Carey Nieuwhof, author, leadership coach, and founding pastor of Connexus Church, poses 10 provocative questions on the topic of future church attendance.
The catch? He doesn’t really provide us with any answers. 😊
But it seems he didn’t create the 10 questions to provide answers… his goal may have been for us to consider his “10 Questions About Future Church Attendance No One Really Knows How To Answer.” and find our own answers… or at least start trying to.
As Carey puts it, “Ask the right questions, and you’ll eventually get the right answers. Fail to ask the questions, and you’re sunk.”
So we’re going to share each question and Carey’s insights on each, then provide our 2 cents on the topic from a purely digital marketing perspective.
So here we go with our first installment of “ChurchPush Reacts.”
Q1. 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 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
As infrequent attendance becomes more normative, it raises a series of other questions.”
CP REACTS: Research we’ve seen shows the average person attends church about once every 5-6 weeks… that’s about 10 times per year. As Carey mentions, this is becoming “more normative.” But research also shows online church attendance is on the rise. Like movies, news, jobs, and school, shouldn’t we expect worship to transition to online as well? We won’t debate what this means for the church, religion in general, or if it’s bad or good… but basically everything else has made this shift. Why would we expect worship and church attendance to be different? If that’s the case, digital marketing becomes even more important as churches try to target, convert, engage, and retain their congregants online.
Q2. Does infrequent attendance lead to lower devotion among Christians?
“Some might argue frequent church attendance is not an indicator of devotion to Christ but 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.
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.
Naturally, the goal of faith is to get people to commit to Jesus, not to a local church, but still, as I outline here, Christ and his church are intricately connected.”
ChurchPush Reacts: This is a bit outside the ChurchPush purview, but it’s incumbent upon churches to engage people online, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic (yes, we’re as sick of talking about it as you are) because online is where people are. We don’t need to be inside a church to pray, study the bible, witness to others others, etc. However, attending church in person does help keep our faith and “our walk” top-of-mind and provide a sense of community. So churches need to start reaching out more through digital means… websites, live streams, chatbots, email, groups, and online education. Churches need to go where the people are and communicate in a way people prefer… not stand by and hope people come to them. This can be a powerful factor in helping people keep devotion high. What will happen if we don’t?
Q3. 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 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 shouldn’t be. The church has always adapted to a changing world because Jesus loves the world.”
ChurchPush Reacts: Question #3 from Carey is really why ChurchPush was founded. Churches need to adapt to this. Phil Bowdle calls it the “That’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality. You can debate whether it’s good or bad, but facts and figures about church attendance and online worship don’t lie. If you want to introduce people to God, Jesus, to the gospel, to teach them the most important story ever, to change their lives… then just do it. Is it more challenging? Definitely! So we rise to the challenge! It doesn’t have to be inside a church… online worship is a legitimate option.
Q4. 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.
ChurchPush Reacts: This is interesting. The word “consumerism” leaps off the page. It’s understandable… nobody wants going to church to become a generic, emotionless experience like going to a Starbucks or McDonalds. But let’s face it… most of us as consumers appreciate nice branding, a comfortable environment, and convenient amenities. And like a Starbucks or McDonalds, most churches have taken to providing these niceties. Churches look for efficiencies in systems to ensure a smooth service, just as any other business would. They understandably want people to have a fantastic experience while in church. But is it the church’s mission to “reverse” consumerism? Or is it the church’s job to make darn sure they’re reaching people with the greatest thing they could ever consume… the gospel and a relationship with Christ? In person or online? It’s the follow up that’s important. How is your church engaging people after the service? What can we do to help people further their relationship with God the 167 hours each week they’re not attending (online or in person)? How can we continue to build a community of Christians and community as a whole after services?
Q5. 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 link on Facebook 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.”
ChurchPush Reacts: It may be a stretch to attribute lack of faith-sharing to “online” church attendance. And as marketing professionals we may not even be qualified to address it this problem… but here goes. A lack of evangelizing is worthy of great concern. If we aren’t evangelizing then what are we doing other than keeping the greatest gift to ourselves? But Carey may be looking at the wrong end of the problem. Here are a couple things to consider: 1) Christians love talking about their faith, providing testimony, and special experiences with other Christians. It’s safe! 2) It has become socially unacceptable to share these same things outside our safe little circles of other Christians and our most trusted friends. (Herein lies the true problem.) So how can we, as church communicators, equip people to evangelize… generally speaking? What’s the proper approach for creating new disciples? How can we address the fears and general sense of worry some people may have about being open? How do we do more inside our homes. How can kids approach their friends safely? Or do we just find the strength to take what comes our way, good or bad, if we openly profess our faith because it’s the right thing to do… Jesus did it for us, right? Sharing a link on Facebook isn’t much, Carey is right. But it’s a start. One thing for sure… most people who feel they have nothing to gain won’t take action. But someone who is hurting or curious will take action. So someone who needs to hear that message will see that Facebook post. That’s the way God works, right? It may spark a conversation with someone. Or spur someone to look further into your church or ministry. How can we equip people to evangelize and create disciples using digital?
