5 Ways To Embrace Infrequent Church Attenders

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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 attendees who don’t seem to be embracing the mission of your church the way you hoped they would?

The pandemic has made that question even harder for pastors who have noticed a sea of people who used to attend that no longer do.

How do you treat the missing segment? Or the people who used to come regularly but now only come occasionally?

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 more of us than you probably think. 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 a while, 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 in public, 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.

And with the pandemic, while some may never come back to church, others might. And with online church as an option, you’ll never really know anyway, right?

So, what do you do?

Especially if you meet them after a long absence.

There are at least 5 things you can do.

1. Develop some empathy

Many of today’s church leaders grew up in the 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.

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, then 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 exercises. 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 the church. If a formerly unchurched person shows up 12 times a year, that’s far more frequently 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 into 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. 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?

People can smell judgment a mile away. So, church leaders, stop judging. Click To Tweet

2. Separate the mission from the method

Somewhere along the way, many 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 to advance the church’s mission.

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.

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?

Truthfully, some of us are more in love the methods of the church than its mission. Repent. Click To Tweet

3. Use technology to help people every day

Church leaders today have an advantage that we didn’t have a decade ago.

Social media, texting, and email are great ways to help people deepen their journey with Christ, not just sell your latest program. The pandemic accelerated all of that to the point where almost everyone is online. 

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 people will notice if you’re just trying to drive attendance.

But if you encourage them, inspire them, challenge them and help them, they’ll welcome your presence.

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 favorite person in their inbox and their favorite thing to see on their newsfeed.

Never underestimate what being helpful does for everyone involved.

Be the favorite person in someone's inbox and news feed. Click To Tweet

4. Start measuring outputs

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 known more as a sending organization than a receiving organization?

What if you developed ways to measure spiritual growth? How much time do people spend with God personally each day reading scripture and praying? The stats are surprisingly low. According to this study, 57% of Americans read their Bible four times a year or less. Only 26% read it more than four times a week.

What if you helped the people around your church change that?

And what if you got innovative 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 neighborhoods? What if you helped them be the Church, not just go to church?

Leaders get passionate about what they measure. So measure thoughtfully.

What if you helped your infrequent attenders to be the Church, not just go to church? Click To Tweet

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 attendee. Welcome them when they come back. Throw a party when they show up again three 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 choose 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.

Instead of judging a new Christian, love them. Click To Tweet

Lead With Confidence and Clarity. Grow Your Church.

As leaders, we tend to see the challenges and roadblocks before other people do.

We've all been there before...

  • You need to refresh your vision for the future but know that change will be an issue for that person.
  • You're overstaffed (or missing a key role) and can't find the right person to fill the role.
  • You aren't reaching enough new people even though you've tried everything that's working for other churches.
  • You can see the issue but aren't confident in what to do about it.

And with another Sunday morning coming up, it'll just have to wait until next week when you have a few minutes to figure it out.

Now ask yourself this:

What would it feel like to have those answers at your fingertips 24/7?

Whether it's reaching new people, improving your preaching, increasing volunteers, refreshing your vision, engaging your staff, or any of the countless challenges we face as church leaders, The Art of Leadership Academy will equip you to lead your church with confidence and clarity.

Between comprehensive church leadership courses, live coaching calls, staff and volunteer training resources, and direct access to a private online community of senior-level church leaders, you'll get the exact insights and answers that fuel your church for growth.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.