the shape of leadership

From Attendance to Engagement

Seven ways to help churchgoers become passionate champions of the mission

Carey Nieuwhof on December 12, 2018

In an era of declining church attendance, how do you grow your church and advance your mission? Well, one key is this: You turn ordinary attenders into passionate champions of the mission.

For too long, too many North American Christians have thought that sitting passively in the back row to get fed is what’s required of them, or that the main goal of finding a church is to attend one you “like.”

The goal of any Christian should never be to find a church you like and sit in the back row. The goal should be to fully engage the mission.

The current approach to church during our lifetime has largely been driven by getting people to attend. The idea is this: Get them in the door, and then hopefully at some point they’ll engage in the mission. That’s a bad strategy that’s failing miserably. And it’s a bit unbiblical to boot.

Not convinced? Flip back to the Gospels. Jesus never said, “Attend me.” He said, “Come follow me” (Matthew 4:19). The only reason you would follow Jesus (in Jesus’ day) is because you were either intrigued by who He is and what He did, or because you had come to believe that He is who He said He is. In other words, you were engaged. You didn’t attend Jesus. You followed Him.

A similar dynamic emerged in the first-century Church. Early Christians didn’t attend church. They were the Church.

If you look back at the genesis of the Jesus movement, the idea of attendance as a hallmark would have been completely foreign. You only attended because you were engaged. Period.

Back to our day. Think about it: Engaged people are passionate people. They know what the mission is. They serve in it. They live it out. They’re passionate enough about it to invite their friends.

Over the long-term in a church, you can accomplish more with 300 engaged Christians than with 3,000 disengaged attenders. The disengaged group will dwindle. The 300 engaged Christians will advance the mission and never stay the same. Yes, only God can bring growth. But He uses people who are engaged to do it.

So if you were going to drive engagement at your church, how would you do it? I’d like to propose seven ways.

1. Challenge People to Serve

People who serve in the mission are people who are engaged in the mission. I know this is near heresy in some circles, but encouraging people to volunteer may be more important than encouraging them to join a group.

At Connexus Church, where I serve, we’re finding that our healthiest people are not those who are in groups; they’re those who serve. People who serve (as a rule) get the mission. They’re on mission. And they love the mission.

Our goal is to get everyone into a group, but only doing a group can feed into a self-centered agenda in the same way sitting in the back row and not engaging the mission is a bit of a selfish approach to church for a longtime Christian.

Groups can be about you, whereas serving is almost never about you. I still think everyone should be in a group, but if joining a group is all you do as a Christian, it can feed into the consumer frenzy that is North American culture.

2. Provide a Clear Path Toward Involvement

The challenge for many people who participate in a congregation is that they don’t know what to do to get involved. Church websites can be fuzzy about next steps. So can church leaders.

Often during services, we list 12 things people can do to get more engaged in their faith and in the mission. Faced with too many choices, most people choose nothing. The clearer and simpler the path is toward engagement, the more people will travel it.

At Connexus, we reorganized our lobby a few years ago, ditching the “Welcome Desk” for two simple kiosks. Now, we have a “New Here” kiosk for new guests. And we have a “Next Steps” kiosk with trained guest services people who act a bit like concierges, helping people discover which next step is best for them (such as baptism, serving, joining a group, attending our Starting Point sessions, etc.).

At every level, we try to take away the confusion and simply help people engage. We also try to make our language from the front clear and direct.

3. Focus All Programs Around Your Mission

Years ago, we dumped a program-based model of church (if you can dream it, we’ll do it) for a much simpler model. Why? In part, because when you give people too many choices, people choose nothing. But we also changed it because we realized that what people are involved in becomes the mission.

The goal of the Christian faith isn’t to know something, but to do something with what you know.

So, if you have lots of off-mission programs (like the Quilting Club or the Men Who Eat Bear Meat Fellowship), you will have a hard time focusing people on what you really want them to do. They’ll be passionate about their ministries, but not the ministry. And that’s the problem. Too many Christians get passionate about their mission, not the mission.

If you want people to be passionate about the central mission of your church, only do programming that directly advances the central mission. When you say “no” to a hundred other missions, you say “yes” to the most important mission.

4. Make It Uncomfortable to Stay Disengaged

People eventually conform to expectations. Tell a child he’ll never amount to anything, and he’ll likely give up on the dream of college. Tell a child she can persevere and accomplish the tasks ahead of her, and she likely will. People both rise and descend to our level of expectations.

The same is true of congregations. When you don’t expect people to do more than attend your church, don’t be surprised if all they do is attend your church. Craft a culture through your words, issuing calls to action on Sundays and in all your communications. Expect people to serve, join a group, bring a friend and give generously.

5. Preach Action, Not Knowledge

Preachers have this incredible 20- to 40-minute window with which to speak into people’s lives every week. You can use it to give people information, or you can use it to call people to action. The second is far better.

Not that you need to hammer people every week. But with your words, you can make it clear that the goal of the Christian faith isn’t to know something, but to do something with what you know.

If you continue to talk about how to get involved and join the mission, providing clear action steps and opportunities to do so, eventually more people will engage. If you don’t, they won’t.

So do it.

6. Try Using Active Language

We’ve had a simple model of church at Connexus since we started, but right now we’re changing the language of engagement from more passive language to active language.

Here’s the background. For years, we used these four single words to explain our simple model of ministry and call people to action:

  • Connect (for groups)
  • Serve (to volunteer)
  • Invite (to invite a friend)
  • Give (to donate)

Recently, we unveiled new language to convey the same steps. We’ve added a fifth step because we’re seeing so many unchurched people, and we’re moving to more active language designed to drive action and engagement:

  • Become a Christian (new)
  • Join the Mission (formerly “Serve”)
  • Bring a Friend (formerly “Invite”)
  • Choose Community (formerly “Connect”)
  • Give Generously (formerly “Give”)

The idea is that these phrases roll off the tongue more naturally and paint a clearer outcome toward deeper engagement with the mission than the old language did.

We imagine a day when hundreds more people become Christians, join the mission, bring friends, choose community and give generously. That kind of action changes cities. Whatever language you use, make sure it conveys the outcome you long for.

7. Reward Progress

However you define increased engagement, reward it whenever you see it. How can you do this?

Celebrate it publicly. Sometimes church leaders are great at asking but not at reporting back afterward. If you ask for volunteers and you get 75 new ones, make a point of celebrating it the next weekend. Tell some stories. Shoot some video. Thank people. Ditto when people give generously, or bring a friend, or when 100 new people join community groups. Pretend it’s baptism Sunday ... and celebrate.

Affirm it privately. When you see people jump in, thank them. Mention it when you talk to them in the foyer. Thank them in the next email you send them. Mail them a handwritten thank you card.

Celebrate with your key leaders. Senior leaders can easily fall into the trap of rewarding attendance, not engagement. To increase engagement, start celebrating how many people signed up rather than how many people showed up.

When you talk about steps and celebrate as people take them, great things happen in your organization. Staff and key volunteers need to know when they’re winning. Help them see it. As Andy Stanley has said so many times, “What you celebrate gets repeated.”

Go Drive Engagement

Imagine dozens or hundreds of people at your church fully engaged in the mission. They’re serving, giving, bringing friends, participating in community and moving the mission forward.

It’s only a matter of time until an engaged church becomes a growing church. Imagine what might happen in your community if a growing church begins to see person after person and family after family find faith in Christ.

That’s worth the entire price of change you’ll pay to get there. So get going. Start engaging people, and you’ll see the mission expand.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 edition of Influence magazine.

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