Talk to any church leader, and they’ll tell you it feels more challenging than ever to get people to come to church on a Sunday.
Even in growing churches (like ours), the competition for peoples’ time, attention and devotion seems to get more intense every year.
You’ve felt it too.
So what’s up? And where is future church attendance heading?
I’m a firm believer in the future of the church and the gathered church. It’s here to stay not because we always get it right, but because the church is Jesus’ idea, not ours.
Still, with everything in the culture changing, how do you navigate toward a better future?
One step is to start asking solid questions.
Why? Because usually the future isn’t pioneered by the clarity of the answers nearly as much as it by the quality of the questions.
Ask the right questions, and you’ll eventually get the right answers. Fail to ask the questions, and you’re sunk.
Here are ten questions I’m asking right now and I’ve seen other leaders ask. I think they can help frame your discussion and move you toward better answers and a strategy to match.
I’ve also included my hunch when it comes to an answer to the questions, not because I’m certain it’s right, but because answering the question moves you toward a more strategic and proactive future.
So, with that in mind, here are 10 really big questions about future church attendance.
1. WILL INFREQUENT CHURCH ATTENDANCE BECOME THE UNIVERSAL DEFAULT?
If you grew up in church, you were likely raised never to miss a Sunday. Well, those days are pretty much gone.
Frequent church attendance (say 2-3 weeks a month) seems to be most prevalent among
- Long time (and older) church attendees
- Families with very young children
- Some new attendees and new Christians (at least for a season)
- Quite honestly, lower-income families for whom travel is not an option
For everyone else, regular church attendance is giving way to non-engagement or online attendance.
As infrequent in-person attendance becomes more normative, it raises a series of other questions.
Infrequent church attendance is usually a sign that people don’t see value in what you’re doing. And that’s a problem.
When parents who never ever miss their kids’ soccer practice regularly miss church, it’s a sign that they’re more engaged in soccer than they are in church. In other words, they just don’t see the value in attendance.
2. DOES INFREQUENT ATTENDANCE LEAD TO LOWER DEVOTION AMONG CHRISTIANS?
Some might argue frequent church attendance is not an indicator of devotion to Christ. But the bigger question is Is infrequent church attendance a sign of lower devotion to Christ?
Obviously, there is nothing that inherently says that’s the case, but generally speaking, people are less committed to things they attend less often.
Naturally, the goal of faith is to get people to commit to Jesus, not to a local church, but still, Christ and his church are intricately connected.
But consider this: showing up at the gym once a month rather than 3 times a week usually communicates something. Skipping a weekly date with someone you’re supposed to be in love with is usually a sign of something deeper.
People usually commit to things they’re devoted to. Until they’re no longer devoted to them.
Infrequent attendance is almost always a sign of lower devotion. We participate in the things we value most.
3. WILL ONLINE CHURCH REPLACE IN-PERSON ATTENDANCE FOR MANY?
So if people aren’t attending church as regularly anymore, then what’s the new normal?
In addition to simply staying away, many are substituting online options for in-person attendance. The launch of Churchome’s Global App is one more step in that direction.
The last decade has seen an explosion of online options for Christians, most of which are free: from social media to podcasts and to services streamed both live and on demand.
The opportunities are endless and will only grow from here.
Even if your church doesn’t have any online presence, don’t worry—thousands of other ministries do. There’s no way to shield your congregation from a changing world.
And actually, come to think of it, there’s shouldn’t be. The church has always adapted to a changing world because Jesus loves the world.
While I think that (at least at this point) increased in-person engagement almost always leads to higher devotion, for some people online will be their only form of church. I don’t love this, for reasons stated elsewhere in this post, but if you ignore your online strategy, you lose the chance to reach new people, even if it means some of your less-devoted people step back.
4. DOES ONLINE PARTICIPATION FEED CONSUMPTION OR DRIVE ENGAGEMENT?
One of the key goals for Christians is to engage the mission in front of us: to share the love and salvation of Christ with the world.
But does online participation drive Christians into deeper engagement with that mission or does it drive us deeper into consumerism?
The challenge with technology, of course, is that we are both its parent and its child. We shaped it, but we’re unclear on how it’s shaping us.
So, given the rise of digital options, are Christians increasingly seeing their faith as something to be consumed?
The Gospel by nature demands sacrifice, engagement, and risk.
