Getting People Back To The Weekend Services
As I travel to churches of different shapes and sizes, and talk with pastors, one question keeps coming up. 'How do we get people back?' is a question many are asking.
Some churches are doing really well and have seen growth since coming back after COVID and yet, even with new people coming, there is still a sense that some of the historical attendees are skipping weekend services on a more regular basis than before. Now that I am no longer 'the pastor' I must admit there are some Sundays that even I struggle to get out to 'church'. Of course, that was probably true when I pastored but because it was my job I had to turn up!
'It's a discipline' vs 'Is it worth it'?
The response to this question that I often hear is that 'christians should just learn to make attendance a discipline'. A good pastor friend of mine argues with me about this a lot whereas I feel that the church, particularly in the current environment, should work hard to make the weekend excursion worth peoples while.
Many people historically came to the weekend gathering as a spiritual discipline. While they enjoyed the service it was equally the routine and rhythm that often got them there. In other words they enjoyed it, and saw the benefits when they came, but it was muscle memory that got them there in the first place. .
When you break a discipline (such as exercise) it is really hard to pick it up again. Initially when you stop you feel a little 'out of sorts', a little bit of guilt, and even some grieving for what is lost. Before COVID this is how many people felt if they missed the weekend service for one or two weeks.
In the pandemic people turned to the online service too fulfill this sense of duty and get a spiritual benefit. But with time this became hard for families and singles alike. The discipline and practice of gathering, and that nagging guilt feeling that comes when you break a routine, dried up. New rhythms were formed and people started to treasure new activities and reallocate their time differently.
With the 'sense of duty' gone people now simply ask themselves the question 'is attending a weekend gathering worth it'?
People are way less willing to tolerate time wasting, foolishness, and long winded preachers.
Now that I am no longer pastoring a congregation, and due to this ministry of helping churches, my wife and I often travel to different gatherings on the weekend. Some of these are for coaching and some of these are random Google searches. We have ended up in rip roaring charismatic churches all the way across to a 120 year old Anglican church where we sang 'God save the King'!
I always ask myself this question after visiting each of these congregations.
'Did my wife and I find enough CONNECTION with the church to commit ourselves to getting up on Sunday mornings and regularly attending?'.
Connection is an all encompassing word that means different things to different people. When one person says 'connect' they may mean that there were young people their age that dressed the same as them while another person might mean that the musical style was in the genre they enjoyed.
You may wish that people would just attend regularly because it's their 'duty' but this foolishly ignores the reality that people now, more than ever, have big expectations for connection.
I have given a lot of thought to this (because I have the time to) and I have come to realize that both for myself, and I believe everyone else, connection actually has SIX aspects to it. When a person asks themselves "Is attending a weekly gathering worth it?" they are asking 'do I experience a connection with this church?'. And unbeknown to them, they are actually ticking off six areas of connection to arrive at and answer to that question.
No church will tick all six boxes for an individual.
What is important, however, is that your gathering is able to tick 3 or more of them. This is not a statistical observation but rather an anecdotal one on my part. It's just that, in my experience of visiting gatherings, I find that if I can tick 3 out of the 6 connection points I am willing to overlook the deficient areas because there is more than enough to motivate me.
So what are the 6 areas of connection people are looking for?
1. THEY ARE EXPECTING TO CONNECT WITH GOD.
People come to a service longing to met with God and they are right to have this expectation. Scripture is filled with promises that when His people gather in unity to worship Him then He will come and dwell in their midst. A primary goal of the corporate gathering IS to encounter God in a way that we will struggle with individually.
David Mathis, from desiringGod.org, put it this way.
Often we come into corporate worship feeling a sense of spiritual fog. During the rough and tumble of the week, the hard knocks of real life in the fallen world can disorient us to ultimate reality and what’s truly important. We need to clear our head, recalibrate our spirit, and jump-start our slow heart. Martin Luther found corporate worship powerful in awakening his spiritual fire: “at home, in my own house, there is no warmth or vigor in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart and it breaks its way through.” He was embattled. The spiritual haze was thick. But the breakthrough came in the context of corporate worship.
The depth of this 'awakening' changes from service to service and church to church. We have all been in services where the presence of God was tangible and His voice clear and intimate. Then, a week later, it feels empty and as if we are going through the motions.
There are so many reasons for this but it would be wrong to think that God's manifest presence in our services is unpredictable and inconsistent. God Himself longs to dwell with His people and He teaches us through His word the kind of posture we should take to meet with Him.
I want to highlight three actions we can take as leadership to provide room to experience God's manifest presence on a week by week basis.
Churches need a dedicated team of people who intercede for the service. This is not the worship team praying for 10 minutes before the service but a team praying for at least an hour (but normally more) who stand in the gap for people coming to the service and need an encounter with God.
Some churches I know gather the intercessory team the night before or in the early hours of the morning. At one stage we had a rotating team of men who prayed during the service.
This is a spiritual work. If you don't have an effective team who can lay hold of God, and remove the spiritual obstacles that stop people encountering God, then you will find an inconsistency in the manifest presence of God week by week.
When Moses was in the desert scripture tells us 'he drew aside to investigate the burning bush'. He saw something unique was happening and he moved towards it.
The leadership of a gathering needs to have the same spirit. They need to discern what the Spirit is doing and lead the congregation to move towards it.
A key person is this is your worship leader. They have the first third of a service and this is often where the prophetic voice of Christ is stirring. The challenge is that many of our leaders are not trained in this area. From my experience I would say that most people are capable 'song leaders' but have not yet developed as 'worship leaders'.