Q6. 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.
ChurchPush Reacts: This is similar to question #5. But again, avoiding other Christians may not be the root of the problem. Avoiding the topic around non-Christians, or the “unchurched” appears to be a huge problem. We live in an age of fear… fear of being cancelled, fired, or worse. And when it comes right down to it, how many are willing to risk everything? Your friends, maybe your job? We should, but how many actually would? Again, this is a societal problem, and although we at ChurchPush feel digital marketing improves a lot of things and helps in a lot of ways, there are powerful, negative forces at play that require bigger action than just a great website and an email campaign.
Q7. 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 experience be different?
I think to some extent it would. First, you’d have little human interaction (except maybe in a chat room). But beyond that, I think there’s something of the total experience of being together with others in the presence of God that gets lost.
But it’s too early to tell.
ChurchPush Reacts: Unless the Internet somehow goes away, to think we can reverse the trends we’ve seen since the Internet first came into our homes is unrealistic. For years the newspapers ignored the shift, and by the time they started taking the shift seriously, it was too late. Blockbuster Video, Borders, and Yellow Cab all ignored this shift too until Netflix, Amazon, and Uber came around. But by they time they started taking the shift seriously, it was too late. Early adoption isn’t an admission of church failure… it’s recognition of a change. As Carey says, “The church has always adapted to a changing world because Jesus loves the world.” This is just another adaptation to be made. A massive change in thinking is required by church leadership. If we’re truly addressing online consumption of church services, then we need to start structuring church in a way people can consume it… at a time of their choosing. We need to get rid of the old way of thinking. Thinking like “I need your full attention right now for 1 hour. Don’t do anything else because I’m talking to you.” Yes, attention is important, and the message is paramount. But we need to become flexible and help people consume, rather than trying to force our will onto them when it just may not work for them. Again, this is where digital marketing can play a massive role in getting people to engage. Never before have we had the tools and knowledge that help us do this.
Q8. 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?
Perhaps. But I think something gets lost.
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.
ChurchPush Reacts: It’s definitely too early to tell… but let’s face facts… unless the Internet somehow goes away, and people decide convenience and free will are no longer nice things to have, to think we can reverse the trends we’ve seen since the Internet first came into our homes is unrealistic. For years the newspapers ignored the shift, and by the time they started taking the shift seriously, it was too late. Blockbuster Video, Borders, and Yellow Cab all ignored this shift too until Netflix, Amazon, and Uber came around. But by they time they started taking the shift seriously, it was too late. They stuck to the old way of thinking. Early adoption isn’t an admission of church failure… it’s recognition of a change and a willingness to adapt. As Carey says, “The church has always adapted to a changing world because Jesus loves the world.” This is just another adaptation to be made. But you need to get going if you haven’t.
Q9. 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?
We’ve built a relational ministry at our church for all ages based on the Orange strategy and curriculum because, well, I think the Gospel is inherently relational.
You can’t podcast a relationship or stream it (entirely).
When parents skip church, kids lose far more than the parents.
What happens to a generation of kids who grow up disconnected?
ChurchPush Reacts: Most kids have their own devices at this point. Or at least some connected device they can access. Online Sunday school is a possibility if not already reality. And kids can relate to engaging online… it’s how they’ve grown up. It’s better than not engaging them at all.
Q10. 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 (I wrote about that here… the comments will curl your hair), but that still doesn’t change my view that the only one who believes Christians are better off alone is the enemy.
ChurchPush Reacts: Moving forward we see various audiences forming. You have the 100% in person attendees, attendees who split attendance between in-person and online, those who will attend online only, and the never-churchers. It’s better that people attend church online than not at all, if that’s how they prefer to do it. Again, churches need to start engaging people outside their 4 walls. If you can get them there, that’s a start. We can work at getting them outside the house later.
In person church attendance is down… but if online is going up churches need to adapt to this… but it has to be done yesterday. A lost “customer” is really hard to win back… and it’s expensive. Millions of dollars and work hours are spent on win-back campaigns in business. So please hurry to adapt.
Our takeaway from Carey’s 10 questions is this… the real question is what effects will online have on community and the church as an entity, not its effects on the message. If we’re to continue spreading gospel, making disciples, and growing the church, then we all need to start building our digital marketing conversion funnels… like any business.