Creating Church Services People Want to Attend and Want to Invite Others to Experience with Them
What’s remarkable about weekend services at your church? We work with a lot of churches that are frustrated by declining or plateaued attendance, and we hear lots of ideas and reasons why they think it’s happening. But there’s one BIG factor most don’t seem willing to examine:
Are people not coming because it’s just not compelling?
We’ve been analyzing The Unstuck Group‘s data from the “secret shopper” portion of the Unstuck Process, and it’s pretty clear. There seems to be a direct correlation between the churches that have both a compelling weekend service and strong growth and attendance.
It boggles my mind how churches respond to people’s showing up less frequently. We must be the only entity out there that sees fewer “customers” coming through its doors, and responds by blaming the people who aren’t showing up. We don’t look at ourselves. We don’t try to do anything different to turn it around.
But if we were to try to turn it around…
How could we change how we approach our weekend church services to engage more people?
I’m flipping roles with Amy Anderson for this episode and serving as the interviewer. Amy spent years leading weekend services at Eagle Brook Church in Minnesota during a season when the church grew from hundreds to over 20,000 in attendance.
We’re kicking off this first episode of a new series on creating compelling weekend services with some conversation around:
- The “Purple Cow” principle and how it can illuminate the value of investing time and energy into creating compelling weekend services
- Consumerism and spectatorship vs. experiences that compel people to respond
- How to give regular weekend experiences a wow factor + why it’s a good idea to surprise people every 6 weeks or so
- Practical strategies (and real examples) for choosing excellence in the message, the music, and announcements
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Planning for Remarkable Worship Services | Episode 135
- Blind Spots on the Weekend | Episode 136
- Purple Cow by Seth Godin
- Get a Secret Shopper for Your Weekend Experience –
part of The Unstuck Process
- Sermon Series Planning — Episode 105
- Holiday Planning Guide
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Sean (00:00): Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Through the Unstuck Groups on-site health assessments of hundreds of churches across North America. We’re learning there is a relationship between growing attendance and the quality of weekend services. The correlation we see exists between an increasing percentage of growth with higher scores on our new guest assessment. If your church isn’t experiencing the level of growth you’d like, your weekend services are likely part of the reason why. Today on the podcast, Tony and Amy begin a new series exploring how to create more compelling weekend services. Before you listen, make sure you have the show notes. You can get them every week in one email along with our leader conversation guide, all of our weekly resources and access to our podcast resource archive. Go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Also stay tuned at the end of our episode for access to a free resource to help you prepare your weekend services for the upcoming Easter season. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.
Amy (01:07): Well, Tony, this week we begin a new podcast series focused on helping churches create compelling weekend services that people actually want to attend and invite others to. And as you know, we work with a lot of churches that are frustrated by declining or plateaued attendance. And we hear a lot of ideas or reasons from them as to why that is. And while it’s true that it might be kids’ sports or yard work or just plain busy-ness each week, how much do you really think that a less-than-compelling service plays into declining attendance?
Tony (01:38): Yes, it does. There’s no doubt about it, Amy. In fact, we were as a team just looking at some data from some of our secret shopper experiences that we’ve done with churches over the years. And there does seem to be a direct correlation between the churches that have both a compelling weekend service and they’re seeing growth and attendance and those that have a less-than-compelling weekend experience, and as a result of that are either plateaued or decline. But more than that, I mean that’s the topic of today’s conversation is how can we create more compelling weekend services? But it boggles my mind. We must be the only entity out there where there are fewer customers, if you will, showing up. And we blame culture, we don’t look at ourselves and we’re not trying to do anything to turn it around. Every other business, if they were seeing fewer customers coming through their doors, would figure out how do we shift? How do we change to engage more people? And so that’s one of the reasons why I’m looking forward to not only today’s conversation but this series that we’re going to be engaging over the next several weeks. But Amy, I thought today would be a great day to flip roles for me to ask you questions. You spent years leading weekend services at Eagle Brook Church, where your church grew from hundreds to over 20,000 in attendance. So I think it’s safe to say you created some pretty compelling services along the way. And I’ve heard you share before about the purple cow principle. The purple cow principle — I’m trying to even picture it in my brain now in relation to weekend services in your church. So what is the purple cow principle exactly?
