Most pastors realize their church’s Easter attendance is a
better indicator of the church’s true size than its weekly attendance. Albeit
there are a significant number of visitors on Easter Sunday, the reality is
many of these visitors are not visiting. This is their church. They don’t
attend another church. They claim yours.
In his new book, Connect: How to Grow Your Church in 28 Days-Guaranteed, Don Corder writes, “On any given Sunday, eighty percent are regular attendees and twenty percent are non-regular attendees” (p. 30). He goes on to explain that the 80 percent attend about 33 times per year, while the 20 percent of non-regular attendees are there only 2.4 times per year based on researching The Provisum Group’s database of church clients. What does this mean?
An Attendance of 100 is Really More Like 559.
A church of 100 people is really made up of 559 people. By
Corder’s calculation, 126 people attend 33 times per year on average, while
another 433 make up the other 20 percent of weekly worship attendance. So, how
many people actually attend your church?
If your church averages 1,000 people on the weekend, then
your actual attendee number is somewhere around 5,590. By the same calculation
used above, 1,260 of your people attend about 33 times per year, while another
4,333 attend about 2.4 times per year. If you have any doubts, look at the
total number of records in your church’s database. It’s not so farfetched, is
What Does This Mean for Discipleship?
Often the measuring stick for groups is compared group
membership to the weekend attendance. If you’re in a church of 500 and have 250
people in groups, then you could claim that 50 percent of your people are connected
into groups. But, that’s not realistic in light of this new calculation.
A worship attendance of 500 really represents 2,167 people
who attend your church over the course of the year. If you have 250 people in
groups, you actually have about 12 percent of your people in groups. Well, you
weren’t supposed to be proud of numbers anyway, right?
The church’s mission is to “go and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:18-20). Sermons don’t make disciples. How do you engage the 77.46% of your congregation who only attends an average of 2.4 times per year?
Get Them While They’re There.
What are your church’s peak worship services of the year?
Christmas and Easter, right? The first pastor I served would often say in
Easter services, “Well, if I don’t see you for a while, I want to wish you a
Merry Christmas” and the reverse at Christmas. Rather than ridicule your
infrequent attendees, why not invite them to something?
A pastor’s immediate reaction is “But, it’s impossible to
get any airtime on Easter Sunday (or Christmas)…” That’s true. And, it’s okay.
If you could get airtime in the worship service, that would be great. But,
what’s more important than airtime is a plan.
Make a Plan to Connect Your Infrequent Attendees.
Your infrequent attendees took a step to attend a service.
You just need to give them another step. What are their needs? Where do they
need help? What issues in their lives do they need answers to? If they checked
their children into your children’s ministry on Easter, then a parenting group which
is appropriate to their stage of parenting might be of interest. Are they
married or single? How far do they live from the church? Is there a small group
in their neighborhood? What groups could you promote to these folks? As long as
you have their contact information, you can promote a group that meets their
needs. Or, better yet, a group leader could call and invite a few to their
group. Better still, a person who knows an infrequent attendee could call and
invite them to a group (or start a group).
It doesn’t matter if an announcement wasn’t made in the
service or didn’t appeared in the bulletin on Easter Sunday. For most parents,
their children have overdone the sugar and just want to get home. They’re not
thinking of signing up for a group on Easter or Christmas anyway. But, since
they’ve just attended a recent service, the church is on their mind. Then, when
they receive an invitation by email or a phone call from a warm, friendly group
leader, they might be open to join a group.
While You Have Their Email Addresses…
Remember, infrequent attendees are only coming to your
church for the most part. They may not attend very often, but they aren’t going
anywhere else. If you invite them to a group launch or connection event, they
just might join a group.
Many pastors look at that overly bloated part of the church
database and wonder why they keep all of those records anyway. Many folks don’t
appear to attend much or give anything, so why not purge the database? Don’t
purge the database. These folks are familiar with your church. They are more
likely to attend a service or join a group than people who have never attended.
Invite them to your next connection event. Use the Summer for groups to host
open houses and invite infrequent attendees who live in their neighborhoods.
Don’t rest on your laurels. Your connection percentage just got blown out of the water. Start thinking about turning every group member into a group leader (or every church member into a group leader). The harvest is plentiful. The workers are few.
Nothing will accelerate your group launch faster than the right topic. When you choose a theme for an alignment series that is a common felt need in your congregation and your community, people will run to join groups. But, the reverse can also be true. Choosing the wrong topic will drive them away.
