5 Reasons Why Engagement is the New Church Attendance

attendance

If you track attendance at your church (and who doesn’t), the vast majority of church leaders are tracking numbers that probably bother them.

That can lead into a death spiral of trying to drive greater attendance, only to discover more disappointment down the road.

The mission of the church is the same in every generation. But the methods we use—our strategy—has to change, as I outlined here.

So what’s one of the biggest changes we’re going to see?

Simple. If you want to see your church grow, stop trying to attract people and start trying to engage people.

In the future church, engagement is the new attendance.

If church leaders put as much effort into trying to engage people in the mission of the church as they used to (or still) put into trying to drive attendance, they would see a huge spike in both engagement and attendance.

Conversely, leaders who focused solely on attendance or misconstrue what engagement is will continue to see declining attendance.

At Connexus Church, where I serve as Founding and Teaching pastor, we’re seeing encouraging spikes in physical and online attendance (the two are not mutually exclusive) at established locations, our online campus and our new location.

The growth in the number of new unchurched people has come for sure by the grace of God, but also after almost five years of focusing on increasing engagement in these 7 ways. I also outlined why we made the shift and many people have made the shift in my book, Lasting Impact.

Church leaders, if you cared as much about engagement as you did about attendance, you’d likely see a spike in attendance as your mission grows and expands.

So why is engagement the new attendance?

Here are 5 reasons.

1. Attendance Was Never the Goal

When did we get the idea that church attendance was the ultimate goal?

Flip back to New Testament days.

Jesus never said ‘Attend me.’ He said ‘Follow me.’

The only reason you would follow Jesus (in Jesus’ day) is because you were either intrigued by who he was and what he did, or because you had come to believe that he was who he said he was.

In other words, you were engaged.

You didn’t attend Jesus. You followed him.

A similar dynamic emerged in the first-century church.

Early Christians didn’t attend church. They were the church.

If you look back at the genesis of the Jesus movement, the idea of attendance as a hallmark would have been completely foreign.

You only attended because you were engaged. Period.

2. Attendance Grows Out Of Engagement Anyway

As the Christian movement grew and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, mere church ‘attendance’ became an option.

Fast forward to our lifetime, and even in growing, effective churches,  attendance had become an established path to engagement.

The big idea was this: come, and eventually you’ll get engaged.

That worked (quite effectively, actually) when people used to flock to church.

But in an era when the number of unchurched is constantly on the rise and even Christians don’t attend church as often anymore (here are 10 reasons for that), that strategy is becoming less and less effective.

Yet, many churches (even growing churches) are still counting on getting people to attend, hoping it drives engagement.

The shelf life of that strategy is limited because the number of people who want to attend church drops every year.

To say it clearly one more timne, in the future church attendance won’t drive engagement; engagement will drive attendance.

The new gooal is to get people engaged faster and to engage people more deeply in the true mission of the church.

In the future, the engaged will attend because, in large measure, only the engaged will remain.

3. Trying To Attract People In A Post-Christian Culture Can Work Against The Mission

I am all for making church as attractive and accessible as possible.

But in the future if that’s your only approach (better lights, cooler vibe, hoping people will come), you will get diminishing results. (I wrote on the death and rebirth of cool church here.)

Why is that?

Well, as outlined above, when attendance was more normative and in some senses ‘automatic’ in our culture, attraction was a decent strategy.

Because people would go to church, creating a better church was a good approach.

But (and here’s the underbelly), it also fed into consumerism.

Consumerism has defined the last century of North American and Western culture.

To some extent, the attractional church has played into consumerism. Build something attractive and people will come.

Again, that strategy was very effective when people instinctively flocked to churches, not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of baptisms and authentic faith-building. And you shouldn’t make your church inaccessible or unattractive on purpose. That’s just…weird.

But in the process, building attractive, relevant churches has had an unintended side-effect: people have come to evaluate church by what they get out of it, not by what they put into it.