Christianity at its best has never been about consuming much and contributing little. We shouldn’t start now.
In many respects, online consumption builds the kingdom of me. We’re called to build the Kingdom of God.
When you design your online strategy, you can shape it to fuel consumption or to fuel engagement. While many churches will shape it to fuel consumption, the more effective churches will shape it to fuel engagement.
5. WHAT HAPPENS TO EVANGELISM IN A LOW ATTENDANCE WORLD?
Of all the things that concern me most about lower attendance patterns, this one is the highest on my list.
If you’re consuming your faith online and only attending sporadically, how do you invite your friends into that? That’s right, you don’t.
Sharing a pin on Instagram is not the same as personally sharing your life with a friend.
Sure, theoretically, you can share your faith around a kitchen table. But let’s be honest, not many people actually do that. And something tells me that most people who attend infrequently rarely share their faith.
Christians should live like the good news is good, not just for them, but for everyone.
Many Christians will continue to see their faith as something to be enjoyed, not shared. But they won’t be the future church.
The future church will be followers of Jesus who unite around a mission to change the world through the love and hope of Christ.
6. WHAT HAPPENS TO DISCIPLESHIP IN A VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENT?
Christian maturity is not marked by how much you know, it’s marked by how much you love.
And love has an outward thrust.
Sure, to grow as a disciple you need to consume. So listen to messages and podcasts, take online seminary classes… do what you need to do.
But consumption has never been the goal of true discipleship. Jesus never asked you to be a disciple; he called you to make disciples.
If your mantra in avoiding other Christians on Sunday and consuming what you feel like on Monday is to build yourself up, you’ve lost the mission.
The future church will be filled with Christians who realize they’re called to make disciples, not just be disciples.
7. HOW MUCH OF A VIRTUAL EXPERIENCE ACTUALLY TRANSLATES?
With more and more congregations streaming their services, it raises the question of what happens on the other end?
First, I suspect the attention span of viewers and listeners is fractured and intermittent. Watching while running on the treadmill is not the same experience as being in the room live when something is taking place. Listening while cooking dinner and while the kids are running up and down the hall is not the same as being seated and attentive for a sermon. Sure, people have been distracted in church for centuries, but it’s a different kind of distraction.
Second, even if you sit in rapt attention to what’s being streamed on your device, is it the same as being in the room? If you only watched online for a year or attended for a year, would your faith be different?
Because so online content consumption is often done while people multi-task, it will lead to a distracted discipleship if that’s the only form of church people experience.
8. IS A DIGITAL RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRISTIANITY ENOUGH?
As physical attendance continues to decline and digital engagement increases, will it be possible to have 100% or near 100% digital relationship with Christianity, much the way you have a completely virtual relationship with gaming, movies or Hollywood?
I really think something gets lost by a mainly digital experience.
A high percentage of couples today meet online. But no couple who meets online wants to stay online: the goal is to meet in person and (maybe) start a life together. Should Christians be different?
If the goal is to do life together, to engage in a mission together, to quite literally change the world together, well… that involves actual human relationships.
But in a world where more and more are choosing virtual connection over real, we’ll have to see what that produces.
9. WHAT HAPPENS TO KIDS WHOSE PARENTS ONLY ATTEND ONLINE?
This one bothers me more than most. Parents will often skip out on attending church because they’re busy or want a day off.
And parents can easily catch up on a message and maybe even still get to a small group.
But what about kids?
I think the Gospel is inherently relational.
You can’t download a relationship or a friendship.
When parents skip church, kids lose far more than the parents.
What happens to a generation of kids who grow up relationally disconnected? Actually, I think we’re seeing the results of that already. Just read the news.
10. WILL FRAGMENTED INDIVIDUAL BELIEVERS CARRY THE MISSION FORWARD?
Whether the future trends are toward more online engagement or just more sporadic attendance with no online supplementation, the question is whether fragmented individual believers will carry the mission forward?
The church has always been strongest when it’s been a movement of people gathered around a common set of mission, vision, values and strategy.
The hyper-individualism of our current culture (I’ll do what I want when I want to) runs at crossed-purposes to the Gospel and the mission of the church.
I realize many Christians argue they’re done with church, but that still doesn’t change my view that the only one who believes Christians are better off alone is the enemy.
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