local smaller gatherings built on true relationships, and organized funds accountability at the local level to build up the body.

    Great things are coming!

    – A ‘millennial’ pastor.

    • Josh on January 8, 2019 at 1:44 pm

      My point in reply to this awesome article is engaged attenders are important. But, where they attend is changing. If we can find the place the sheep are attending and embrace it and equip it, the church will move forward in a more impactful way than if we leave them to fend for themselves. There are wolves in those fields as well.

  3. TDuncan on January 8, 2019 at 12:32 am

    I agree with Jim and Sonny. Sunday Church attendance is not a measure of faith. I also agree with Carey that faith requires engagement. BUT perhaps what is defined as engagement will be different for everyone. Some may be engaged in a particular “church” community. Some may be engaged in a study community, others in a serving community, some may be engaged in many different types of activities (like Sonny). All of these are engagement in the life of Christ’s body. As believers we should be looking for ways to serve like Christ, and to bring others to know Christ, wherever and whatever that may be.
    I think what is finally coming to pass is that people no longer want to spend their resources (time and money) on keeping a church building standing, but rather in active work for the Lord.

  4. Sonny J. Reeves on January 7, 2019 at 2:28 pm

    Due to extenuating circumstances, God leads us to a remote location with several small “churches” of various denominations for the several thousand snowbirds that descend on the Florida retirement village we now live in. Our 46 yrs together has placed us in many situations and ministries. We are very comfortable serving as a teacher, elder, nurse, caregivers, homeless ministry leaders or cooks at a soup kitchen. We are worshiping at the various “churches” and finding the understanding of New Testament doctrine differs in every denomination. One says that all are OK and we are all going to be safe no matter what we believe as long as Jesus is praised and the bible is not consulted but we are told “The Book of Discipline “Says we can do this. I even wrote the headquarters of UMC and got the same answer. Another of the small gatherings (130+) said that I must join their group and study under their teaching before I can teach or be extended any real fellowship. I have forgotten much of the Greek I studied in college long ago. They did not need to know the Greek meanings of words they already knew because of the KJV. The people said “You must have the King James Bible to be saved” We have chosen to meet with a few neighbors who don’t associate with any particular flavor of “church” and “Break Bread” share meals, food, time in prayer and study of God’s Word. We don’t do this at a particular time or place. We are very close to our neighbors after a year here. We practice our “One Anothers” as Jesus said to and we love our neighbors, stay at peace with others, forgive our enemies and wash the feet of our brothers and sisters. We don’t gather with the fans on a game day to “Shout the war cry and go back to the tents” as the Iseral Army did for Goliath and or just show up for Jesus to count nickels and noses. We give to the homeless missions we have served at before and respect the integrity of. We help those that need. We reject the tithe as legalism and old covenant. We have a Savior that is not “religion” Our unity is with each other and Jesus. Our number is not important. We are the Church. What are we missing besides a reverend, rules, rituals and stuff we don’t need or want?

  5. Jim on January 7, 2019 at 1:58 pm

    You do not “sense” my deep devotion to God because you have been trained to associate your church building, denomination, or religious affiliation with Bride of God [which scripturally is the Bride of Christ]. Thus you wrongfully accuse me of disliking the true Church the Body of Christ. An assembly, or body as you put it, must come together correctly and the parts and their contribution is God’s decision. I was responding in my earlier comment to the insinuation that because I do not want to participate in assemblies with regiments of religious behaviors, pecking orders, and very little spiritual discussion, that my devotion is questionable. You opinion and your “freak” label bother me not one bit. I know my heart… and so does God. As for “unnatural” ? This explains your delusional spirit. My mind is set on the spiritual not the natural. The natural minded cannot understand the things of God. Perhaps you should allow the Holy Spirit to guide you to truth.

  6. Noel Gallardo on January 7, 2019 at 9:57 am

    What do you mean of engaged people in the church and the reasons why they will engaged themselves in the life of the church?

  7. Jim on January 7, 2019 at 9:51 am

    “…the more casual the attendance, the more casual the devotion.”.

    I do not agree with your view cited above. You speak on church attendance as if all is well with the way churches have developed over the last few centuries. How true it was that at the onset the people were the church…not buildings or organizations! Back then it was the Holy Spirit that guided seekers to the truth. Now it’s all about scholastic degrees and academic accomplishments, titles. We are taught more of what titled individuals determine is truth through the human intellect…which can never by itself understand the ways and things of God. Do I want to attend an assembly of traditional human interpretations of scripture, void of fresh revelation, where the same lessons are regurgitated week after week? Where people have been attending for thirty or forty years but have absolutely no clue about the beauty of grace? An assembly full of paranoid Christiophrenics who spend endless amounts of energy trying to please God and church leaders. I have grown closer to God apart from all this chaotic assembly stuff. One must have a strong personal relationship with God in order to benefit the Body. But today’s assemblies direct more attention to promoting dedication to the assembly and the leaders. I find it extremely hard to experience any form of nourishing fellowship in such a barren atmosphere of pretense Christianity.

    • Kevin Kleinhenz on January 7, 2019 at 11:19 am

      Yes I can sense your deep devotion to God. I wonder if I invited you to my house for dinner but told you that your wife was not welcome if you would come. Most likely not. Why? because a husband and wife are supposed to be “one” and if you don’t love my bride how can you say you love me? This is why I absolutely am convinced that people who say they love God but dislike His bride “the church” are living in deception. It is without doubt that early believers met together often and their purpose was to edify and encourage each other, worship, partake of the Lord’s supper, be equipped for service, use their gifts to edify and to pray. A Christian without a body is a “freak” thing just like a body part without a body is a “freak” or unnatural thing. If you can’t find like minded believers to assemble with in order to worship, pray and grow as disciples of Christ then perhaps this is God’s sign for you to start a local church with the people you are leading to the Lord.

      • Gone, but not Done on January 7, 2019 at 10:34 pm

        Good to see a few folks pushing back on this one! Indeed, devotion to what/who? The local church organization? Only those who gather at the local building on a Sunday? Time was when we thought devotion to church equalled devotion to God—after all, it was our only ‘measure’ and the only one that was effectively taught.

        It’s actually possible to LOVE the Bride, the Church but detest much of what passes for ‘church’ on a weekend. There may even be some members of the Body meeting on a Sunday in that building. The other assumption that needs to be challenged is that if one is not ‘going on Sunday’, then they are not worshipping or fellowshipping with the Body. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just happening ‘under the radar of the local clubs’, but not under God’s radar. Trying to ‘measure’ appearances is what gets folks into trouble in this conversation. I think Jim and Sonny (for instance) understand this QUITE well.

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