Your Attendance is Declining: Here is One Big Idea to Keep in Mind

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 time, 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.

> Read more from Carey.


 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is lead pastor of Connexus Community Church and author of the best selling books, Leading Change Without Losing It and Parenting Beyond Your Capacity. Carey speaks to North American and global church leaders about change, leadership, and parenting.

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Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I agree 100%, you can tell if a church is doing this it grows, if there's no growth there's poor leadership..
 
— Dennis Whiterock
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
— Mike Taylor
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I loved this presentation. It helped greatly as I organized an Outreach Ministry of The Shepherds Care. Thank you. Esther Callaham Mahgoube Emmanuel Pentecostal Church New Jersey
 
— Esther Mahgoube
 

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.

Making Engagement Contagious

Are you happy to have “satisfied” Guests? The better question should be, “Are your Guests ‘engaged’”?

Guest engagement may be a goal of your hospitality ministry, but there’s another type of engagement you must first address: team engagement.

On a recent Guest Experience field trip to Walt Disney World, I spent 3 days observing Cast Members, talking with them, and photo-documenting their interactions with Guests.

Disney Cast Members know about engagement.

This set of photos illustrates what I am talking about.

 

A large crowd of Guests have just watched Captain Jack Sparrow‘s Pirate Tutorial and now they are headed to experience the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Your attention is first drawn to the Guests, but look in the background, and you will see a Cast Member, one of the hosts for this attraction. It’s her role to usher as many Guests into the attraction as quickly as she can.

She has a smile and a downward glance…

 

…because that’s where her center of attention – her engagement – is directed.

 

At this moment, the Cast Member is not concerned about the large number of Guests coming her way, or the number of Guests she needs to move through the lines – she is only concerned about the two Guests right in front of her.

You can bet that the two young Guests were grateful for the help they got from this Cast Member. As a result, they were more fully engaged with the experience to come.

The success of this interaction, which took just a few seconds in one attraction in one of Walt Disney World’s multiple theme parks, resorts, and water parks, is repeated hundreds of thousands of times each day.

As a result, the experience at Walt Disney World is consistently given some of the highest customer (Guest) service marks in any industry worldwide. Measured another way, Disney has a Guest return rate of about 70% (Be Our Guest, p. 5), which is very high.  Of course, the Disney organization is a business, so the bottom line is very important to them. But for over 60 years, the Disney organization has realized that front line equals bottom line.

The success of Disney’s front line in engaging Guests determines their bottom line.

Another way of looking at engagement is in emotional connections. As J. Jeff Kober asks,

How do you create, anticipate, and carry through that one moment in your organization so that it can come alive each and every time it happens? How to you train your team members not to answer the obvious, but rather seek to understand your Guests?                  – The Wonderful World of Customer Service

Engagement of the Guest may occur on the front line, but that engagement is only made possible because Cast Members are first engaged by Disney culture in the importance and value of Guests. From the initial interviews throughout the hiring process, the onboarding, and through ongoing on-the-job-training, Cast Members realize that “We train them to be aware that they’re there mainly to help the Guest” (Walt Disney).

Guest engagement starts with team engagement.

 

Application to ChurchWorld

Your church is not a business seeking to have return customers who will in turn spend more money. But your church IS interested in welcoming Guests and members who will encounter God, become connected, develop relationships, and serve God in ministries in your church and in their daily lives.

Now that’s a bottom line worth investing in!

So the question becomes, how are you developing engaged team members?

Read more from Bob.


 

Want to learn more about training your teams? Check out Auxano’s Guest Experience Boot Camp in Cincinnati, OH on August 7-8.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bob Adams

Bob Adams

Bob is an absolute fanatic about Guest Experiences, growing up watching his father serve customers at the gas station he built and operated for 44 years. Bob is continually connecting with corporate leaders in the customer experience world, learning and then translating practices for ChurchWorld. He writes, speaks, and consults on the topic frequently. Vocationally, Bob has a dual role at Auxano, a clarity first consulting firm serving the church. As Vision Room Curator and Digital Engagement Leader he researches, edits, writes and publishes online content. As Guest Experience Navigator, he leverages his passion, providing Guest Perspective Evaluations and Guest Experience Blueprints. Bob and his wife Anita have been married for 40 years. They have 4 children, 3 daughters-in-law, 1 son-in-law, and 5 grandchildren.

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COMMENTS

What say you? Leave a comment!

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I agree 100%, you can tell if a church is doing this it grows, if there's no growth there's poor leadership..
 
