Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece by Michael Bell over at internetmonk.com on the subject of church attendance. As you may know, church attendance is declining in a lot of places, and lots of people have strong opinions on why this is happening and what to do about it. Bell critiques the opinion offered by Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, that church attendance is down because people are attending less frequently, and his ideas as to what to do about this.
Bell tees it up like this: Suppose you are the owner of a neighborhood pizzeria. You notice that sales are down, revenue is down, and your business appears to be basically going down the tubes. So you bring in an expensive outside consultant. Your consultant looks at the data from your frequent buyer program (buy 10 pizzas, get 1 free), and determines that the reason your business is down is that people aren’t buying your pizza as frequently. You struggle to see what he is talking about or what it has to do with anything, but he patiently walks you through it: You have 200 customers who are visiting your place once each week, and spending $10 each time they go. Over four weeks, that’s $8,000 in sales. Now, half those customers cut back to only going three out of four weeks. So 100 of your customers are spending $4,000 over four weeks while the other 100 are now only spending $3,000, for a total of $7,000. You haven’t lost any customers, but you’ve lost $1,000 in sales over a four week period.
Your consultant even has some ideas for what to do to address this and get your sales back up. He offers you a detailed five-point plan: (1) Make sure people understand how important it is to eat your pizza. Explain to them about the love and care that goes into making each pie, how fresh the ingredients are, and how delicious and filling your pizza is. (2) Make sure people understand what your frequent buyer program is all about. Make sure they read and agree to all the terms and conditions listed in the 15-page document before they get the first punch on their card. Membership in your frequent buyer program ought to mean something, and you should make sure your customers feel like it does. (3) Get the members of your frequent buyer program more involved in your business. Have flyers on hand and readily available for them to pass out to all their friends and neighbors. Make it as easy as possible for them to invite people to your pizzeria. (4) Extend your hours of operation so that your customers can come when it is convenient for them. (5) Keep track of who is coming, and when. Send them a card if they haven’t come in a while.
But you begin to talk with your customers, and you soon discover that your consultant is just blowing hot air. The economy has hit your customers hard, and many can’t afford to eat out as often as they used to. Some have jobs that require them to travel or commute long distances, and they just can’t come very often. Some are busy caring for ailing relatives. Some like the offerings of other pizzerias which have different toppings and ingredients, or a different atmosphere. And some are concerned about the healthfulness of your pizza. Any recommendations which do not address these real issues are not going to do you a bit of good.
Rainer offers five solutions to the problem of people attending church less frequently:
- Raise the expectations of membership. You may be surprised how many church members don’t really think it’s that important to be an active part of the church. No one has ever told them differently.
- Require an entry class for membership. By doing so, the church makes a statement that membership is meaningful. The class should also be used to state the expectations of what a committed member looks like.
- Encourage ministry involvement. Many members become less frequent attendees because they have no ministry roles in the church. They do not feel like they are an integral part of the church.
- Offer more options for worship times. Our culture is now a 24/7 population. Some members have to work during the times of worship services. If possible, give them options. One businessman recently told me that he changed congregations to a church that offered a Saturday worship time because his job required him to catch a plane on Sunday morning.
- Monitor attendance of each member. This approach is often difficult, especially for worship attendance. That is why the traditional Sunday school approach of calling absentees was so effective. Perhaps churches can incorporate that approach in all groups. Members are less likely to be absent if they know someone misses them.
Yet these solutions fail to speak to the real reasons why many people are cutting back their church attendance: Burnout. People are becoming burned out because their churches are asking so much of them, and yet this guy would have those churches ask even more? People are already deeply involved and committed and that commitment is taking a heavy toll on their lives, and now their churches are asking them to be even more committed? For many people, these solutions are likely to have the opposite effect. Rather than drawing them back into church, these solutions are likely to push them even further away.