It is no secret that people are attending church less frequently than ever before. Even faithful Christian families may only be there a couple weekends each month. The reason for this seems to be the same in every geographic region:
Not competition with other churches but with other activities. Sunday used to be a protected day on our culture’s calendar. Now it is fair play for youth sports, lake days, work, and more.
Naturally, many church leaders are fighting this trend, reminding Christian families of how important it is to be in church on Sunday morning. Though well-intentioned, I’m certain that’s a losing battle. It’s the same response we gave to Wednesday nights and Sunday evenings. Use that approach again here and Sunday mornings don’t stand a chance.
Are We Even Fighting With the Right Focus?
The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of a time when Jesus did something extremely offensive on the Sabbath: he healed a man’s hand. Just before he does, the Pharisees challenge his right to do something so — terrible? — on a day set aside for religious practices.
Jesus had this to say:
“If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course you would. And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matt. 12:11-12, NLT)
Here, religious leaders are caught up in rule, tradition, and expectations. It’s the Sabbath. Ignore the people and needs around you. Just make sure you’re at the synagogue.
Jesus offers a different approach. Be engaged with the community in which you live. Recognize and meet needs whenever you can.
Is it possible that in our efforts to get people to show up on Sundays, we’ve held them back from connecting with others far from God? Maybe we’ve left a few sheep in the well trying to keep “the 99” penned up in our auditoriums.
This Pastor Stopped Fighting. Now His Church Is Winning.
Recently, we interviewed a pastor whose church has also experienced less frequent attendance from its members. I found his response both surprising and refreshing:
“We keep pushing our people to use a Sunday when they won’t be at church to build relationships in their community. We challenge them to relate and connect with God’s purposes in mind, wherever they are.” (Bryan Collier, The Orchard – Watch Tony & Bryan’s conversation here)
Did you catch that?
There’s no, “We’re trying to teach people that being in church every week matters.”
No talk of, “He gave His life for you, give one day to Him.”
He’s not even hitting them with Hebrews 10:25! (“Do not forsake the gathering of believers…”)
No. He’s wisely stepping back, seeing a grander picture, and saying something along the lines of, “Yes. The law permits you to do good on the Sabbath.”
The best part of Bryan’s approach is that it is actually making a difference. People are still attending The Orchard less often. But they are also bringing more people with them when they come. Because of that, it is one of the fastest-growing UMC churches in the country.
Are you trying to grow a church service or reach a community?
It’s impossible to reach a community when you’re not engaged with it. If you’re ready to embrace impact over attendance, these four steps can help:
Understand the Social Centers Around You
Engaging a community begins with recognizing where life happens within it. Which activities are the unchurched families around you involved in? What are they doing on Sunday mornings? Is it reasonable to think someone could develop influence with their friends and attend your church every Sunday? I’m sure it is for some but certainly not all. Once you recognize that, your perspective has to adjust.
Emphasize Church Engagement Over Church Attendance
If someone only had a few hours a month to participate in your church, would you tell them to spend it all on weekend services? I imagine you’d point them toward a more balanced approach including biblical community and serving. Yet in all our focus on Sunday attendance, is it possible we’ve over-emphasized one aspect of discipleship?
Consider the example of Epikos Church in Milwaukee, WI. The team there began looking more closely at small group participation than weekend attendance. They feel it is a better reflection of how many people are actually engaged with their church. I appreciate their focus on engagement over attendance in a culture that makes it nearly impossible to attend 52 weekends a year.
Encourage People to Live On Mission Wherever They Are
We often encourage attendees to be a part of the mission by volunteering on Sunday mornings. While that is certainly one important component, it can also give the impression that serving on Sunday is the mission of the church. If you want to make an impact outside your four walls, teach your people that the mission is more in the going than the gathering. Help them fully utilize the influence they have in their neighborhoods, offices, and even the ball fields on Sunday morning.
Teach the Heart of the Sabbath Over the Law of the Sabbath
“The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NLT) Everyone in your church still needs dedicated time to rest physically and reconnect with God. I’m not suggesting we discourage people from prioritizing this. But we may need to teach them to take greater responsibility for their spiritual growth in a world that makes weekly church attendance so difficult.
I Wish We Did. But We Don’t.
I’ll be honest, I wish we lived in a culture that still held Sundays as sacred. At the same time, I desperately do not want to live in a world where Christians seclude themselves on one of the most active days of the week. I think it is very possible to instill the importance of church engagement while still freeing people to invest in those far from God.
After all, “If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out?”
Photo credit: unsplash.com via pexels.com
Read the Other Articles in the “Panic at the Church” Series:
- Panic at the Church: Dealing with Less Frequent Attendance Patterns
- How One Church Leans In to Less Frequent Attendance – Panic at the Church (Part 2)
- Church Attendance Decline? There’s a Problem with Your Product. – Panic at the Church (Part 3)
- Large Church Gatherings Are a Strategy, Not the Mission – Panic at the Church (Part 4)