— Dennis Whiterock
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
— Mike Taylor
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I loved this presentation. It helped greatly as I organized an Outreach Ministry of The Shepherds Care. Thank you. Esther Callaham Mahgoube Emmanuel Pentecostal Church New Jersey
 
— Esther Mahgoube
 

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.

Engaging People with FOMO *Fear of Missing Out

Supply and demand is not only a fundamental economic principle, but a cultural assumption. When the supply of a product or service becomes scarce, it becomes more valuable. If there is an unlimited availability, it simply remains worthless for people. Is it possible to leverage scarcity to drive engagement at your church?

Engagement continues to be a critical factor that many churches are looking to increase impact. We want more people to engage in our services, on our service teams and in our mid-week groups. Scarcity is a powerful tool to help drive engagement and, ultimately, growth at your church. With “Sunday always coming” we give the perception that there is no scarcity to our activities, however, here are five ways to position our ministry to drive more engagement using scarcity:

  • Seating in Auditorium // Church works better full. It’s just true. Church leaders love Easter and Christmas because their auditoriums are fuller than normal. The feeling of only a few empty seats creates a positive vibe in the church. What if your church reduced the seating capacity at some “non-prime time” services to help create that sort of buzz every week? I’ve seen this done at some of the fastest growing churches in the country. They will offer a multiple service times but in the “off prime” services they will remove seats to compress the audience together. This could be done by either removing the seats or using “pipe and drape” to block off a section or two.
  • Group Start Up Windows // A common strategy for churches encouraging people to get into a mid-week group is by limiting the windows people can join. In the beginning, this seems counter-intuitive because it would appear that allowing people to join whenever they are ready is a better strategy. However, churches that limit the window for people to join have found that there is a focused energy on joining before the window closes which helps move people into a group. Our friends at North Point Church use an event called GroupLink to help encourage people to attend. They’ve been employing this strategy for almost two decades and have seen consistent growth in their group attendance.
  • Discount Cliffs for Sign Ups // Is your youth group heading out on a retreat in the coming season? Are you tired of everyone signing up in the last week to go? By providing a financial incentive to sign up early you’ll move some of your families to register sooner to get the lower price. The best practice is to have 3 different prices with a cost spread of about 15% for the lowest price which is the “super early bird” rate. Not only will this move your registrations earlier and help you plan better for the event but over time as you repeat this strategy you’ll notice a change in the registration trends and be better at predicting registrations. This strategy can be employed with any event where you need people to pay a fee to register.
  • Free Ticketing for Big Days // Christmas Eve and Easter continue to be critical times for churches to reach out into their community. Many leading churches will use some form of free tickets for these big days to encourage people to register ahead of time for the event. The scarcity of tickets “selling out” encourages the community to invite their friends early so that they can get their desired service time. It also helps if your church members ask their friends for a confirmed commitment as the scarcity of the tickets means that they need to actually register their intent. Free ticketing also results in the church gaining the contact information of every registrant before the event occurs. You can use this contact information to plan your follow up with guests before the event even happens.
  • Series Preaching // Prevailing churches package up their content into 4-8 week “series” that help provide a framework on what the church is discussing. Rather than just having one sermon after another, series preaching allowing the communicator to have a “story arch” that goes from one week to the other. This adds scarcity to our Sunday mornings as each series has a “beginning, middle & end” which encourages people to attend. Expanding churches use a collection of approximately 4-week long series on average which means they get 12 opportunities a year to engage with their community with a “limited time offer” on their sermons.

Connect with an Auxano Navigator to learn more about engaging people in your church.


> Read more from Rich.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rich Birch

Rich Birch

Thanks so much for dropping by unseminary … I hope that your able to find some resources that help you lead your church better in the coming days! I’ve been involved in church leadership for over 15 years. Early on I had the privilege of leading in one of the very first multisite churches in North Amerca. I led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 4,000 people in 6 locations. (Today they are 13 locations with somewhere over 5,000 people attending.) In addition, I served on the leadership team of Connexus Community Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. I currently serves as Operations Pastor at Liquid Church in the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. I have a dual vocational background that uniquely positions me for serving churches to multiply impact. While in the marketplace, I founded a dot-com with two partners in the late 90’s that worked to increase value for media firms and internet service providers. I’m married to Christine and we live in Scotch Plains, NJ with their two children and one dog.

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COMMENTS

What say you? Leave a comment!

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I agree 100%, you can tell if a church is doing this it grows, if there's no growth there's poor leadership..
 
— Dennis Whiterock
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
— Mike Taylor
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I loved this presentation. It helped greatly as I organized an Outreach Ministry of The Shepherds Care. Thank you. Esther Callaham Mahgoube Emmanuel Pentecostal Church New Jersey
 
— Esther Mahgoube
 

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.