That’s a mistake.

Along the way, discipleship has even been redefined in many circles to mean consumption of knowledge. The more you know, the more mature you are. I believe that’s a flawed approach (here’s why).

Authentic discipleship has always been about dying to self.  It’s about giving far more than it is about getting.

Again, I’m not slamming the attractional church. I’m all for building bridges to the culture, not erecting barriers.

Anyone who knows church knows that at the heart of every attractional church is a core of Christians who sacrifice—who give, who serve and who invite.

What’s exciting is that selflessness will move to the forefront in the future church because those who remain will be engaged in the mission.

4. Our Culture Is Ripe For An Alternative To Consuming

One of the frequent criticisms non-Christians levy at Christians is that we’re self-indulgent and hypocritical.

Those critiques are not without warrant.

As a more selfless church emerges (even excellent, selfless churches), that will drive more curiosity and interest from unchurched people.

While you can debate what Millennials really want out of life, there appears to be a growing attraction in our culture to rebel against consumerism,

People are longing for an alternative to life as they know it. The church is that alternative.

In the future church, Christians obsessed with giving away their lives will eclipse Christians obsessed with themselves and their preferences.

5. People Become The Most Passionate About The Things With Which They’re Most Involved

A final reason that engagement will drive future church growth is simply this: people become most passionate about the things with which they’re most involved.

Just talk to a football dad or a baseball mom. Or your foodie friend who just found yet another recipe. Or your triathlete friend who set another personal best.

Engagement fuels involvement. Involvement fuels passion. Passion fuels invitation.

That’s why your friend wants you to try that recipe, to watch the game with them and at least attempt a 5k.

Engagement leads to invitation. Invitation leads to unchurched people following Jesus.

In many ways, this can only be a good thing.

Push Past Your Current Growth Barriers

 

If you’re reaching more people but you’re currently stuck at an attendance plateau, I have some practical help for you.

Breaking 200 Without Breaking You is a course I’ve created that provides strategies on how to tackle eight practical barriers (including a more nuanced and practical dive into everything I covered in this blog post) that keep churches from reaching more than 200 people. And it’s designed so I can walk your entire leadership team or elder board through the issues.

So whether your church is 50, 150 or 250 in attendance, the principles will help you gain the insight you need to break the barrier more than 85% of churches can’t break. Even churches with attendances of 300-500 are finding the material helpful as they try to reach more people.

Click here to get instant access for you and your team.

What Do You See?

What are you seeing about the decade’s old use-attendance-to-drive-engagement strategy?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

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  7. […] As I’ve shared many times in this space, if you really want to tackle irregular attendance habits, focus on engaging people in their faith. (Here’s why and how.) […]

  8. […] As I’ve shared many times in this space, if you really want to tackle irregular attendance habits, focus on engaging people in their faith. (Here’s why and how.) […]

  9. […] As I’ve shared many times in this space, if you really want to tackle irregular attendance habits, focus on engaging people in their faith. (Here’s why and how.) […]

  10. […] 5 Reasons Why Engagement Is The New Church Attendance by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  11. […] 5 Reasons Why Engagement Is The New Church Attendance by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  12. […] If you want more on this, read Tony Morgan’s guest post about programs v. path, and this piece I wrote on why engagement is the new church attendance. […]

  13. […] If you want more on this, read Tony Morgan’s guest post about programs v. path, and this piece I wrote on why engagement is the new church attendance. […]

  14. […] Here are 5 reasons engagement is the new church attendance. […]

  15. Dylan Miller on March 15, 2018 at 5:21 pm

    Hey, Carey! Thrilled about the article; gotta love when reading something gets the blood pumping. I think I am confused exactly by what you mean when you say “engagement.” Do you just mean service projects? Community outreach? Service opportunities both inside and outside of the church? Does engagement just mean getting them connected, as some like to say? I think I understand the gist of what you mean and I completely agree and am excited about the idea here that attendance means very little in the church/Church today because it has become a “spectator sport,” if you will. I think most would agree that actually getting people moving and engaged is vastly more important than attendance. However, Mike that posted earlier had a great point: people already have 40-60 hour/week jobs, so is pushing “engagement” just moving into a structure that encourages a cycle of guilt and shame? Maybe something we should all be careful with as we approach the subject of engagement leading to attendance.

