Four-Ways-Churches-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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Comments

  1. Don Matthews says

    I cannot agree more about starting new units. New units reach more people. New units grow faster. New units focused on evangelism have a higher rate for reaching the lost. The old principle of starting a new unit will increase attendance buy at least 20-25 within the first year. New units develop new leaders. New units spread the ministry and discipleship base for the church.

  2. Mike Mitchell says

    An event by itself will not grow a church, but it can be used to draw a crowd, and if structures are in place to make connections during and immediately after, events can be useful in kickstarting a growth cycle. The danger is believing the event created the growth when in reality it was the feeling of connectedness and the ongoing value of regular attendance / membership.

  3. Adrian says

    Apologies, but I would cut across these categories and say that it seems to me that the best thing for a local church to do would be to create not new groups but new churches – i.e. plant one or more new, independent local churches, i.e. with their own eldership teams. By all means remain in close association with the planting church, but function as a new independent church which in turn seeks to plant new churches. In the end surely the question to ask is not “how can I increase attendance at my church?” but “how can I help reach more people with the gospel, and disciple more Christians to be more effective witnesses for the Lord IN THEIR OWN COMMUNITIES?” (i.e. NOT travelling miles to attend services at a church building outside of their immediate community).

    I see no good Biblical grounds for simply trying to increase the size of a local congregation unless it is through evangelism within the immediate community. If quite a few people are travelling from a nearby village/town/city to attend a particular church, then send them to plant a new church within their own community, with the intention of that church becoming an independent church as the Lord enables. A side effect of this is that it would be a very good way of avoiding the dangerous temptation for church work to become centred around (and dependent on?) one specific preacher, which I would humbly suggest is bad for both the church and the preacher!

    • Thom Rainer says

      Thanks Adrian, but my blog post was a response to a number of people who asked me how churches break attendance barriers.

  4. Justin Childers says

    Thom, Can you do a post with details on exactly how to start new groups? What steps would you take? What about space limitations on Sunday mornings (no more class space)? What steps would you take to train teachers for these new groups? Would you just invite anyone and everyone to these new classes? Thanks.

      • says

        that is true but the main goals is to understand that,if church members come to worship GOD does mean that to worship short,teach people how can organize and come to worship GOD,be blessed pastor.

  5. Bob Parrott says

    Gentlemen,
    We had a huge national event with 9-11-2001 and everyone saw increases in their church attendance over night, however we the church were not really ready it was the excuse. Then after 3-4 weeks those that came looking for answers slowly disappeared and became once again the Christmas-Easter attenders and we were back down to our regular numbers. If you want to increase your numbers go to where the unchurched are in your community, the coffee shops, bars, and school athletic events with your church attenders and have them develop the relationships that they already have with them and start Matthew parties. Jesus went to the people and he feed them, we have a generation that has never set foot in a church why do we think that they are always coming to us? We need to go to them and get out of our comfort zones and just reach out with a warm handshake, friendly smile, and how are you, can I help you with anything? Expect nothing in return, no strings, no expectations. Matthew parties that have no hidden agendas will lead into carrying relationships, then to small groups, then to church attenders that will reproduce again the same way. This takes time, years maybe, but the problem is we don’t have the patience and want to see growth and giving overnight. Remember the 12 disciples took three years to get it, and we try to do it in a 8 week course or sermon series.

  6. Sara says

    I believe growth stagnates when churches resist change. Change for the sake of change isn’t good, but change for the purpose of meeting needs of a changing church member demographic is needed. What worked for members in their 20s 30 years ago may not work for today’s members in their 20s.

    I believe small groups help grow a church and is the best way to do so. When our church held a church wide home group series on Sunday nights instead of the normal Sunday evening service that sees the same core group of people attend, we saw many more couples in our SS class party attend, many who never came to the Sunday night service. Sadly, they haven’t continued it . Our church also still insists on holding “High Attendance” Sunday. Inviting people to church literally to accomplish meeting a number will only get you results (maybe) for that one Sunday. To see true growth happen, people must see the reason to come back. That requires careful and thoughtful follow up, and a willingness to step out of the “we’ve always done it this way” box and try something that will make new visitors comfortable, not the members who are coming anyway.

  7. Karl says

    Yes Jesus went to them, they came to Him, He fed them, they left Him after He said they needed more than physical food. They always come for free stuff.

  8. Bernie says

    Thanks. The article as well as comments from readers are insightful. But church leaders must remember not to put the main focus on “attendance”, important as it may be. The main focus must be on disciple making.

