4 Ways to Break the Attendance Barrier

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Discover these common approaches to breaking through attendance barriers, regardless of church size.

Almost anytime I mention numbers related to church life, I anticipate some responses about the value of numbers and congregations.

In the 1980s, this type of discussion came primarily from more liberal churches that weren’t growing. Some of these leaders felt that declining membership and attendance was likely a sign of health. The members who really cared about the church were the ones who remained. They could make the biggest difference without the more nominal members remaining as obstacles.

Today, it is not unusual for me to hear from more conservative church leaders that declining church numbers may be a good sign because it is an indication that the numbers reflect true regenerate members.

But, for the purpose of this brief article, let’s assume that attendance growth is a positive indicator. Presumably, more people are hearing the gospel and being discipled when a church is growing.

It is in that context that I hear almost every week from church leaders whose churches seem stuck at some level of attendance: 100, 200, 500, 800 and so on. I even got a call a year ago from a church where the pastor was concerned that attendance was stuck at 7,000!

After 25 years of consulting and researching local congregations, I have found four common approaches churches take to break attendance barriers regardless of size.

There are certainly more than four possibilities, but allow me to evaluate these four more common approaches.

1. Create new groups.

These groups may be home groups, small groups that meet in coffee houses, Sunday school classes, ministry groups and others. Church leaders are intentional about creating groups on an ongoing basis. They typically have goals for the number of groups they start.

Evaluation: Frankly, I have seen great success with this strategy (and recently wrote about this strategy). I would speculate that as many as eight out of 10 churches that strategically create new groups grow to new attendance levels.

The mystery to me is why most churches don’t have this strategy.

2. Create new worship services.

A church moves from one service to two, or from two to three or even more. The move is typically precipitated by one or more services running out of space.

Evaluation: Most of the time, the new service does aid the church in breaking attendance barriers. But, keep in mind, the church was most likely growing already until it ran out of space. The new service simply takes the lid off so the church can continue to grow.

I would caution a church, however, about moving to an additional worship service if it’s not already in a growth mode. The worship center can seem vacuous if one nongrowing group is split into two nongrowing groups.

Thom Rainer Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.

More from Thom Rainer or visit Thom at http://www.thomrainer.com

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  • WhiteyDon’tPlay

    This article is fine and dandy for the churches that are 200, 300 or 7000 members strong but we’re not even 100 strong…we’re not even 50 strong. So what should a church do that has 20-30 members and is struggling? Make new groups you say? Start new worship services you say? This is hardly practical advice for the smallest of what you would call “micro” churches, the ones that aren’t even on the radar. I’m talking about churches that make up 75% of the Christians in the US. Yes, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of people in America who are Christians attend churches that are 50 people or less.

    Where’s the article for those churches? I’d like to see a practical article on how to help surviving (or dying) churches get back on their feet again. How does a church that’s not doing well continue to attract and retain people in a town or location that is church saturated? My town has hundreds of churches (more churches than there are stores). But my church has continued to struggle year in and year out despite making multiple changes: to our worship, to our facility, to our music, even to our preacher but to no avail. In a simple way, explain to me how this article helps us the church that is “small in numbers but heavy on faith”?

    • Adam Puma Borsay

      Evangelism, evangelism, evangelism. Higher attendance can be a good goal, but a Church’s ultimate goal should be seeing new people come to know Christ. If your church never grows, but your people are sharing their faith boldly and consistently and people are being saved, then you have a great church, regardless of attendance.

      Also, you say that you are church saturated. While you might have a ton of buildings, I doubt your community is saturated with Born Again believers. Unless you live in the first town in history that is nearly 100% already converted. Regardless of the number of churches, most towns statistically see less then 30-40% of their community actually going to church. So you have a huge potential for growth.

      Practically what you can do is take one Sunday a month to use half or more of your service time to go out in the community. People who are sitting at home on a Sunday morning probably aren’t regular church attenders.

      If you aren’t sure how to put on an “event” to draw people into the church(VBS, family carnival, etc) partner with other like minded small churches to more effectively put on something that will serve your community well.

      One more thing that could have a huge impact is a quarterly “Everyone 1 Bring 1″ Sunday. Give each person the responsibility to bring with them one unchurched friend.(Everyone in your church has lots of those!). If your people buy into that and actually do it, you would see a doubling of attendance that Sunday. Couple that sunday with a clear Gospel message and a cook out after church to help those people feel connected. Obviously, not all the people will come back, but if only 5 start coming, at your church size, you just added 10% overnight!

      As a base line before you even try these things you need to have an honest conversation with your church. You need to address a few issues.
      1) Are you sharing your faith? If not, why not?
      2) Are you inviting people to come to church with you? If not, why not?
      3) How can you help us reach the community better?