  16. Actively Engaged | Money Talks on March 15, 2018 at 2:02 pm

    […] be writing more about that in upcoming blogs. While we wait for those to take shape, gander at this post by Carey Neiuwhof on the relationship between attendance and engagement and its impact on …. Happy pondering and I look forward to seeing all of you Sunday. Oops! I mean I really do want you […]

  17. Chris Gensheer on March 14, 2018 at 4:45 pm

    Hey Carey,

    Great stuff as usual. How would you define or flesh out engagement though? What does this look like at Connexus, or across the board/generally at other churches?

  18. Mike on March 11, 2018 at 10:00 pm

    Great article Carey. I share the sentiment that somewhere along the way we focused more on “going” to church instead of “being” the church.

    I’m right on the tail end of GenX. And I’m on a journey of deconstructing my faith to try and understand exactly what I believe and why.

    One thing I still haven’t sorted out is why it’s important to be intentional about gathering regularly.

    I’ve experienced the dark underbelly of the church growth movement. I’ve felt being the target of market research and I don’t like it. It’s dehumanizing and damages my soul.

    Personally I’ve become very skeptical of any religious structure. I want to know why people are paying money to fund buildings and staff. And why they want me there.

    Is it to get me to think like the group thinks? That seems a tad too cultish for me.

    Is it to build an army of volunteers for free labor projects? I already have a job and work 50-60 hours a week.

    Is it because preachers need an audience to preach to? Right now I’m just not okay with propagating a patriarchal system that raises up certain men to dominate over others.

    Can you expound in other post exactly why people should be in relationship with a corporate organization? And if the answer is “because the Bible says so” I’m going to be sad.

    • Michael on March 27, 2018 at 8:02 am

      Best comment ive read mike im going through the same process as you brother

    • Carol Meadows on April 19, 2018 at 7:52 am

      You might want to check out Unitarian Universalism. The uua.org has a place where you can search for local congregations. It might appeal to you. Or it might not. It isn’t Christian, but it isn’t not Christian either…

  19. Ben on March 10, 2018 at 5:38 pm

    Hi Carey,

    I’m interested in your thoughts on membership. The way that I see it is that under modernity (as Christendom collapsed) attendance replaced membership. Making attendance as attractive and accessible as possible was the inevitable outcome of that; which of course led us to the consumer approach we are currently all seeing the failure of.

    Your suggestion that engagement will be the thing to replace attendance is intriguing for me. I’m just curious how you see us getting there. Your first point around attendance never being the point nails it. It’s about being the church.

    I would just be interested on how you might engage the idea of membership. What role might it play in the post-modern church we are heading towards?

  20. Phillip on March 10, 2018 at 2:44 am

    Hi Carey, Phillip from Uganda.
    I like this perspective. Been struggling with attendance. Now I’m thinking, how do we engage the people we have now so that attendance becomes a result of engagement?

    What does engagement look like? Some more thoughts on this will help.

  21. Ryan Miller on March 9, 2018 at 11:39 am

    Carey- I’m with you on engagement being more important than attendance. However, I’m not clear on what you mean by “engagement”. Could you write a future blog post that spells it out in more detail? Is engagement being a part of a small group? Is engagement serving in one’s community? What specifically could chcurches do differently to prioritize engagement over attendance? Thanks! Love your blog!

  22. […] 5 Reasons Why Engagement Is The New Church Attendance by Carey Nieuwhof. Read this and begin paying attention to engagement. […]

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