  9. Brian Smith says

    Thom…great article and it confirms I’m not absolutely insane and our church growth and projected growth based on multiple regression analysis is not completely flawed. As a volunteer, I am the Life group coordinator, strategic communication coordinator and lead project manager for growth and development for a church of about 800 but we’ve seen significant growth in the last 8 months since I returned from Afghanistan and volunteered to take on those tasks. We’ve grown from 3 to 23 Life Groups mostly home groups but a few sports themed groups all with devotion time. The home groups have food and fellowship and the sports groups have…sports and fellowship. We track attendance and do follow ups. We instituted a training program that outlines the basics of how we run life groups but leave the curriculum up to the leader because each group is different. The coaches oversee their groups and help the leaders out when they get stuck and encourage them when things are going well. The obvious question…is it working…we’re looking at groups 24-30 to 35 launching this fall after the summer vacation season ends, more about that soon. To your second point, about a year ago, we implemented a project to make 2 distinct services, one a “more traditional” and one a contemporary. The result was amazing growth especially in the contemporary service, so much so that we are working execution of implementing service three which will be on Saturday nights. Not only to accommodate the exponential growth but also to facilitate the estimated 17% who work on Sunday AM or early PM and thus make it impossible to attend service. Life Groups fill the gap for us not having “Sunday School” on Saturday. Moreover, the flexibility will allow for parents with kids to come and not have to rush to get them up and also allows for more flexibility for other life events. We also believe that the younger demographic that prefer to sleep in on the weekend will be drawn to this. This leads to your third point, strategic marketing events. A large project we are working involves multiple avenues of approach using various forms of media (on a modest budget) to draw attention to multiple events over an 8 week time span that culminates with our yearly block party. However, the focus is to show the community that Christ is about a personal relationship, not about man made draconian based rules that are not in scripture…basically to reorientate the community to Him not some interpretation based on perpitude or platitude and also to work the crowd and give them info on how we are being the church through serving and getting outside the four walls. And it is working and we are seeing salvations, not just young kids…adults…lots of them. This is leading to a larger servant base and thus more ministry opportunities and less burnt out people. Sorry for the long post but wanted to let you know it works. I do caution however, to make it work, it helps to understand the Kotter Model and have someone with strong operations and project planning background.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Brian –

      Wow! You have many things taking place at your church. I read your comment twice just to absorb it all. Thanks for the contribution.

    • Bob Simpson says

      Brian-
      Very interesting. Can you post one or more links to your church’s website(s) and Facebook pages and/or blogs?
      Thank you.

  10. Rose says

    I would like to hear more about spritural growth than numbers…number just don’t tell the whole story

    • Thom Rainer says

      It is a common fallacy to believe that growth in numbers is antithetical to spiritual growth. Check these passages in the book of Acts: 4:4; 5:14; 6:1; 6:7; 9:31; 11:21; 11:26; and 14:1. They all read similar to this verse: “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in number daily” (Acts 16:5).

      • says

        Thom, couldn’t agree more! I well understand the concern for discipleship after decision — this is an area we’ve long struggled with in the SBC — but to focus away from growth is throwing out the baby with the bath. The Great Commission commands growth AND discipleship: turning away from one to focus on the other is a grave mistake.

        Moreover, assuming you are working to disciple newcomers to your church, growth will quicken and deepen that process. It makes all your existing people feel responsibility for the newcomers (assuming you’re teaching that) and fosters a great awareness of Christ’s sacrifice for us, His great grace, our total unworthiness, and our deep gratitude and need for obedience. Or, once again, it will if you’re actively preaching the Gospel, focusing on those things, and simultaneously discipling. The Lord didn’t pair these things without a reason.

        I’m very sorry we failed to connect in Houston. Would love to visit sometime.

        Best,
        Rod

      • says

        Thom,

        Thanks for sharing the scripture references. I also agree with Rod on the “baby and bathwater” comment regarding attendance and church-wide spiritual growth.

        At my church we simply say, “Healthy things grow.” If we’re staying relevant to the needs of our community, we’ll probably see an increase in attendance. If we’re staying on point in disciple-making, we’ll probably see sustained growth in retained numbers for the long-haul.

        Good stuff!

    • Brian Smith says

      Rose, since we started our new focus and growth initiative in conjunction with an 8 month series called “The church has left the building”, we have seen serving grow, fighting disappear, giving soar and participation in evangelism rise. If a church is putting the right emphasis on the spiritual, solid growth initiatives will not just be numbers but effectual growth leading to making disciples.

  11. Lane says

    Thom, 1 question and 1 comment. First, its great to start new classes but what if the class isn’t big enough to split. I pastor a small church (avg. 30 Sun Worship) and our adult SS class only has 3-5 in it. It can’t be split. I started another adult SS class for younger adults (those with kids) but can’t get any to come. If my adult class had even 8-10 I would love to multiply them but how to you get them to grow to begin with. 2nd, my comment is this, we can look at trying to do all kinds of things to grow churches but there is only 2 things I can think of biblically that grows churches: prayer and evangelism/discipleship. If there isn’t evangelism and discipleship then you may grow but its for the wrong reasons. Same if God is not in the mist of it which is why the important need for prayer. Other programs/models may work for certain generations but prayer and evangelism works throughout the life of the church.

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