      • Steve Doyle

        We are a church of 120-150 on a good weekend, dipping below 100 on others. We’ve done all the things and more that Brother Rainer suggests above – but without measured, sustained growth. We baptize a few – but it’s almost always countered by those who move away or fall away or decide to hop away (to another church).
        I hate to admit it, but it’s probably a simple matter of not enough new conversions_ and not much real discipling.
        I confess I wonder at times if small struggling congregations should merge with another church. I know of more than one einstance where 2 churches of less than 100 did that and within acouple yeas grew to 300. What is our congregation (or yours) offering that the others in the city aren’t? What dynamic is there in our (or your) church that justifies it’s existence as a separate entity? Do we think we have a corner on the truth or a particular way of worshipping that is sacred and can’t be adapted?
        I struggle with the fact that pride and personal ownership and/or nostalgia that may keep us from merging with other believers of like precious faith.
        Having said all this…my experience is that all churches go through stages of growth and all of them plateau eventually – at least in their local congregation. Be faithful to Christ and His teachings and be sensitive to the Spirit. Success is not so much in numbers as in faithfulness – but faithfulness will result in growth…for sure spiritually and with God’s help, numerically.

        • Adam Puma Borsay

          I think each church should honestly evaluate what they are convinced they are called to be doing. Or, put it in another way, what are our goals this month/quarter/year.

          For instance, we have a goal to meet everyone of our neighbors in a 20 block radius around our church and connect with them in some biblically meaningful way in the next 12 weeks. If you find yourself time and time again unable to even achieve simple goals like this, it might be time to reevaulate whether or not you are effectively living up to the responsibilities of a church(not that what I described is some sort of perfect goal….)

          At the end of the day what would happen if your Church closed its doors? There is no individual church that has kept their doors open since day 1 of Acts. I do no suppose to think that my church will happen to be the one that will never go away. Christ’s church will still be standing whether or not my specific doors are closed.

          If your people are growing in their faith, they are sharing their faith and people are coming to know the Lord, I don’t see any reason to shut a church’s doors.

          A season of “failure” and discontent is no reason to give up. Sometimes we just have to reestablish meaningful(biblically centric) purpose and goals. And only if after a period of intensive pursuit and practically living out those purposes and goals can one truly measure whether or not to close the doors.
          Too often people treat the church like a marriage(in todays way of marriage). “Well, what used to work doesn’t, so we are done” We have to vigorously renew ourselves and grow and adapt to new realities of our communities and world while maintaining the unalterable truths of scripture. I have yet to meet a church that “has” to shut their doors. I just have met churches who just stopped caring/trying.

          • Steve Doyle

            Adam, I wholeheartedly agree. I’m new to this forum and actually meant to respond to the person who was lamenting that they only have 50 members and aren’t growing. I do think that sometimes sectarianism can keep us from considering other options besides just keeping “our doors” open. Our narrow western concept of the local neighborhood church as opposed to the broader kingdom scope (the church in Ephesus or Corinth for example which incorporated all the congregations in the city) may not always be the most healthy.
            I wonder how much more effective we would be if we joined hands and used our collective gifts and resources for the spread of the Gospel.
            It still comes back to individual (even more than congregational) evaluation. What am I doing as disciple of Christ?
            Appreciate your thoughts.

          • Jina Appa

            Really? That’s your advice Adam Puma Borsay? To say what would happen if your church closed its doors? It seems you are a bit out of touch both with your suggestions and with your comments. Maybe you should come to my church and see what it’s really like and then maybe you wouldn’t be so quick to point out “failures” and understand the real and very tangible struggle that small churches are going through. Just sayin’.

          • Adam Puma Borsay

            Jim, I am sorry if you found my comments to be unfair. I was trying to directly respond to Steve Doyle comments about wrestling over the question of if it might be time to close their doors. My point was not that we shouldn’t care, but to be honest when we appraise our situation and realize that if the season for our particular church has passed the work of the Gospel in the lives of your people and in that local community will not be hampered.

            I am a pastor of a rural congregation that on a good sunday sees about 70-80 people. During planting or harvesting seasons we see a good deal less than that. Financially we are sound(and give nearly 20% of our annual budget to world missions), evangelistically we are committed. But, if we were bankrupt and our people refused to participate in the work of the Gospel, there might be a good case to evaluate whether or not we should continue on.

            The closest community(7 miles away) has about 500 people living in it. Even if we did everything “right” we would never be a large, or even, a medium sized, church.

            I have known many churches (and this is not a size issue) that have long ago become nothing but a “country club”. They have people who show up, but they exist simply to exist. When this occurs, and there is no conviction and desire to actively participate in work of the Gospel I would pray for those people to have to go to a new environment that won’t allow for complacency in their discipleship and evangelism.

            In summation, my ultimate point, which I hope has been clear; Size of the church is inconsequential if the non-negotiables of scriptures teaching on Church function are active and powerful. And, conversely, no matter the size, if there is no evidence of a spirit led church within a particular local bodies building, then perhaps it is time to move on.