I am not blaming anyone because some pastors like it this way - they don't want someone else 'leading' the service. More commonly, however, it is because the leaders have never been trained in how to actually 'lead worship'. One of the specific areas I coach churches in is this area of 'worship leading'. There are a number of tools and scriptural principals that can be tapped into to help a song leader transform into a worship leader.
Whatever the case, it is crucial that as a leadership you become discerning of what Christ is doing and have a means of moving towards it.
God is always present but we are not.
To connect with God requires that we become present in the moment. We need to remove the distractions so we can centre on Him. A service should be designed to lead people into the "Holy of Holy's" (the sacred place where we meet God face to face) through the process of praise, thanksgiving, sanctification, etc. We want people to let go of the cares of this life and centre on Christ.
If a service is poorly run, however, and has a lot of self inflicted distractions people will find it hard to centre on Christ and met with Him.
When a leader gets up to pray a summary prayer after the songs, and the microphone doesn't work....and they ask 'is this working'....and someone yells out 'yes'....but it still doesn't work...and they pick up another mic that also doesn't work...etc You get the point!
The moment is simply lost because we didn't plan, or invest in the resources, or have the right people with the right gift in the right place.
We, through our poor service management, have CREATED DISTRACTIONS! We have broken the spirits flow. This can be too many people moving around, bad musicianship or lack of practice, bad sound, media slides not working or the operator is lost, heaters not working, plastic communion cups crackling, or a minister on the mic is dominating rather than letting God move.
There are often way less distractions when you watch at home!
All of these distractions are manageable and fixable if the leadership team grasps the spiritual importance of excellence and then works hard to create a sacred space in their weekend gatherings.
2. THEY ARE EXPECTING TO CONNECT WITH THE WORD.
This is likely the most important expectation people have when attending a gathering. An anointed WORD washes you, renews you, and changes your way of thinking, and spiritually awakens you. People will come back to a gathering again and again if the spoken word gives LIFE and they will bring their friends and loved ones.
The quality of the word that issues forth from the pulpit is one of the most important and sacred responsibilities of the pastor and elders.
A number of years ago I was an interim pastor of a medium sized church (around 400 Sunday attendance). This church had many challenges due to some underlying issues and because they had lost their entire ministry team. In taking on this role I was required to oversee almost every department, be in all the board meetings, and regularly preach. My family was very young at the time and so, needless to say, I didn't have enough time for everything.
I spent the majority of my time organizing the ministries and doing leadership meetings and a minimal amount of time preparing the word. An elder complemented me on this but in retrospect this was not the right focus. I should have given a lot more time to the study word and less to governance meetings that could have been run by someone else and generally went around in circles.
Smart churches, when the go through a pastoral transition, make sure the pulpit is covered with someone who can bring a life giving and biblically rooted word week by week that feeds and transforms people. They can even grow during a transition simply through the quality of the pulpit ministry.
There is nothing that makes a person reconsider attending the weekly gathering more than the feeling that the sermon is a bad use of their time.
The stagnation in a church and its growth could be a reflection of a stagnation in the pulpit ministry and the personal growth of the minister. It is crucial that we have a 'growth mindset' for our preaching ministry so we and the work can keep growing.
Growth Mindset : Stanford professor Carol Dweck in her book Mindset, describes people who believe that their success depends on time and effort. People with a growth mindset feel their skills and intelligence can be improved with effort and persistence. They embrace challenges, persist through obstacles, learn from criticism and seek out inspiration in others’ success. (https://tophat.com/glossary/g/growth-mindset/)
The biggest part of this statement is that a person with a growth mindset believes that with some effort they can actually improve.
A few years ago I started attending a master's program at Regent College. My educational background had been at a ministry training school level so this was a big change. I had a natural gift for speaking and had seen lives impacted so for many years I didn't feel the need to get more 'education'. Something unusual happened, however, when I was 3 or 4 classes into the program and still pastoring the church.
People began to say things like 'Pastor, your preaching is going to a whole new level', or 'Pastor, you are so anointed these days'. They thought it was prayer or some special move of God. I saw the connection between the amount of time I was in study and wrestling hard with the english language to write good papers and the new level of precision and depth in my messages.
Any time my preaching has gone to a new level it is the result of working on it. It could have been spending a season in prayer. Or reading a book or listening to another minister whom inspired me. Or taking a critique from my wife or an elder and applying it.
I liked how Dr Carol Dweck put it at the end of the above definition of a growth mindset. She hits on four elements of a growth mindset that is needed to grow in our preaching ministry.
We embrace the challenge...that is, make the pursuit of anointed and mindful preaching a life time pursuit and we commit to never becoming settled in it..
We persist through obstacles..that is, we don't accept our limitations (such as education, or confidence, or fear of men, or bad habits such as making offensive statements) but rather push through and past them to overcome.
We learn from criticism...ouch! No minister likes people giving a critique even if it is from someone who loves us.. Yet feedback is crucial for growth and seeing our ministry clearly. We don't like to entertain self doubt yet blocking everything out is an even worse stance. The wise minister embraces a godly critique as a treasure from heaven (even as they wince).
We seek out inspiration in others...I used to listen to Joel Osteen to study his gift of communication, and Timothy Keller, and T.D. Jakes, and Andy Stanley, and Mark Driscoll, and many more. A growth mindset preacher is not intimidated or jealous of those with a greater or unique gift but rather find inspiration and new things to learn.
People want to know that they have 'heard the word of the Lord' when they gather on the weekend. It is in the hands of the local pastor and elders to pray, study, and grow their craft to ensure that this happens. Without due diligence and growth in this area people will soon reevaluate their commitment to attend the gathering regularly.
I will post the remaining four 'areas of connection that people are looking for in a weekend gathering' in the next few weeks in part II of this blog.