Four Ways Your Church Can Break Attendance Barriers

Almost anytime I mention numbers related to church life, I anticipate some responses about the value of numbers and congregations. In the 1980s, this type of discussion came primarily from more liberal churches that weren’t growing. Some of these leaders felt that declining membership and attendance was likely a sign of health. The members who really cared about the church were the ones who remained. They could make the biggest difference without the more nominal members remaining as obstacles.

Today, it is not unusual for me to hear from more conservative church leaders that declining church numbers may be a good sign because it is an indication that the numbers reflect true regenerate members. But, for the purpose of this brief article, let’s assume that attendance growth is a positive indicator. Presumably more people are hearing the gospel and being discipled when a church is growing.

It is in that context that I hear almost every week from church leaders whose churches seem stuck at some level of attendance: 100, 200, 500, 800, and so on. I even got a call a year ago from a church where the pastor was concerned that attendance was stuck at 7,000!

After 25 years of consulting and researching local congregations, I have found four common approaches churches take to break attendance barriers regardless of size. There are certainly more than four possibilities, but allow me to evaluate these four more common approaches.

1. Create new groups.

These groups may be home groups, small groups that meet in coffee houses, Sunday school classes, ministry groups, and others. Church leaders are intentional about creating groups on an ongoing basis. They typically have goals for the number of groups they start.

Evaluation: Frankly, I have seen great success with this strategy (and recently wrote about this strategy). I would speculate that as many as eight out of ten churches that strategically create new groups grow to new attendance levels. The mystery to me is why most churches don’t have this strategy.

2. Create new worship services.

A church moves from one service to two, or from two to three, or even more. The move is typically precipitated by one or more services running out of space.

Evaluation: Most of the time the new service does aid the church in breaking attendance barriers. But, keep in mind, the church was most likely growing already until it ran out of space. The new service simply takes the lid off so the church can continue to grow. I would caution a church, however, about moving to an additional worship service if it’s not already in a growth mode. The worship center can seem vacuous if one non-growing group is split into two non-growing groups.

3. Create new venues.

This principle is similar to adding worship services, but the church uses a different facility for the new service. That new facility may actually be a new campus. It may be an ethnic service meeting in the church facilities in a different room than the worship center. It may be a merged church from another location. The possibilities are many.

Evaluation: The results thus far are positive. As a church adds a new venue, there is a natural increase in attendance. The multi-campus form of this new venue is growing in use and popularity with mostly good results. We are still a few years away from being able to measure the mid-term impact of new venues on growth. I would be willing to speculate that the results will be very positive.

4. Have a major event.

The church’s strategy is to have one or more events that will create sufficient excitement for members to invite those who aren’t attending church. That event may be tied to a major holiday such as Easter, Fourth of July, or Christmas. It may be tied to a significant tradition in a church. The plan is to get people to attend who would not regularly attend.

Evaluation: I have studied a few hundred churches that use the big event as their major growth strategy, and the results are not good. Attendance tends to rise for a few weeks on and after the event, but then it settles down to previous patterns. Churches can spend a lot of money on big events, but I hardly ever see a church break an attendance barrier consistently, even with those large amounts of resources dedicated to it.

What successful approaches have you seen to break attendance barriers? What do you think of these approaches I have highlighted? Why do churches not create new groups regularly and strategically when it has proven to be the most effective method for growth and for breaking attendance barriers?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.  Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.  He is a 1977 graduate of the University of Alabama and earned his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to speaking in hundreds of venues over the past 20 years, Rainer led Rainer Group, a church and denominational consulting firm, from 1990 to 2005. The firm provided church health insights to over 500 churches and other organizations over that period. Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons: Sam, Art and Jess, who are married to Erin, Sarah and Rachel respectively.  The Rainers have six grandchildren: Canon, Maggie, Nathaniel, Will (with the Lord), Harper, and Bren. He is the author of twenty-four books, including Breakout Churches, Simple Life, Simple Church, Raising Dad, The Millennials, and Essential Church.  His latest book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, was released in 2014 by B&H Publishing Group.

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COMMENTS

What say you? Leave a comment!

Wes — 07/11/13 10:11 am

Thank you for sharing this wonderful article. It is both interesting and timely for our congregation. We are a congregation that has hovered around the 600 attendance mark for many years. Our worship center was at about 80% capacity (but it had been for a long time). We finally made the decision to split into two services. The problem was, however, that we were not already in the growth mode. We created two non-growing services. We moved back to one service for the summer, because of the travel schedules of so many folks, but now we are wondering how to proceed. Should we create a smaller simulcast service within our existing building instead of going back to a second service? Should we explore off campus venues? We are struggling with these questions right now. In other words, we are butting up against that ceiling, and we are searching for a way through.

Recent Comments
What happens when u dont have a meeting place any more. And u was forced out because the buliding wasnt available any more.
 
— Debra
 
If someone wants entertainment they're going to the wrong place. Church is not a place for entertainment...or in my opinion a barrage of coffee and donuts. Why are churches today bringing the world INTO them? Then there's the thing with children...age appropriate??? These little guys can pick stuff up in service. Besides Jesus said Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Mt. 19:14.
 
— Laurie
 
I love the intentionality here as well as the challenge to look at the data. That's missing so many times. I would like to offer a contrarian's take. Church members and regular attenders have so many ways to get information: Announcements, bulletins, social channels, relationships, and email being among the options. But brand new people are likely going to check out the website and that's it. It might be wiser for churches with limited time and resources to focus their website almost exclusively to guests. This group of people isn't looking for a calendar of events but wants to know about regular programs. They probably aren't interested in watching all of the messages but instead may want to preview one of the services. For the times we need church members to go to websites (sign up for camp, join a group, etc), we're probably better off designing and promoting a specific page rather than cluttering up the homepage.
 
— Michael Lukaszewski (@mlukaszewski)
 

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