          • Jina Appa

            Again you have missed the essence of what I was saying. We’re a church that loves the Lord and we serve with passion. What I was looking for were helpful real world tangible advice and not someone saying to take a “honest” look at whether our church needs to close or not. To me that’s not a option when I still have the faithful coming every Sunday. Anyway take care and be blessed.

          • Guest

            I have been fascinated by the spirit behind your responses in most of the postings in this site. I must say for a person that has everything figured out you are doing quite well. No wonder you say you are struggling in ministry. I certainly wouldn’t want to be a member of a know-it all pastor or whatever you may want to call it. You don’t have room for fresh food, because you are holding on the stale, old…
            Why do you feel in necessary to Lord your opinion/advises over others? If you don’t agree with what others are contributing, after workable alternatives instead if being negative.

          • Jina Appa

            From how you talk to me, you are clearly not a regenerated Christian. I would love to see where I say I know it all. Please show me. On the otherhand, you definitely sound like a know it all. And your reply tells me a lot about you. Unless you have actual helpful advice which you probably don’t, then mind your own business and stop putting people down. Now, I would love to hear your response.

      • Jina Appa

        No, you missed my point when I was talking about saturation. And no we can’t do events because that takes planning and again, manpower. VBS and family carnivals/fairs takes dozens of people to do it right. That’s more than the total number of members in our church. Again, I don’t think you understand how it’s not as easy as you seem to say it is. Evangelism, evangelism, evangelism is easy for you to say but difficult when we’re struggling even to keep the church building afloat.

        • Adam Puma Borsay

          Jim, In no way am I trying to be snarky. But your goal isn’t to keep a church building afloat. The gospel(outwardly practiced through evangelism) is the purpose of the Church. If you only have 5 people at your church there is no conceivable reason you can’t be sharing the Gospel actively and consistently with your community. It takes zero resources to say, “Saturday we all meet at 10 am and we are going to go out into the neighborhood and share the Gospel”. If you can’t get your people to commit to that your problems are a lot more significant than attendance numbers and financial pressures.

          Lives are changed when the Gospel is preached. And not just the lives of those who are hearing it! If you had only 5 people who committed to learning in the word of God together and sharing the Gospel with their neighbors all the time, you would have an amazing and encouraging Church that those 5 people would be radically passionate about.

          We are made and called to something much greater than what we often settle for. I can’t expect people outside of my church, let alone, inside, to want to be a part of what we are doing if their perception of who we are is existing to exist.

          • Jina Appa

            At no point did I say evangelism wasn’t important. We reach out with the Gospel as much as we can. But your comments seemed both aloof and out of touch with our present day reality and frankly yes I am offended. I choose not to continue discussing this with you unless you have some valid and helpful suggestions. Thank you for responding though.

    • Shawn Hall

      Just use what resources you do have to the Glory of God. What CAN your ministry do for the kingdom? What CAN your ministry do in your community to make a difference…to make disciples for Christ? Even if you only reach 1 person, Heaven is still rejoicing!!!

      • Jina Appa

        We’re trying, Shawn. Thank you though for your encouraging response. (Oh…and by the way, I am “guest”. Just decided to get an actual discus account).

        • Shawn Hall

          I will keep your ministry in my prayers and thoughts. I believe, in the name of Jesus, He will reveal His Glory through your ministry. He will do exceedingly, abundantly above all you may ask or think…God bless!!!

    • jpennington

      This may be seem like a weird question but here goes anyway:

      What is the population of the county (I am not sure where this church is I am making an assumption it is in the US…) or city in which you are located?

  • Pastor Mickey

    Our small church in a pre-Civil War building dwindled in attendance to around 12. We were ready to give up. As pastor, I asked a pastor in a large church, 11 miles away, to loan me 20 families for 2 years…a new church strategy.
    No one in his church was interested, he said; but they had a Bluegrass Band that wanted to play in worship.
    With about 3 months planning, we started a new Sat night service …once a month.
    For over 2 years, that service has averaged over 130 per servive. Many come from the big church…they like the small town atmosphere. They love the music.
    Although it hasnt affected Sun am much, it has made us more visible in the whole county. We have increased our outreach giving over 120 percent. We have accessibility ramps on both our church and our annex, so our older members can get into the church. We’ve been able to do some needed repairs on our buildings.
    Best of all, we’ve baptised 4 new Christian in the last 2 months…the first in many years.
    We’ve recently added a Sabbath Jazz service on a different Sat night… which averages 50 people after 6 months…with the help of the oyher church.
    Both churches have a new spirit of hope…

  • Chad Martens

    I think the comments thusfar illustrate clearly the cause of the problem of lack of growth: bad attitudes, and unqualified leadership.

    • Shawn Shonk

      truth Chad… The reality is Jesus didn’t need a marketing strategy. In fact He couldn’t be alone even when He tried. People still are attracted to Jesus. Like John the Baptist, we must keep saying You must increase and I must Decrease. More of Jesus will equal more attenders. Some of the unfortunate comments here suggest leaders are making it about them and their egos. Or as you put it bad attitudes and unqualified leadership.