Church attendance is declining both in fewer new people coming to church and current members coming less often—that’s our challenge.
You know that the solution to this challenge isn't going to be solved by a 500-word blog post of bullet points about the latest and greatest tech tool or social media to come along that will solve all your church communication problems and get people flooding back to our churches. You know you won't be able to get people returning to church if you can simply find more contemporary graphics or upgrade to a more cutting-edge look to your website.
But we keep hoping don't we?
What follows is not a quick read filled with magic solutions. It will take time to read, digest, and plan out implementation because the issue of declining church attendance and retention is not an easy issue to understand with easy answers to fix it. There are many parts of church theology, growth, and health that factor in and what follows is not an all-inclusive solution, but one that can make a big difference in reversing this trend.
My observations and recommendations that follow aren't a result of impersonal surveys or statistics, but from my personal experience and analysis of over three decades of working with churches. Not only have I been involved in church communications in my professional life, but as a Bible teacher (MA in Church History, attended seminary, taught at a Jesuit university), I've been actively involved in my local church. I don't claim scholarly or corporate authority, but humbly offer observations and suggestions as someone who has and is working with thousands of churches all over the world to teach them effective church communication skills like what I will be sharing in this publication and one who cares deeply about sharing the gospel of Jesus.
Most importantly, the things I suggest work. They aren't quick and easy to implement, but they are effective. Churches grow. Lives are changed. I’ve seen this happen many times.
I trust what follows will be useful to your church and I invite your comments and interaction about it. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts.
Now, sit down, get a big cup of coffee (you'll need it) and let's tackle the issues of declining church attendance and what your church communications can do about it.
Declining church attendance and how your communications can help turn that around
It doesn't take the latest Gallup poll or news story for churches to know that overall church attendance is declining. In addition, though the exact numbers may vary, the ever-increasing difference between the number of people on the membership rolls and a far smaller number attending each week is a common situation in many churches.
A related concern is that for those attending church, far too often their lives in business and morality are no difference than those outside the church, much to the frustration of church leadership. Church members’ lives aren’t different, in part, because people are not at church enough to get the instruction that will help them grow in their Christian lives.
Why is this happening and what can a church do about it?
We can’t tackle every issue related to declining church attendance, but we can tackle one that will make a big difference and that every church is can control and that’s in their church communications. From over thirty years of working with churches, I know effective church communications can make a big difference of reversing the trend of declining church attendance and stagnant spiritual growth in church members.
Before I can make specific suggestions of what your church needs to do, you need to understand the big picture and background of what is going on in our world and technology and how this impacts church communications. When we don’t take time to understand where we are in the church, we make scattered and often unproductive attempts to change things that don’t ultimately work. The following material should help give you useful background in which to make informed decisions.
Why declining church attendance is happening
To understand why church attendance is declining, there are two major changes in society that a church can't do anything about, but must understand and they are:
#1 Sunday is no longer a sacred day
Stores and restaurants aren't shut as they were in the past and because of that obviously many people have to work on Sunday. If they don't have to work on Sunday, for many it is their only day off to shop, do errands, or simply catch up on sleep. They don’t do these things on Sunday because they don’t care about God; it’s what they have to do to survive.
Most people who work in church offices have never had to face the challenges of a work week that isn't a standard 5-day one with weekends off. Working on weekends, working six days a week, or working at changing shift work is brutal and not being able to go to church on Sunday isn't something many people willingly choose. It is simply part of what they have to do to make a living.
Depending on the demographic make-up of your church, the number of people who have to work on Sunday may in itself account for a large percentage of people who don’t attend church on Sunday.
Keep in mind however, that does not mean they may not want to be involved in other activities of the church at times they can attend. Does your church have a way to make sure people who aren’t attending on Sunday know what’s going on at other times in the week? If the primary way you inform people is on Sunday morning, primarily in the bulletin, if members miss that, they may not know about activities during the week they would want to attend. Email, postcards, social media can be proactive ways to inform them.
#2 Sunday is now either sports day, shopping day, sleep-in or me day
Instead of church, there are many substitutes that did not exist in the rural (and not so long ago for many) past when the church was the social center of the community.
Today, the primary activity for many people on Sundays is sports. This is especially challenging for churches because many youth sports are on Sundays and if young people want to take part in sports, or watch and support friends and family members who do, they can't attend church.
For others their primary loyalty is to their team or teams, real or fantasy, and attention to what is happening with them is their priority. If there is any conflict or overlap with Sunday services, church loses out.
