The challenges associated with growing a church have changed. It used to be about drawing people that had some history with the church, but this is rapidly shifting.
Statisticians have been warning us about a decline in church involvement for some time. The Pew Research Journal reported that between 2009 and 2019, the number of Americans who attended religious services once or twice a month dropped about seven percent. Over the same period, the share of Americans who rarely (if ever) attended church rose by the same degree.
According to Gallup, nearly a quarter of all American adults have absolutely no religious affiliation of any kind. Percentage-wise, this was much higher among Millennials than Gen X and Boomers. And moving forward, the trajectory doesn’t look encouraging.
COVID throws gas on the fire
This course would be cause for alarm on its own, but COVID has only exacerbated the issue. Pandemic-related shutdowns made it a challenge for churches to gather safely, and many struggled to get their services online.
Months later, Barna Group reported that among practicing Christians (people who attended church at least once a month and said their faith was important to them), 53 percent say they’ve streamed their regular church’s services online. A little over a third admitted to streaming other church services, and 32 percent said they hadn’t done either. This seems to suggest that habit and momentum kept them attending church, and when the pandemic forced a shift in routines, the inertia was lost.
NOTE: If you’re interested in learning more about how COVID is changing the Christian landscape and how to respond, check out our free ebook Churches in the Wilderness: Navigating COVID-19 and the New Normal.
This helps to make sense of the data from Barna’s State of the Church 2020 project. This report found that when people were asked if they were tired of the typical church experience, 45 percent of practicing Christians strongly or somewhat agreed compared to 44 percent who somewhat or strongly disagreed. If half of church attendees feel like they’ve been going through the motions, COVID would have been just the excuse they needed to take a step back.
So what do all these distressing statistics have to do with growing a church? Hopefully, they can prepare us to really think about our goals and potentially encourage us to push the reset button. In this new millennium, church growth will require more than making dramatic changes to your facilities or copying effective programs in other churches. We’ll need to start from the bottom up.
One of the challenges churches face going forward is walking the line between older congregants who might be bigger givers but want services reminiscent of what they’re accustomed to, and younger adults who are looking for something different.
Let’s dig into some changes churches need to make to flourish in this new environment.
1. Give people a purpose and a mission
More and more young adults view themselves as activists (52.5 percent), but very few of them have faith in traditional structures for creating meaningful change. This distrust extends to the government . . . and the church.
Instead of passing judgment on the causes young adults embrace, churches need to recognize and affirm their longing for true and meaningful change. Thankfully, the church’s mission to create world-changing disciples and care for others dovetails perfectly with this generation’s concerns.
Practically speaking, this means that churches need to:
a.) Craft an action-oriented mission and vision
Clearly defining who you are and what you’re about as a church is more essential than ever, but the end result needs to be action-oriented. Your mission has to be more than, “We want to create a comfortable space where everyone feels loved where they are.” While this is certainly a laudable goal, it’s becoming increasingly important to communicate the actions your mission inspires you to make.
When people visit your website or social media platforms, the images and language should communicate what you’re working together to accomplish. They should see it as an invitation to take part in the work you’re doing, not to just come sit and listen.
b.) Make total involvement the goal
You won’t be able to turn everyone into a volunteer, but that should be the objective. And maybe that means restructuring your perspective on staffing. Maybe the goal is less about hiring people to do the work of ministry and more about using staff to mobilize and manage volunteers.
It could also mean changing the way you see church ministry. Typically, churches are known for pushing people to classes and small-group ministries. And these are essential, but that means that getting more involved in church inevitably means doing more of what you’re already doing, feeling like a spectator. Some of the most dramatic communal breakthroughs happen as people work shoulder to shoulder on common goals.
When you increase the number of people actually serving others, the other elements start to take on a new life. Small groups are no longer just gathering to talk about yourself, and teaching becomes increasingly practical and useful.
NOTE: You can explore some of these themes a little more in the free ebook The Practical Guide to Recruiting and Retaining Kidmin Volunteers. It’s focused on children’s ministry, but many of the principles are applicable across the board.
c.) Focus on action as much as information
A good theological education is essential, but churches going forward will need to be more strategic with how they teach. The goal should be to inform and invite people to get more involved in the church’s (action-oriented) mission.
It’s easy for churches to get into the habit of focusing on imparting knowledge without giving people an outlet for using what they’re learning. This is incredibly vital if you want to get people engaged.
d.) Change your church’s relationship with the building
Luke gives a very dramatic picture of the church in its infancy:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42–47).
These new believers didn’t have church buildings to gather in—and remember, there were more than 3,000 believers in Jerusalem at this point. And while having your own church facility can be an amazing benefit, it’s not the center of the church’s identity.
Over the last several decades, the church has developed an “if you build it, they will come” mindset. Attracting visitors has often boiled down to catering to perceived preferences, adding a coffee shop, a huge children’s playground, or a professional theater-style sanctuary.
This is becoming less and less of a draw for Millennials, and for some, it can be a turnoff. They’re more drawn to what you’re doing than what you’ve built. And they want to know that their effort and their giving is having an impact on others and isn’t just going toward infrastructure and overhead.
It doesn’t require a lot for churches to change how they view this critical tool. Rethinking a church’s relationship to its building is as simple as:
- Realigning with the idea that the church is more than a people meeting in a static location. So the building shouldn’t be seen as the first or primary entry point into church life. There are people who aren’t comfortable “coming to church” who might be excited to join in celebrations, activities, or service in other contexts.