1. More “Mature” Topics Will Limit Your Launch
Several years ago, I was working with a church that started every year with a 21 day fast. They wanted to design a curriculum to support the fast. While I would never attempt to talk a church out of such a significant initiative, I did caution them that forming new groups might be a little challenging. On the bright side, the refreshments would be very easy. They started a handful of new groups for their members and had a great experience with their fast. But, they were far from involving the entire congregation.
Some topics are for more mature believers rather than for people in the community who may have never darkened the door of your church. Anything to do with money: budgeting, giving, generosity, capital campaigns, and so on are challenging to form groups around. While many people need help managing their finances, too many evangelists desiring $65 million jets have created a poor association between the church and money for most of the world. Don’t go there.
Other topics like evangelism, spiritual disciplines, and spiritual gifts are great for the congregation, but probably won’t draw much interest from the community. There are ways to promote these topics more indirectly.
Instead of creating an alignment series around a capital campaign, why not create a series around what the church is raising money for? If the church is taking new initiatives to help the poor or become a resource in the community, then these are the topics to promote. Maybe the church is investing in the next generation. People are very concerned about the world their children will grow up in. They can get behind the vision of the church to reach the community, and then they might even give.
Instead of creating curriculum to teach your people evangelism, why not produce a series that is evangelistic? Talk about the needs in the community. You could even include a presentation of the Gospel. You could do evangelism with the curriculum rather than teaching how to do evangelism. A series like All In focuses on the story of Jesus and offers the Gospel message.
There are ways to introduce mature topics to a broader group. But, the largest group launches come from topics that touch a nerve.
2. Felt Need Topics Will Attract People Who Need Help
When you talk to your neighbors and others in your community, what are they concerned about? Many people struggle in their relationships, their marriages, and their parenting. These are great felt need topics which can reach a broad audience.
People also deal with anxiety, worry, and stress. Some feel like giving up or are lost in even successful careers. What will bring them meaning and hope? Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef who recently committed suicide once asked, “What do you do after your dreams have come true?” Even those who seem to have it all often feel a deep void. How can your series help them?
Of course, the granddaddy of all church-wide campaigns is The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. Other series which have drawn in the community include Kerry Shooks’ One Month to Live, Live Like Your Dying, and Half Time by Bob Buford. I’ve worked with churches to produce series that deal with leaving a legacy, common fears, hope, or ambition that have helped some churches more than double their current numbers of groups. A couple of churches now have twice as many people in groups than they have in weekend attendance.
3. What is Your Senior Pastor Passionate About?
The best topic you can choose for a successful curriculum and group launch is the idea that your pastor is the most passionate about. Does he have a life message or dominate them he speaks about often? Does she have a clear direction on what the Fall series should be? The best topic is not necessarily the hottest topic to the church, but the hottest topic for your pastor.
Once you have that direction, you don’t have to start with a blank piece of paper. Most pastors have files full of sermons they’ve preached over the course of their ministries. There is no shortage of content. Why not research the pastor’s hot topic in past sermon files? You’ll be surprised what you come up with.
And, remember, you’re not creating the next Purpose-Driven Life! Your study may not make the bestseller list, but your pastor’s teaching on your video-based curriculum will be very popular with your congregation. What’s even better is that when your felt need topic draws in the friends, neighbors, and co-workers of your members into groups, they will be introduced to your pastor through the video curriculum. When these new folks are invited to church, they will feel like they already know your pastor from the videos!
Where are you headed this Fall? If you’re creating your own curriculum, I hope you’ve already started. If not, there are semi-custom offerings from allinsmallgroups.com and other sources that have scripts and study guides already written. The hard work is taken care of. Your pastor just needs to personalize the scripts and shoot the video. If push comes to shove, curriculum you purchase can also help you form new groups as long as your pastor is passionate about it.
The topic will make or break your next alignment. Where are you headed?
Most churches are organized to preserve the institution. The institution may be the church as a whole, a paradigm embraced 25 years ago, or a worship style that fit a previous generation well. I’m not just speaking of traditional churches. This also applied to churches which are contemporary to 1995 or 2005. What worked for the last 25 years will not work for the next 25 years.
Ministry is Simpler
A stark difference lies between simpler and simplistic. Simplistic means offering just a few things to easily assimilate busy people into the life of the church. That’s not bad. But, perpetuating ministries based merely on the length of their existence or on its success in other churches are insufficient reasons to continue them in your church (or even to start them).
In most cases, the basis of this thinking is a system of staff-led ministries created to move people from the parking lot, through the front door, into a commitment to the church, and finally assigned to ministry. Henry Ford would be proud. But, the people who leave their cars in the parking lot to step into church for the first time are not raw materials or blank slates. They have different backgrounds, education, gifts, abilities, and spiritual experiences. If and when they complete the church’s process, they won’t be uniform products lined up neatly in rows. We aren’t manufacturing widgets.