Amy (03:28): Well, Seth Goden, you know, marketing guy out in culture, man, it was probably 10-15 years ago now, wrote a book called The Purple Cow, and he opened it. He said, “When my family and I were traveling through France a few years ago, we were in chanted by the hundreds of storybook cows grazing on the picturesque pastures right next to the highway.” He said, “For dozens of kilometers we all gazed out the window, marveling at how beautiful everything was. But then within about 20 minutes, we started ignoring the cows. The new cows were just like the old cows. And what was once amazing was now common. Worse than common, it was boring. Cows after you’ve seen them for awhile are boring. They may be perfect cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful lights, but they’re still boring. A purple cow. Now, that would be interesting for awhile.” And so when I read that, you know, the essence of the purple cow is to avoid becoming invisible, right? And what you offer must be remarkable because, as Seth also said, “Something remarkable is worth talking about, it’s worth noticing. It’s interesting. It’s a purple cow. Boring stuff is invisible. It’s a Brown cow.” And then he goes on to say that we’ve created a world where most products are invisible. So when I read that, I couldn’t help but think about the church. You know, how do we keep our churches from being or becoming brown cows? How do we keep our churches from being invisible? How do we keep our services from becoming predictable, uninteresting or boring? And Seth also said something like in almost every market, the boring slots are filled. And I think in the church world, our boring slots are filled.
Tony (05:06): Yes. And some of those secret shopper experiences will confirm that. Yes, no doubt about it. But I’m going to play devil’s advocate here for a minute and ask you the question that I can imagine some may be thinking. Doesn’t a strategy to create remarkable experiences that people find worth talking about really just lead to a consumeristic church then? Isn’t that the opposite of what we really want?
Amy (05:32): You know, I used to hear that about the music in our church, like it’s too good. It’s too polished. Are we just putting on a show here? And I used to think, well, do you want bad music? Do you want a sloppy experience? I mean, of course not because when we’re bad or sloppy, I usually find people just tend to spectate even more. They don’t engage. In fact, I used to coach my artists that the goal in everything we did in the music end was ultimately to point people God. And it’s really hard to do that when slides are lagging, bad notes are played, people are heads down in their music stands and completely disconnected from what they’re supposed to be communicating through the music. So I’d answer your question that same perspective. The purple cow concept is a challenge to the church to create something remarkable. I mean, Jesus, he was pretty remarkable. His teaching was pretty remarkable. And I think people, all people, want to experience that. So yeah, I mean, it does feed a bit of a consumeristic church, but not because we’re striving for a remarkable experience, but because regular attenders and our guests are by nature consumers. We all are. And wouldn’t we rather have them take in an hour on Sunday to consume a great church experience where they can experience God in worship and through great teaching, you know, rather than consume the next Netflix release? So, I mean, of course we want them to do something as a result of what they’ve experienced, but I believe a remarkable experience would compel them to respond. Not a boring, invisible one.
Tony (06:59): Okay, so what should I do then as a church leader if I want to begin to make my services more remarkable and less predictable? How do we really create those “purple cow” weekend experiences?
Amy (07:12): Great question. Let me first say that I think about that question in two ways. First, I think we have to answer, how do we make our regular weekend experience a purple cow? In other words, how do we ensure that every weekend is remarkable? And that’s how I describe my church when I led there. If you are new to our church, it was definitely a purple cow experience, but after three years or so, you know, it just didn’t feel that way anymore. I think once that bar was set, then we needed to put energy towards the new remarkable. And that’s the second way I answer this question. If you already feel like you have a compelling service, utilize the purple cow methodology to surprise people every six to eight weeks with something above and beyond. But here are three principles every church can apply to make their services more compelling and less predictable. And the first is choose excellence. And I know that can be a tired word from many years ago, but the point is still relevant. Whatever you do, do it well. The weekend service is still the front door to our churches. That’s where people outside the faith and outside the church come to give God a try. And this is why I think excellence is critical. Number one, we just talked about. People are hard to get to church. They’ve got limited time. They don’t tolerate things that feel irrelevant or out of touch. And they certainly won’t invite people to anything that has a cringe factor, right? And new people, they typically give you one chance. And as I mentioned, our competition isn’t other churches. It’s the culture. It’s the baseball games. It is Netflix. It’s weekend getaways. You know, the list goes on. The culture is now filled with so many choices, and we have to acknowledge people are making choices based on those options.