- Changing the way we view evangelism and outreach so that we’re no longer expecting people to come to us on our terms, but instead looking for opportunities to meet them on their turf. A lot of this lies in seeing the church community as the draw, and not necessarily the facility.
- Using our buildings as tools to serve the community in other ways. Your community has needs that might be met by using your space. Brainstorming ways to use your facility to meet community needs is a quick way to completely reframe your church’s relationship to its most expensive asset.
Changing your church’s relationship with the building is the first step to recognizing the many potential on-ramps available for people to discover your church. The minute we stop seeing the facility’s front door as the primary entryway into relationship with the church, we can transform the way we interact with our communities.
2. Create a strategy for driving engagement
Churches need a strategy for transitioning people from one place to another:
- From visitor to member
- From attendee to volunteer
- From non-giver to tither
- From new believer to disciple
Churches need both a vision of where they want people to end up and a plan for how they intend to get them there. You will probably go through variations of this process as you work it out, but it’s imperative that you have a plan in place.
For example, take turning a visitor into a member. What’s the process?
- Awareness: What are the ways they will cross your path, and how will you capture their information so that you can contact them again? This means having a plan, no matter how they find you:
- Church service
- Outreach or service event?
- Interest: Now that you have their information, what is your plan to reconnect with them? Are you going to create a series of emails that share who you are and what you’re about? Are you going to reach out to them directly? How are you going to invite them back?
- Desire: Once you get them to return, what is the plan to get them more involved and move them toward making a commitment to your church?
- Action: When they make the decision to become members, then what? How do you move them into the next funnel?
Two of the biggest factors impeding church growth is the lack of identified goals for people and lack of repeatable strategies for achieving them. And when churches do have a plan, they often don’t stick with it or fail to adjust it when necessary.
You shouldn’t have a single goal that you don’t also have a strategy for achieving.
3. Adapt to the ways people connect and communicate
When COVID hit in 2020, churches that had already embraced livestreaming and video conferencing had a huge leg-up on everyone else. Churches that already distributed information to their members digitally didn’t have to figure out how to take attendance and share updates without physical church bulletins. They weren’t faced with a sudden steep learning curve, weeks of trial and error, and competition for the tech needed to record services and get them online.
The point here isn’t that a church has to jump on every technological opportunity. But we need to acknowledge the fact that cultural connection is happening in different ways, and the sooner we embrace that, the better positioned we’ll be for growth.
It’s tempting to hold onto the principle that the way we’re used to doing things is the best way, and maybe that’s true. But being right about that is a small consolation when people are looking beyond what you provide.
It’s time for churches to rethink what growth looks like. The numbers around church attendance seem unsettling, but only if we continue to look at growth the same way we did in the last millennium. The truth is that churches have never had a better opportunity to impact and influence such a vast number of people and grow beyond their campuses.
But this means transitioning away from simply thinking of online platforms as tools to drive traffic into your services or engage current members. Instead, churches should become students of the ways people use technology to connect and consider new ways to connect with people outside of their walls.
They’ll feel the impact in a couple of ways:
1. Churches will grow in their influence
If you think about it, this is the growth that matters. The early church would have been beside themselves to have the tools we take for granted today (imagine if Paul could have recorded a podcast or written an email newsletter!). There are just so many ways to inspire, teach, and connect with people all over the world, and that can’t be overlooked.
And if you’re wondering how to justify this effort financially, don’t worry. Growing your church beyond its walls doesn’t mean that you’re putting in a lot of effort that’s going to take resources from your local church. Platforms like Patreon have demonstrated that people are more than happy to invest money online when they feel they benefit from the content.
This is one of the reasons that a dedicated church app is one of the best tools you have at your disposal. If you encourage people outside of your church to use the same app that you use to communicate with your members, your communications start doing double duty—and the opportunity for giving is right at their fingertips.
2. Your local congregation will grow
As you get better at building and using your platform, you’re exposed to more local people. Church members share your content, and it’s exposed to family members, neighbors, and others in your community. When people feel like they connect with you online, they’ll come from miles away to join your community—and they’ll invite others.
4. Spend at least one year focused on evangelism
A lot of what we think of as church growth is simply transfer growth. Every community has people that bounce around between different churches looking for something they feel is missing. Next, you have people who used to attend church regularly and, for whatever reason, they stopped. Maybe they recently had children and it’s caused them to rethink their relationship to the church and they’re looking to come back.
What we seldom admit in church growth discussion is that we can grow our churches without ever bringing new souls into the kingdom. And when we get down to it, we all really want evangelistic growth, don’t we? We want to see people coming into a relationship with Jesus because of the impact of our churches.
It might seem crazy to spend a year focused on evangelism, but that’s only 52 weeks, and there are so many ways to address the topic. People need to understand why it’s important. They need to learn how to do it. They need to be equipped and given opportunities to practice. They need to be inspired by stories of evangelism.
And every couple of years, churches that want to grow need to refocus on it.
Churches that are excited about sharing the gospel grow because they’re introducing others to the kingdom. They grow because the enthusiasm of new believers is so contagious. And they grow because churches with an evangelism focus are so attractive.
Adapting your way to growth
Growth in this season is going to look a little different than it has in the past. It’s not going to be as simple as adding a hot new program or changing your worship style. It’s going to require some rethinking of church ministry from the ground up. Most of the things that people need from the church are the same, but there are a lot of practical ways we can meet people where they are and reframe how we serve them.
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