Four Ways Your Church Can Break Attendance Barriers

Almost anytime I mention numbers related to church life, I anticipate some responses about the value of numbers and congregations. In the 1980s, this type of discussion came primarily from more liberal churches that weren’t growing. Some of these leaders felt that declining membership and attendance was likely a sign of health. The members who really cared about the church were the ones who remained. They could make the biggest difference without the more nominal members remaining as obstacles.

Today, it is not unusual for me to hear from more conservative church leaders that declining church numbers may be a good sign because it is an indication that the numbers reflect true regenerate members. But, for the purpose of this brief article, let’s assume that attendance growth is a positive indicator. Presumably more people are hearing the gospel and being discipled when a church is growing.

It is in that context that I hear almost every week from church leaders whose churches seem stuck at some level of attendance: 100, 200, 500, 800, and so on. I even got a call a year ago from a church where the pastor was concerned that attendance was stuck at 7,000!

After 25 years of consulting and researching local congregations, I have found four common approaches churches take to break attendance barriers regardless of size. There are certainly more than four possibilities, but allow me to evaluate these four more common approaches.

1. Create new groups.

These groups may be home groups, small groups that meet in coffee houses, Sunday school classes, ministry groups, and others. Church leaders are intentional about creating groups on an ongoing basis. They typically have goals for the number of groups they start.

Evaluation: Frankly, I have seen great success with this strategy (and recently wrote about this strategy). I would speculate that as many as eight out of ten churches that strategically create new groups grow to new attendance levels. The mystery to me is why most churches don’t have this strategy.

2. Create new worship services.

A church moves from one service to two, or from two to three, or even more. The move is typically precipitated by one or more services running out of space.

Evaluation: Most of the time the new service does aid the church in breaking attendance barriers. But, keep in mind, the church was most likely growing already until it ran out of space. The new service simply takes the lid off so the church can continue to grow. I would caution a church, however, about moving to an additional worship service if it’s not already in a growth mode. The worship center can seem vacuous if one non-growing group is split into two non-growing groups.

3. Create new venues.

This principle is similar to adding worship services, but the church uses a different facility for the new service. That new facility may actually be a new campus. It may be an ethnic service meeting in the church facilities in a different room than the worship center. It may be a merged church from another location. The possibilities are many.

Evaluation: The results thus far are positive. As a church adds a new venue, there is a natural increase in attendance. The multi-campus form of this new venue is growing in use and popularity with mostly good results. We are still a few years away from being able to measure the mid-term impact of new venues on growth. I would be willing to speculate that the results will be very positive.

4. Have a major event.

The church’s strategy is to have one or more events that will create sufficient excitement for members to invite those who aren’t attending church. That event may be tied to a major holiday such as Easter, Fourth of July, or Christmas. It may be tied to a significant tradition in a church. The plan is to get people to attend who would not regularly attend.

Evaluation: I have studied a few hundred churches that use the big event as their major growth strategy, and the results are not good. Attendance tends to rise for a few weeks on and after the event, but then it settles down to previous patterns. Churches can spend a lot of money on big events, but I hardly ever see a church break an attendance barrier consistently, even with those large amounts of resources dedicated to it.

What successful approaches have you seen to break attendance barriers? What do you think of these approaches I have highlighted? Why do churches not create new groups regularly and strategically when it has proven to be the most effective method for growth and for breaking attendance barriers?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.  Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.  He is a 1977 graduate of the University of Alabama and earned his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to speaking in hundreds of venues over the past 20 years, Rainer led Rainer Group, a church and denominational consulting firm, from 1990 to 2005. The firm provided church health insights to over 500 churches and other organizations over that period. Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons: Sam, Art and Jess, who are married to Erin, Sarah and Rachel respectively.  The Rainers have six grandchildren: Canon, Maggie, Nathaniel, Will (with the Lord), Harper, and Bren. He is the author of twenty-four books, including Breakout Churches, Simple Life, Simple Church, Raising Dad, The Millennials, and Essential Church.  His latest book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, was released in 2014 by B&H Publishing Group.

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COMMENTS

What say you? Leave a comment!

Wes — 07/11/13 10:11 am

Thank you for sharing this wonderful article. It is both interesting and timely for our congregation. We are a congregation that has hovered around the 600 attendance mark for many years. Our worship center was at about 80% capacity (but it had been for a long time). We finally made the decision to split into two services. The problem was, however, that we were not already in the growth mode. We created two non-growing services. We moved back to one service for the summer, because of the travel schedules of so many folks, but now we are wondering how to proceed. Should we create a smaller simulcast service within our existing building instead of going back to a second service? Should we explore off campus venues? We are struggling with these questions right now. In other words, we are butting up against that ceiling, and we are searching for a way through.

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
 
— Glenna Hendricks
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
 
— winston
 
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
 
— Russ Wright
 

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