Tony (08:51): All right, so Amy, you’re encouraging churches to choose excellence, but what are some practical examples of choosing excellence?
Amy (08:58): Well, let me start with the message. If you choose excellence, you do things like this. You dedicate your best time to researching, writing, rehearsing, and delivering your message. You don’t start on Friday, shortcutting yourself and, by the way, all the people who have to support the message with these down to the wire deadlines. You challenge yourself to find stories and illustrations that make the teaching come alive and relate to people. You receive feedback before and after the weekend. Before the weekend so you can get input on anything that’s maybe not connecting, but after the weekend so you’ll learn what worked and didn’t connect as well. And by the way, when senior pastors do this, mine did this so well, when you model feedback as a normal part and a helpful activity, you do that as a leader, it tells something to the culture that we all need to be embracing feedback.
Tony (09:49): Just to pause there, cause you actually live with a guy that does this, too. Your husband is a teaching pastor as well. I mean, just give us a sense of the time investment for a single message that he’s making. Any sense of that?
Amy (10:03): Yeah, I would say he’s putting in at least 20 hours to write his message, and then he’s passing it off to a couple people. I just read his message for this weekend yesterday, and he’s looking for those things that he doesn’t see, and he’s looking for a few other ideas that might come into it. So he’s sharing his message with others, and then we’ll debrief it afterwards as well. Yeah, all right. So that’s a couple for the message. As you can tell, I have a lot of passion, so cut me off if I’m running too much. Choosing excellence in music. All right, so the first one, put the right people on the platform to lead the experience. That’s choosing excellence. You know, there are people, and we all know this, who have the ability, not only the talent, but they’ve got this ability to point people to God when they lead. I describe it often as there are, “there you are people” on the platform and then there’s, “here I am” people on the platform. In other words, some of them, when they’re leading, they’re just going, “there you are, God.” And everyone’s looking there. And then there’s these people who kind of capture the light and are here I am a for a lot of different reasons, but you have to make the hard call about who should be on your platform and who shouldn’t. Another way to choose excellence in music is man, rehearse and plan in a way that the production team can be invisible. Nothing pulls me out of an experience more than slides flipping by, you know, you’re trying to keep up with the song, or the mics not being on when someone’s talking. And lastly, I just say, keep the new person in mind. You know, it’s hard to stand and watch people sing songs you don’t know for 20 minutes. So leave me wanting more. Announcements. Don’t announce me to death. I can read. I can go to the web. I don’t need to know what room something’s in. Just pick the most critical things that need to be communicated and tell me why it’s critical. So those are just a couple of ways that you choose excellence.
Tony (11:47): Yeah. And let me add one here, too, cause this is kind of a pet peeve that I have currently is many times, unfortunately the technology I’m seeing in churches is just not keeping pace with where our culture is. In fact, I would argue in many instances, that technology that individuals have on their phones or in their living rooms is better, more cutting edge, than the technology I’m seeing in churches. So if you’re going to choose excellence, you have to think about the technology as well. But, Amy, choosing excellence is just the first component to making a weekend more compelling and less predictable. What’s the second one?
Amy (12:27): Build time and space, I would say, into your planning process. If our goal is to create purple cow weekends and experiences, we need to make sure we have the capacity and our creative and planning processes to do that. Creativity and remarkable experiences take time, and to make room for both excellence and creativity, we all need to be masters at knowing what we should keep doing and what we should stop doing. You know, years ago, Tony, probably 10 years ago now, I was talking with a worship leader who was trying to improve their churches weekend experiences, and I asked her about her responsibilities, you know, what does your church look like? And she said something like this. She’s like, well, we have 700 people, you know, who come to our church on the weekend. 300 of them attend one of two traditional services, and 400 attend their contemporary one. For the traditional services, I’m serious now, she goes, I lead a bell choir, a small vocal team ensemble, an orchestra, a traditional choir, a praise choir and youth choir. For the contemporary service, she leads three bands who rotated, by the way, on the weekend. And then of course all the vocalists who were on those teams. And she also led the technical volunteers. And of course she led worship every weekend. And I was just like, maybe it’s obvious, but I wondered how anyone can do anything like that well. \.
