The Church Has Left the Building: 5 Truths About Future Church Attendance and Commitment

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So, you already know you’re leading through the biggest disruption in ministry in your lifetime.

Exactly how deep is the disruption?

Well, what if the church has left the building? What if it’s actually that deep?

Here’s what you already know. If your church has reopened, you’re both surprised and frustrated by the surprisingly low return-to-church attendance trends in your facility.

Your giving is okay to good, but your attendance is, well, discouraging.

What if the people you’re missing haven’t left your church…what if they’ve just left your building?

And what if (I realize you’re already weary, hang in there…), they’re not coming back regularly, or at all?

Please hear what I’m saying: Most Christians who are not returning to church are not leaving Christianity. They’re not even leaving your church.

They’re just not coming back to the building, and perhaps they won’t even after there’s a vaccine and the pandemic is a distant memory.

Most Christians who are not returning to church are not leaving Christianity. They're not even leaving your church. They're just not coming back to the building. Click To Tweet

I’m not saying this is good (I don’t like it either). I am saying it’s, in all likelihood, real. Leaders who cooperate with reality tend to do far better than those who compete with it.

Here’s what’s critical. The mission isn’t dead. But the methods might be.

In this post, I want to share why that’s happening and point to five truths about future church attendance and commitment.

The good news is your church is online, and that’s where all your people are and everyone you want to reach is. I think that’s also where much of the future of the church lies.

To help with that, I’m hosting a free 90-minute Online Church Engagement Summit on October 8th with Levi Lusko, Nona Jones and Bobby Gruenewald. It’s all about turning online viewers into online engagers.

We’ll share strategies from YouVersion, Facebook, ChurchOnline and Fresh Life Church about how to grow an online audience, engage with your online audience, get people to respond and even show you how to meet some of the people who are watching online.

It’s free for you and your team. You can register here.

In the meantime, what do you do with the emerging reality?

How can you respond when your church is still around, the church is still around, but it’s leaving the building?

Here are five truths about in-person church attendance and some hope and strategy for the future.

Your church is still around.  The church is still around. It's just left the building. Click To Tweet

1. This Isn’t Really New: People Were Already Attending Less Pre-COVID

So first, a little perspective.

While return-to-church attendance has been shockingly low for almost all churches that are reopening, it’s not just the virus that’s in play. Long after there’s a vaccine, you might still not see your pre-COVID attendance levels return.

Why?

Well, church attendance has been declining for years. Okay, make that decades.

Have a look at the Barna chart below. Note: these attendance trends were all pre-COVID. The chart doesn’t go past March.

I know, it stinks.

But here’s what’s true: Christians were already getting tired of church the way it’s been.

As you can see from this additional Barna research below, there has been a growing weariness with the way we do church long before COVID.  People voted with their feet.

Surprisingly, even 57% of church-going adults said they were tired or somewhat tired of the usual type of church experience. Note: This is from the people who were still attending church.

57% of church-going adults said they were tired or somewhat tired of the usual type of church experience. This is from the people who were still attending church. Click To Tweet

Crisis is an accelerator, and now that the pandemic has stretched on for months with no resolution in sight, the habits people have formed will likely become even more permanent in the post-pandemic era.

Regular attenders may become less regular. Irregular attenders may become even less frequent attenders.

In this cultural moment, that’s not necessarily a sign of decreasing devotion. It’s just a sign of a shifting culture.

Infrequent church attendance in this culture is not necessarily a signing of decreasing devotion. It's a sign of a shifting culture. Click To Tweet

As a result, it will necessitate a big paradigm shift for church leaders: Just because someone isn’t attending your service in person doesn’t mean they’re not part of your church.

Leaders who understand that will have a much brighter future.

Now on to what you can do about it.

Just because someone isn't attending your service in person doesn't mean they're not part of your church. Click To Tweet

2. Engagement Will Become the New Church Attendance Because Attendance Was Never the Goal

Just because someone isn’t attending your service in person doesn’t mean they’re not engaging.

Stop and let that sink in for a moment.

People who aren’t in the room are online. Many (not all, but many) are watching messages, listening to your podcast, scrolling social and connecting with other Christians.

So…just because someone isn’t attending your service in person doesn’t mean they’re not engaging.

