Declining Church Attendance and Seven Preaching Changes You Must Make
Every week you host services at your church hoping to reach more people, which is admirable and appropriate.
The problem is that the culture is changing and never bothered to ask you permission.
In many ways, preachers are using a method that’s been around for centuries…if not millennia…which on the one hand is wonderful. The challenge is that culture is changing so rapidly, fewer and fewer people are hearing the message every year. At least that’s the case in many, if not most churches.
If you think that the cultural change is over, fasten your seat belts. It’s not showing any sign of decelerating any time soon.
Here are 7 things that are changing right now.
Wise leaders will see the change and respond. As we’ve said before, leaders who see the future can seize the future.
1. PEOPLE AREN’T AUTOMATICALLY COMING TO THE MESSAGE ANYMORE
It’s almost singularly true that throughout human history to date, the only way to get the message was for people to assemble to hear it.
Just think about Jesus’ day: the crowds assembled to hear him. And in every century since then, that’s how it worked.
But technology has changed things so much that our culture doesn’t operate that way any more.
In the past, people brought themselves to the message. Today, you bring the message to people.
Think about how profoundly things have changed in the last decade. Amazon and other online options means you can get anything delivered to you overnight…and you rarely if ever have to leave the house. The shift in how humans (here in the West) behave is profound.
In addition, people are far more mobile. This idea that you’ll be in one community every weekend to visit a set church at a set time is growing increasingly archaic by the day. People just don’t behave that way anymore. (See 7 Disruptive Church Trends That Will Rule 2018 for more on this.)
And whether you think they should behave that way is irrelevant, especially if you want to be effective.
I think it’s very possible to see in-person attendance growth AND online attendance growth (we’re seeing both where I serve at Connexus). The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. But to do that, you have to take both in-person ministry and online outreach seriously.
Preachers, everyone you want to reach is online. So act like it.
Surprisingly, few churches invest anything more than pennies on the dollar on their online presence. And very few preachers take online seriously because they’re not even sure it counts.
In 2018, a preacher asking if online counts is like a taxi driver asking if Uber counts.
2. EASY ANSWERS ARE HISTORY
Decades ago, the local preacher was essentially the source for everything about the scriptures, Christianity and faith. Sure, an avid Christian might read a few books, listen to other talks or attend a conference.
But information was scarce and cost money.
That meant that what a preacher said carried a lot of weight, and people by default accepted it.
Sure, often faith crumbled when a teenager went to college and was exposed to new information, but not every kid went to college.
For too long, preachers got away with easy answers.
Fast forward today, and it could hardly be more different.
Just assume everyone hearing your message, especially non-Christians investigating faith, know as much or more about a subject as you do. And even though they may not, they can easily Google anything you say. And they will.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a ton of misinformation and bad information online. But that doesn’t stop people from researching.
Add to that the reality that we live in an age of strong opinions weakly formed, and the easy assumption that what you say as a preacher will carry to the day is gone.
Which means a little more homework on your part. Not only should you do a little research into the text (which is so important), you should do a little more research into the culture.
The future belongs to preachers who exegete the culture as well as they exegete the text.
It’s the only way you can understand what your audience is thinking.
3. PEOPLE AREN’T STARVED FOR INFORMATION; THEY’RE STARVED FOR MEANING
I realize the first two points come across as a bit bleak, but they lead somewhere great.
The internet provides a sea of information, but a sea in which far too many people are drifting nowhere.
The current shortage in our culture isn’t a shortage of information; it’s a shortage of meaning.
And that’s where no one should do better than preachers of the Gospel.
The challenge is to wade deep into the text and deep into the culture AND come out with meaning that resonates.
In an age that has no scarcity of information but a deep scarcity of meaning, the church is uniquely positioned to answer ‘why’ in a world that is fascinated with ‘what’ and ‘how.’
The church can answer why in world that’s starved for meaning. And the church can answer ‘who’ in a world that’s starving for relationship.
4. YOUR PERSONAL INTEGRITY MAKES OR BREAKS EVERYTHING
No one needs to make a list of names of highly known, loved and formerly respected preachers and church leaders that are no longer in ministry today because they lacked personal integrity. Sadly, far too many names are emblazoned on our minds.
Our culture also now prizes authenticity as a chief cultural value…but only in a strange kind of way. The moral compass of our culture points in a hundred different directions on any given day, and often tolerates blatant contradictions in some leaders while zeroing in on the tiniest little defect in others.
Here’s what it universally means for preachers though: as important as your talk is (see above), your walk is far more important than your talk.
In fact, an inconsistent walk will invalidate your talk, no matter how good your talk is.
In many ways, that should be no surprise and a relief to most preachers.
We have always been held to a high standard of accountability, as we should be.
And when you mess up, admit it. I don’t just mean on the big things, I mean on the little things.
Own your junk. Get help. Apologize as often as you need to. Push others into the spotlight. Admit your weaknesses.
If you don’t, you’ll eventually be humiliated when others spot the truth you’re unwilling to admit.
Humiliation, after all, is involuntary humility. That’s what a public fall is: involuntary humility.
Far better to humble yourself than to have others do it for you.
See a gap between your private walk and your public talk? Decelerate your talk and accelerate your walk.
5. IMITATION WILL KILL YOU
Because integrity and authenticity are so critical in our current culture (and yes, the culture is hypocritical on that…but we never should be), imitating other leaders is a terrible strategy.
Imitating leaders you admire can seem like a wonderful strategy to accelerate your development as a preacher.
But there are two problems. First, anyone who knows you knows that’s not really you.
I watched a young preacher recently trying to preach with just a crazy amount of passion and all I could think the whole time is “Why is this guy trying to imitate Rich Wilkerson?”
It came off as inauthentic, fake and honestly, surreal.
I love Rich. Rich is an amazing preacher with a great church, and having been on a trip with him a few years ago, I can assure you he’s got a unique, God-given personality. But God gave that to Rich, not to the guy who’s trying to imitate him.
Preachers, here’s the question you need to ask yourself: do you want to be a cover band for the rest of your life, or do you want to be a real artist?
Go ahead and play the bar circuit for 40 people a night if you want to be a cover band, but if you want to develop the gift God has given you, be yourself. At least you’ll die with your dignity.
I have tons of things I wish were better and different about my communication style, but at least I’m me.
The best part of being true to who God made you to be? You can roll out of bed for the rest of your life and do it. Work hard. Get better. But be you.
As Craig Groeschel says, people would rather follow a leader who’s always real than a leader who’s always right.
6. THE INTELLECT ALONE ISN’T ENOUGH
When it comes to the style of preaching that’s going to really reach out culture, I’m not sure the intellectual approach is going to fully win the day.
For sure, you need substance, research and a deeper level of thinking than you had before. And if you’re able to carry a discussion far and deep, that’s a great thing.
But speaking to the head alone rarely reaches the heart. So don’t just speak to the head.
7. THE EMOTIONAL ALONE ISN’T ENOUGH
There’s a real resurgence these days in what you might call ’emotional’ preaching…preachers with a lot of passion, fascinating imagery, word-craft and emotion.
In many ways, that’s amazing.
But just like the intellect alone isn’t enough, emotionalism alone isn’t enough.
To reach and keep the next generation is going to take both the head and the heart.
If you only reach the head, it’s easy to walk away when a new idea comes along.
If you only reach the heart, it’s easy to walk away when the feeling dies.
But if you preach to both the head and heart, the head will carry the heart in the tough seasons and the heart will sometimes carry the head.
Preach intelligently and preach emotionally and you’ll reach the whole person. Which is exactly who God redeemed.