If a person isn’t involved in sports, and after a hectic week often shopping, sleeping in or time for me is far more appealing to many than going to church. For many people, it isn’t a conscious decision to NOT go to church, they simply don’t care or know they should. What have we done do give them reasons to attend?
The church has been entrusted with the message of forgiveness of sins, peace with God, joy forever, and a satisfying life now. Don’t let that message be the best-kept secret in your community.
Churches need to accept that these two societal changes, that Sunday is no longer a sacred day and that many people have other priorities on that day, will not reverse themselves back to the quiet Sundays of rural fantasies, where the church was the only or most exciting thing happening on Sunday. It isn’t anymore. This is our world today.
Before we get discouraged about current trends, here are some biblical reminders:
Jesus said the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church (Matt. 16:17-19) and new work schedules and an obsession with sports, shopping, sleeping-in, and me time don't ultimately stand a chance either.
Jesus also reminded us that in this world we would have trouble, but that he had overcome the world (John 16:33).
We also need to remember that what is important is not necessarily the DAY people attend (Rom. 14:5) and are involved in the church, but that they attend and are involved (Heb. 10:25).
Correctly identify what needs to be done
In light of Sunday no longer being a sacred day and often dedicated to activities other than church services, an obvious solution to the problem would be that churches consider adding a worship time outside the traditional Sunday morning time to meet. That's an excellent idea for any church that can, because many people cannot attend otherwise.
Yet, at the same time, many churches have done this and still struggle with attendance and involvement. What then should a church do? Before we get to specific solutions you need to understand a few more things.
What the church can offer this pre-occupied world
All churches share these truths:
- Your church has the words of eternal life (John 6:60-71). Your message is vitally important to every person on earth.
- The Bible promises us that the Holy Spirit is active in our world, convicting the world of "sin, righteousness, and judgement (John 16:8)."
- People are hungry for spiritual fulfillment. Note the response to every new spiritual guru or writer, TV or internet sensation offering a way to peace. Their message may be false, but they often communicate it well and people respond.
However, in the midst of this huge spiritual hunger in our world, which is motivated by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, people are not coming to the one source, the Church, that is the only true source of eternal life, forgiveness, and peace through faith in Jesus.
This is not happening because the Church is deficient or Jesus is no longer Savior. This is happening because the church is not communicating who it is and how it can meet the deepest needs of people.
Very few people in our world today think of the Church (and local churches anywhere) as THE source of salvation, truth, or eternal life. In many churches current members who do not attend frequently, and most certainly most of the people in the neighborhood of your church, have little to no idea of what a church does on a weekly basis, let alone how it can meet the spiritual needs in their lives or help them grow to spiritual maturity.
Many people who attend church infrequently or who attended church as a child have no idea that Jesus expects them to grow in their Christian lives. Many churches members are unaware that the Great Commission Jesus gave his church was to “make disciples” and you need to be involved in a church to grow as one. They don’t know that the Biblical goal for the church is not to make people comfortable or wealthy but to present every member “mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). These goals are not optional or only for super-spiritual churches. They are what Jesus expects of us. Church members don’t know these things or participate in their fulfillment, because often they are not communicated effectively.
At its core, church attendance issues are church communication issues.
That statement is an easy one to make, but let’s now more closely at what it involves. . . . .
3 reasons why the Church has a communication problem
#1 Our world is no longer Christian in its primary world view and we can’t communicate as if it still was.
To understand how this impacts church attendance, it's not important to analyze philosophical paradigm shifts to a post-modern mentality or any of various associated theories and then avoid responsibility because we don’t understand what that means. The reality is that, regardless of the label, most people have no idea why churches are relevant to their lives and a place to find answers to life and eternity.
In the past people grew up with the Christian world view as part of their mental heritage. Most people today (sadly, including many in your church) would be hard-pressed to even define a Christian world view. In the past, the Bible was read in school, the morals of it an expected standard in public life. People might not like it or believe it, but if they were looking for salvation, however they defined it, people looked first to the church. People don't today.
#2 Because many church leaders still have a Christian world view and think everyone else does also, churches don't communicate clearly or often enough what the Church really is and why it is important to individuals.
When was the last time your church sent out or prepared for your people to give to their friends a communication piece that shared why the church is important to people and their only hope of true joy on earth and eternal salvation?
This doesn’t mean you have to become a modern-day Johnathan Edwards, breathing fire and send out copies of modern-day sermons like his “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”
But you do need to let people know your church is there to answer spiritual questions and you are more than a place where health and wealth is preached. You need to work on answering the question in your church staff meetings, “Why should people come to our church as a source of eternal salvation and how are we communicating those reasons to them?”