Just because someone isn't attending your service in person doesn't mean they're not engaging. Click To Tweet

For many years, the only or main way to engage with a sermon or even community beyond a small group was to travel to a church building.

Then the internet happened.

Engagement has always been the most important dynamic anyway.

Early Christians didn’t attend church. They were the church—in their homes, in the community and in the world.

Early Christians didn’t attend church. They were the church—in their homes, in the community and in the world. Click To Tweet

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.

Jesus didn’t say, ‘Attend me.’ He said, ‘Follow me.’

Engaging people online will soon become the most important thing church leaders do. Even for those who attend, online ministry allows you to speak into their lives seven days a week, not one.

Jesus didn't say, 'Attend me.' He said, 'Follow me.' Click To Tweet

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3. Churches That Equip Christians Will Eclipse Churches That Gather Them

So, what do you do with your building?

Great question.

You use it to equip people, not just gather them.

For too many years, pastors have been focused on one thing: Getting the greatest number of people in the room at the same time. Sometimes that’s about ministry. Sometimes (honestly) it’s about ego. I’ll confess to both.

The church facilities of the future will be places where people assemble to be equipped to do ministry during the week. I realize that, theoretically, we’ve always believed that, but we often haven’t behaved that way.

The difference is that most of the people you’re equipping won’t be in the room. You may be speaking to them from the room, but they’ll in their homes, in their cars, at work and in the community.

Right now, most pastors are using church online to get people into the building. In the future, most pastors will use the building to reach people online.

Right now, most pastors are using church online to get people into the building. In the future, most pastors will use the building to reach people online. Click To Tweet

Just because they’re not attending doesn’t mean they aren’t engaged or in community. They can and will gather outside a church building.

In the future, churches that equip Christians will eclipse churches that gather them.

In the future, churches that equip Christians will eclipse churches that gather them. Click To Tweet

4. Your Online Attendance Will Outpace Your In-Person Attendance

This is already the case for many churches, but in the future, this will be true of almost every church that thrives.

This is probably the hardest reality for church leaders. Post-COVID, many Christians will be unwilling to trade a 45-minute online experience for a 3-5 hour in-person experience.

Post-COVID, many Christians will be unwilling to trade a 45-minute online experience for a 3-5 hour in-person experience. Click To Tweet

For most of my life, church has been an in-person investment of at least half a day Sunday, sometimes more. Since March, the collective experience of church has become a 45-minute online service.  Will everyone stream back to a 3-5 hour investment involving dressing the kids, getting everyone out of the house on time and heading to a building?

I’m not saying it’s right or that it’s good. I’m just saying it’s real.

It’s a really hard switch to flip back.

You could focus on what you’ve lost, or you can focus on what you can gain.

But because everyone in your church is online and everyone you want to reach is online, there’s so much to gain.

Focus on that.

But because everyone in your church is online and everyone you want to reach is online, there's so much to gain. Focus on that. Click To Tweet

5. On-Demand Access Will Be More Important Than Live-Streaming

For the last six months for most churches, it’s become all about the stream: Join us this weekend at 9/10/11/12 for the live stream of our services.

That’s great. But it’s not the future.

In many ways, that’s just taken what we did in the old model (host live services in person on Sunday) and adapted it to digital.

Look, I love it when people tune in live, too. But it’s an antiquated model.

Churches still operate like cable TV in the 1980s.  Tune in live or you don’t count. The culture operates like Netflix and YouTube. 

Churches still operate like cable TV in the 1980s.  Tune in live or you don't count. The culture operates like Netflix and YouTube. Click To Tweet

Switch categories and think about the music industry for a moment. Could you imagine Drake, Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande focusing exclusively on release day, and then telling their fans, “What do you mean you didn’t listen on release day the moment it was available? You’re dead to me.”

Seriously, who cares???? Really?

The content you produced last year on trust, or the series you did on the Psalms, or the message you preached on porn and addiction is still relevant today. People woke up today with questions about God, trust, addictions and everything else you touched on.

The Office is still often the #1 show on Netflix with over a billion minutes a week watched. It went out of production in 2013.

People prefer great content over new content.

Spending some time optimizing your archive, helping people access some of your best past content and engaging people who do can really help you expand your mission.

Once pastors understand this, the potential to help people, disciple people and reach people soars. 

People prefer great content over new content. Click To Tweet

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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.

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