Ministry is complex when those in authority decide what the church’s ministry should be, then attempt to recruit members into ministries which are not well suited for them. The purpose of many of these ministries is to serve the institution: park cars, shake hands, take up the offering, watch the children, and so forth. The focus of ministry is centered on the weekend experience, not the gifts and passions of the members. The end result is the constant need to feed the beast, that is, the weekend service.
As Rick Rusaw asks, “What if we gave as much attention to scattering as we give to gathering?” The seeker service is fading. The missional movement gets the church part way there, but lacks building relationships with those who are served. Incarnational is next. What is incarnational? Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-40 — “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus gave his followers only two things to do: Love God and Love Neighbors. An M.Div. is not necessary for either of those. (I have an M.Div.)
There is merit to keeping what works and tossing what doesn’t. Every ministry has a time to thrive, and a time to die, especially when it’s not aligned to Jesus’ mission.
When we give people permission and opportunity, they become very creative. Ministry is simpler by starting only the things our people currently are gifted and called to do. When there is no longer a leader carrying that vision, then the ministry ends. Then, we get behind the next group of leaders with the gifts and passion for what is next. It’s simpler.
The System is Simpler
Most people don’t need an elaborate strategy to connect with a church. They only need someone who genuinely cares about them. They need a friend.
This is a function of multiplication, which I wrote about here. A simpler system is a system of multiplication. You must multiply yourself in order for your church to grow. We must realize that ministry is not something we do to people. The people are our ministry. Their development is both the future of our ministry and the future of the church.
But, when does a busy pastor have time for multiplying themselves when the tasks of ministry are overwhelming already? Give some of those tasks away. Develop people to fulfill those roles. Stop doing things which are not multiplication factors. Everyone has the same amount of time – whether they are multiplying or not.
Only 15 percent of Millennials and only 4 percent of GenZ are Christians. We have heard for years that the church is only one generation away from extinction. This could be the generation.
You don’t need to become an expert in Millennials or GenZ. You just need to engage them. Talk to them about what Jesus said and help them discover the application for their context. Instead of approaching them as their grandfather, engage them as a missionary. This is a cross cultural experience within our own culture.
I am 53 years old. I am not the future of the church. Neither are you. But, I’m not planning on quitting any time soon. I do plan to continue in relevant ways and to celebrate what the next generations come up with. What will it take to empower and encourage the next generations? How can we give them permission to serve in their cultural context?
Word of Caution
Before you go and wreck your church, remember you have a lot of people that it’s working for. You can’t afford to lose them. Love Millennials all day long, but remember, they’re broke, and you’re not ready to retire.
Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth? Maybe. You can be the judge. Your current church members were brought into the current ministry of your church with a certain understanding of how things would be – a contract, if you will. If you attempt to change that contract in an autocratic, mandatory fashion, then you’re done. But, what if you could begin to make changes without threatening the base?
In a recent episode of Carey Nieuwhof’s Leadership Podcast, Todd Wilson from Exponential shared the idea of churches creating R&D labs and setting aside funds for it. This would allow for pilots and “skunk works” without upsetting the apple cart. I’m not talking about creating services like we did for GenX that ended up splitting our churches. R&D is a portion of funds, staffing, energy, and creativity applied to the future without radically disrupting the status quo until new concepts are proven out.
It will take a long time for our members to give up the worship style and ministry that they love for the sake of the next generation. Wasn’t this our argument to the traditional folks when we wanted to implement seeker services? But, time is short. A generation is at stake.
“Nobody ever leaves ‘good enough’ for ‘potentially better'” according to Robert Herjavec of Shark Tank fame in the December 2016 issue of Fortune magazine. He makes a very good point. While Herjavec was starting his software security business, he found difficulty selling something slightly better than what people were currently using. I’m a buyer like that.
A nice young man named Storm calls me once in a while from Citrix. I’ve been their customer for many years, since I’ve found GotoMeeting to be a very stable platform for my coaching groups. Storm would like me to consider Citrix’s version of Dropbox. He’s a very nice young man. He gave a solid presentation. He checks up on me now and then. The only problem is Storm wants me to sign up for Citrix’s version of Dropbox, and I’m a longtime Dropbox user. Good enough wins over potentially better.
