Time to Turn the Attendance Crisis on Its Head

Numbers don’t lie.

But sometimes they fib.

When you look at George Barna’s recent release describing the decline in church attendance over the past few decades, it’s easy to assume it’s bad news. The 2017 Barna Trends Report says the percent of people attending church in the United States has dropped by 12 percent from 2006 to 2016. Many commentators have noted that even people who consider themselves faithful Christians are attending worship services less frequently.

You may have seen that trend play out in your own congregation over the past decade or so.
Why are people not attending church as often as they used to?

What if that’s not the right question?

A few decades ago, church attendance seemed to be the most critical metric we could hang our collective hats upon. In many churches, particularly small ones, you’d simply look to the registry boards hanging on the wall of the sanctuary dutifully recording the church attendance, Sunday school attendance, and weekly giving totals. If those number steadily increased from week to week, you felt your church was making progress in its efforts to make disciples and impact the community. If they declined, you were concerned.

But church attendance in today’s digital world tells us less about our ability to make disciples and impact our world than it tells us about how society has shifted. A generation or two ago, you had limited opportunities to make disciples outside of the gathered church. We built relationships with other believers in the church building. We studied scripture in the church building. We learned of prayer requests from our fellow church members inside the confines of the building.

A New Metric for a New Era

Today, that’s just not true. The digital age has brought with it a number of negative spiritual and moral consequences—from increased pornography usage to social isolation, but it has also given the church a nearly unlimited opportunity to connect with congregants. We can make disciples anywhere now. We can work together to impact our community from any place we choose.

That means the real question you should be asking of your church metrics isn’t, “How many people attended last week?” Instead, it’s “How many people did we engage with the ministry of our church?”

Toronto pastor Carey Nieuwhof writes, “If you want to see your church grow, stop trying to attract people and start trying to engage people.”

What is engagement? I wrote in The Definitive Guide to Successful Church Engagement, “Engagement is anything a person does that furthers the mission God has given you.” It’s joining a small group. It’s attending a worship service. It’s giving. It’s participating in a ministry of your church. It could even be sharing a Facebook post.

While church attendance may be declining, your church has more opportunities than ever to engage with congregants. Your attendance will grow naturally from engagement. Nieuwhof writes it like this, “Engagement fuels involvement. Involvement fuels passion. Passion fuels invitation.” Get people involved in your church, and they’ll want their friends to get involved.

Word of mouth is always your church’s best marketing strategy.

But we have to change the conversation first. In an era when congregants can engage with us at all times of the day or night, we need to change the conversation of what it means to be involved in the church. How do we move our focus from attendance to engagement? Start with these five steps.

1. Determine what you mean by engagement

I provided a particularly vague definition of engagement earlier. That was intentional. Your church has to define engagement because your church determines the kind of activities that push forward the mission of your church. Make a list of what matters to you. Be specific. The answer isn’t just “make disciples.” That’s too vague and ultimately uncountable. Determine the countable activities that lead to that end result.

2. Dive into technology

Technology gives your church many more opportunities to increase engagement than it has ever had before. It’ll start with upgrading your mobile app, your web presence, and your social media channels. But it can’t end there. You need to bring digital thinkers into the leadership decisions of your church. You’ll need to learn how to think digitally as you pursue new ministry initiatives. In other words, you don’t come up with a small-group strategy then look for how technology can support it. You bring technology into the conversation from the very beginning.

By the way, technology isn’t through transforming how the church fulfills Jesus’ mission. The next few years will likely provide us with even more opportunities to further engage people through technology. Become a learner when it comes to the future of church technology.

3. Celebrate engagement

Our churches will strive for what we celebrate. When we celebrate metrics that highlight a variety of ways to engage, we’ll begin to change the conversation in our congregations from, “How many people showed up?” to “How many people are we engaging?”

Diversify the kind of metrics that matter to your church and tie them to your church’s main objectives. It doesn’t mean you can’t,  from time to time, celebrate a high-attendance weekend. You just need to celebrate more than just attendance.

4. Dig into what you do best

Every church has an engagement strength. Find out what yours is and go all in. If your church does small groups well, start more groups. If your church has an effective children’s ministry, put some more resources there. Get people to engage in one area, and you’re far more likely to get them to engage in others.

5. Level up your communications/marketing efforts

If people aren’t attending church as often as they have previously, you’ll have to get better at communicating with them. You can’t save your most important engagement opportunities for Sunday announcements. For the past decade, businesses have been employing both inbound marketing and content marketing approaches to better engage their customers away from the store by focusing on meeting the real content needs of customers rather than simply selling them on a product. You may not call it marketing, but you need to employ the same principles of attracting, converting, closing, and delighting potential congregants with your digital assets.

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