Tony (13:42): First of all, that woman deserves a raise. My goodness.
Amy (13:48): I just told her, I said, you’ve got to eliminate some stuff because right now all she was doing was managing and herding what I believe is probably a bunch of Brown cows. So now, many of our churches at least are kind of past trying to pull off multiple venues. But this principle still applies. If we want to create something remarkable, we have to have time to think, create and plan. So the primary leaders of the weekend experience need to be given permission to relentlessly prune what they give their time and energy to, so that they can have space to plan and create those amazing messages, worship sets and to find time to tell stories of transformation, because either we choose to spread out all of our resources covering lots of ground with a mediocre result, or we pull that energy to create something remarkable.
Tony (14:37): All right, so Amy, you’ve talked about in this topic of moving from predictable to remarkable, choosing excellence, making sure that we prioritize the time to plan well for what we’re going to do. What’s the third principle for creating more compelling and less predictable services?
Amy (14:54): Well, I think lastly, you just have to create an intentional purple cow plan. You have to have some intentionality. You and I both know how quickly weeks fly by because it’s always Sunday. So you have to have a plan and then work your plan. So, a couple of ways to do that. One set a goal of how frequently you want to go above and beyond and invest in something creative. Again, purple cow moments rarely just happen. We have to look for opportunities to do something different. And so, you know, I often say that those purple cow moments are those services people regret missing. So maybe every six to eight weeks, have a goal for yourself to do something above and beyond. The second way to create an intentional purple cow plan, dedicate some resources to look ahead. These experiences, they take more time and energy than can usually be created, you know, if you start on Monday and land on Saturday timeframe. So someone’s got to look ahead. I used to tell the guy in charge of creativity on my staff that a creative element will consume all the resources you throw at it. So if there’s four people around, it’ll use up four people’s time and energy. If you throw six at it, it’ll eat up six. So my take is if you’ve got an idea, don’t feed the whole thing so that you’ve got some capacity over to have someone looking out and get ahead for future moments. And lastly, I just say create a process. I’m a process person. You know me, and we talked about this when we did a podcast a while ago on just how to put a message series together, meaning annual planning. But in that podcast I talked about have a monthly meeting where you’re looking out for the next three months. First you just want to tighten up what’s happening in the next four weeks to finalize. But then you want to look out at the next two to three, and that’s where you can find some potential dates for a purple cow experience ,and then schedule the date. So we’ll talk about that a little bit more on the podcast next week. But I think the key here is decide how frequently you want to do it, put some resources on it and then have a process to actually make those things come alive.
All right, Amy, thanks for unpacking those principles. But can you share any purple cow examples from your time leading at Eagle Brook?
Amy (17:08): Sure. And I’m sure we borrowed some of these ideas. I think one of my favorite ones was we were doing a series called the elephant in the room, and it was kind of a funny title. There’s an elephant in this room, that room. This one was, there’s an elephant in the living together room, and my husband happened to be teaching that weekend, and we came up with this concept to start the message with a wedding. And so he was up there in his suit and tie, and there was a bride and groom and a bridal party. And you know, he set it up like we’re doing something pretty special here today and started this mock wedding service, which everyone thought was really happening. And then in the service, you know, the guy goes, well actually, we were just going to live together. And he goes, oh, that’s an entirely different service. And then we cut to video, and now it sounds worse than it is, he was in bed with the bride and groom to be, and he performed a living together ceremony, and it was hilarious. But that idea, I mean, that took a lot of time to develop, but that was one that people talked about forever, and it was a great message. When we had a big initiative on trying to get back to our mission of reaching new people, we came up with a concept and again it might’ve been borrowed, but it was called one, one one. And it was the idea to pray for one person at one o’clock for one minute every day. And the series was linked to that. We came up with bracelets that people wore to remind them to pray, and we put some more stories behind it of people who were that one at one time and how they came to Christ. And it led to, I think I told you the story, we saw about 2000 new people come to our church as a result of that initiative. And I’ll just give you one more. In Minnesota, where I live, we were in a financial series. It was February. It was about 20 below just about every day and dark by four o’clock, and our attendance was tanking. And so we just got a group of us together and said, what can we do? And we came up with a super fun concept to create a spring break weekend at our church, and we started to promote it. And then we did a really fun, we were a multisite church by then, we did a really fun like cover song multisite experience, where each of the campuses sang a song, like a pop song, but rewrote the words to talk about the end of winter. And you know, we had fun things in the lobby, and we had beach balls in the service, and in Minnesota, that was a purple cow, man. We needed some hope that this was coming to an end and new life. And so those were three that come to mind.