Now, if the Citrix’s version came bundled with GotoMeeting and gave me a discount, then maybe. But, I have Dropbox links in my emails, my articles, everywhere. It’s a lot to unlink just to link back up with a similar product. If Dropbox had a catastrophic failure, then maybe I would switch to a different platform. But, until I have a compelling reason, I have no motivation to change.
Let’s pretend you are Storm from Citrix, and I am your church member. You want me to join a small group. I “don’t have time for a group” a.k.a. “it’s not a priority in my life.” Why? I have friends already. I have a regular quiet time. I’m involved with other things at church. Now, without overselling small groups or making them mandatory (both tactics will fail), why should I join a small group? How are groups better than what I’m currently doing?
If you can answer this question, then people might abandon what they’re doing for something they perceive as better.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.
Greg Atkinson is the founder of Worship Impressions and author of Church Leadership Essentials, Strange Leadership, and Secrets of a Secret Shopper. Over his 20—plus years of ministry experience, Greg has served as the director of WorshipHouse Media and editor of Christian Media Magazine, as well as serving as a worship pastor, technical director, and campus pastor. Greg has worked with churches of all stages and sizes, including some of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the country, as well as with businesses, non-profits, and organizations such as Josh McDowell Ministries.
Q1: You’ve done a lot of ministry in a lot of places over the last 22 years. How did you land on Guest Services?
I was coaching church planters through ARC (Association of Related Churches), and the President of ARC was Billy Hornsby. Billy and I were talking in a hotel lobby one day and he said, “Greg you ought to be a secret shopper.” At the time, I only new of one other secret shopper. Billy said, “You’ve been around the church for a while, you’ve served in various roles, and you know what to look for – you know what excellence looks like.” “And,” he said, “I’ll give you your first endorsement.” So Billy sent out a mass email to all the ARC churches telling them they ought to bring me in. Churches started contacting me and the rest is history.
Q2: What does your “Secret Shopper” process look like?
I evaluate everything as it relates to the weekend services. I start with an online presence evaluation before I ever arrive at the church in person. I evaluated the church’s use of social media, and I thoroughly go through their church website and offer feedback. Once I arrive on campus, I start with the parking lot and from there to everything you can imagine – from greeters and ushers, information center, children’s ministry, security, and a big eye towards the worship service itself (evaluating and giving feedback on music, sound, video, lights and the sermon – as well as service structure and flow). I even look at the restrooms and write about the smell of the facility. One church of 12,000 that I did a secret shopper for said, “He doesn’t miss a thing.” Another church of 17,000 said, “It was probably the best money we spent all year.” I take my job very seriously and it is my mission to turn first-time guests into second-time guests.
Q3: What are some common issues you find churches make with their First Impressions?
Of course, every church is different, but there are common issues that I see at a majority of churches. Things like: The wrong people serving in hospitality, assuming people know things (guest services, signage, communication), not taking security seriously, and not thinking through their website strategically. These are just a few of the things I notice frequently. I’m going to write a full feature article for Christianity Today on this subject and will go into much greater detail.
Q4: You’ve really learned a lot about what makes guests feel welcome. You should write a book.
Yes! I did actually. My next book entitled Secrets of a Secret Shopper is set to come out this September. I wrote this book for small to medium-sized churches that can’t afford to bring in myself or another consultant. I go into great detail of everything I look for when I do a secret shopper. There are things in the book that are beneficial and practical for large churches as well. This book is very practical and is something every pastor, church leader and guest services director and first impressions volunteers need to read. It’s a book that has been 9 years in the making. You can check my website: GregAtkinson.com for details on the book release. You can also check my secret shopper website (WorshipImpressions.com), to read more articles on first impressions and find out about when the book releases.
Q5: What is the strangest experience you’ve had secret shopping a church?
Almost getting arrested would be one. Almost getting tazed would be two. And getting a background check ran on me would be three. For obvious reasons, I can’t tell what led to the following “fun times.” All I can say is that I will test your church’s security and find its weaknesses. I just did a church secret shopper consultation for a medium-sized church two weeks ago and their “security team” saw me walking around and going places I shouldn’t. They just watched me, but didn’t engage me. At the end of the service, with every one their security team’s eye on me, they watched me go straight down the center aisle and approach the senior pastor. They were relieved when I hugged him. They should have had a security person present, standing next to the senior pastor. I thought it was strange that they didn’t engage me and say, “May I help you?” – Those 4 words are the biggest weapon or deterrent that any person in a church has on any given week. Please don’t forget that.
Q5.5: Being a Greer, South Carolina boy, Clemson or Carolina?
South Carolina Gamecocks all the way. Ever since I started watching football games with my grandfather as a young child, I’ve been a huge Gamecock fan and am excited for our future.