Tony (19:44): Does it seriously get dark at four o’clock where you live?
Amy (19:47): Oh, it does. Yeah. When you get around December 20th, man, you’re hardly seein’ light.
Tony (19:53): All right, Amy, what are some ways that pastors and leaders can know that their efforts to create a purple cow weekend service are actually working? Are there some ways to measure if your service really is remarkable?
Amy (20:04): There is and it’s really basic. You’re people are inviting other people to church. Your people are attending more frequently. But you measure that by attendance, right? If people are coming more regularly, inviting, your numbers are going to go up. People are committing to follow Jesus. You know, you’re reaching them in a unique way. You’re compelling them towards making a decision for Christ. And then people are taking a step. You’re seeing baptisms, you’re seeing people sign up, like they want to be a part of what you’re doing at the church. Those are all indicators that you’ve got something remarkable happening at your church.
And, then with that in mind, have you been in any services recently that you felt were remarkable?
Amy (20:45): I do have one recent experience. You know, I’m not sure it moved me in any big way, but they did a few things that were really fun and unexpected in the service. And I would just say the punchline is it made me definitely want to come back, and I would bring someone. First, they were starting a new series called Screen Time where they were highlighting how much time we spend on our devices. So they open the service, so the band was out there, and they’re all holding their iPhones, and everyone played their instrument on their iPhone. There were no real instruments. The drummer was playing a drum app, the guitar player was playing a guitar app. And anyway, it took everyone a few seconds to figure out what was going on, and it opened the service, and then the pastor came up and just linked that to isn’t it amazing what these things do? And it was really fun. And then they did something I actually would consider a little risky in the service, but they gave us time to break up into small groups for about two minutes, so it wasn’t too long, to answer one of the questions that the pastor had posed. And again, I was a little terrified at first, but it went really, really well. And the people who shared, afterwards, with you know, their answer to the question, it made that message just like sink into me, and it was really compelling. So I’m glad they took a risk on it.
Tony (22:00): Amy, I always love these conversations when we flip the script, and I get to talk with you and draw on your experience, and actually it’s about this time that you usually ask me, “Tony, do you have any final thoughts on this topic?” So I’m going to do the same thing for you today. Amy, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Amy (22:19): Yeah. You know, years ago I read a book by my friend Nancy Beach, it’s called, An Hour on Sunday, and the gist of the book is all about the potential of that one hour we get each Sunday, and she says, “that hour can simply be 60 minutes for attenders to survive, a time for minds to wander aimlessly and hearts go untouched.” And then she said, “or maybe that hour can be a time of wonder, a time of transformation, perhaps seen as a time of awe.” And you know, Tony, there’s not a lot of awe or wonder in the services I experience right now, and I secret shop all the time. You know, it’s basically music, teaching, repeat. Music, teaching, repeat. And I think if we begin to value creativity again and value creating purple cows, you know, something remarkable. I just encourage the folks listening to take a step, do something to begin the creation of something remarkable. Pick a weekend, pick a message series. I know most of us feel like I don’t have the staff or the resources to do any of this, but don’t let that stop you from doing something. Just keep taking what you have, what God’s given you, and then do something with it. Somewhere you can be more intentional. Somewhere you can be more excellent. Start small, but start somewhere.
Sean (23:34): Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Now is the time to begin planning for the upcoming Easter season, and we’ve created a resource to help you. Go to theunstuckgroup.com/store and download our free starter resource bundle. Inside, you’ll find our new holiday planning guide to help you as you plan for those significant holidays throughout the year. As always, you can learn more about how we’re helping churches get unstuck by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.