You can no longer assume that people know the value and messages of the church and are consciously rejecting them. Many today do not know what the church is about or why they should attend. This has happened in part because. . . . .
# 3 By default, the Church has allowed the world to dominate the conversation of what’s important by opting out of communicating our message
Because the church has so little place in public conversation, the messages of the world that sports are the most important thing that takes place on Sunday, or this is the place to shop or to have fun are what dominate the thoughts of many people. If it isn't sports or shopping, it's the latest celebrity scandal or breaking news repeated every ten minutes that people are obsessed with following.
Need some proof of the previous statement? Think about the media messages you received last week. How many came to you in any form, TV, postcards, mail, digital media, emails, print from events you attended (including church) that told you what was happening at church and why it was important as opposed to athletic, celebrity, or consumer messages? Can you think of one message from church (outside of Sunday morning if you attended) that you would pass on to a friend that would make them consider attending an event at church?
I trust by now you can see why we are in the situation we are in. Unfortunately, the news doesn’t get much better in the next few pages. (Solutions are coming—hang on!)
How has the church responded to this shifting mind-set and communication challenge in our world?
Overall, obviously not successfully or we wouldn't be in the situation we're in today. What follows is fascinating when we look at the impact of technology and communication as a background to what has happened in our churches. Again, remember that the decline in church attendance is affected by many things. We’ve looked at our cultural mindscape and how the Christian worldview is no longer part of it. The place of technology in our world and how this has affected the church is what we’ll look at now.
Changing technology changed communication methods in the church
Please don't think I am bashing technology in any way with what follows. I am all for churches using the latest and best in technology to share the gospel message. I love technology, am always using it to communicate and recommend that churches be the best in adapting and using it.
However, when you look at the decline in religion in America you note some interesting correlations related to changing technology. Though we have incredible tools, we have not been consistent in how we’ve used them to better communicate the gospel message and keep people in church. We’ve let technology set the agenda in how we communicate without evaluating its impact.
This is evident when you look at correlations between religious decline, growth, and rapid decline with innovations in technology and communication. Following is a chart of religious decline and then my commentary about it:
This chart starts when the shift away from a Christian mindset became widespread through the 60s and early 70s. Predictably where was a big decline in religion during that time.
Good times in church communications
There was then a leveling off and slight up and down, but a more positive trend took place of a gradual increase in religious interest in the 80s and into the early 90s.
It's interesting to note that during that time desktop publishing was invented, laser printers, color copiers, and digital duplicators were in widespread use in churches for the first time. It was an exciting time to be creating church communications because churches could now create and print professionally typeset and designed communications with a computer at church for very low-cost.
Churches responded by printing bulletins, inserts, flyers, postcards, newsletters, everything imaginable. Churches were exploding with communications because, in part this was the first time they could do so many things cost-effectively in-house. Many of them weren’t fancy, but they were full of content, they got people into church, and grew them in the faith once they were there.
This positive leveling off didn’t last and here are possible reasons why
August 6, 1991 the World Wide Web went live. Though it would take a few more years for its use to be widespread in churches and some would note that many churches today are still not making the most of this tool. Social media boomed in the early 2000s.
As these digital media became more and more popular, many churches decided to shift print communications to digital communications.
I can’t prove the connection between the shift to digital communications away from print to the decline of religion, but it is worth noting that at about the same time, religion took a steep and rapid decline that continues today.
I may not be able to prove a connection, but it seems valid to consider that though adding digital communications to the communication mix of churches is obviously something we want to do, to quit producing paper-based communications and move communication creation solely to the digital world has not helped church growth or the discipleship and retention of members.
We forget that the different media communicate in different ways
Many years ago, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The Media is the Message.” This applies today in that the various media, digital and written all have their place in communicating the messages of the church, but not every media format is effective in the same ways. They are not interchangeable.
Social media is an interactive, ever-flowing stream, great for social interactions, instant updates and creating community. It has tremendous benefits for church communications.
But it is not the answer to every communication need. It is not a medium that is effective for the sometimes-boring nuts and bolts of church communications such as time the youth group meets, cost of camp, budget details, etc. Written lists, bulletin inserts, static entries on the website work well for communicating and allowing people to retrieve the details that successfully connect people to church events.
Nor is social media a very good medium for in-depth and life-changing Bible teaching or theological instruction. It can spark interest and be a place for dialog, but to understand the ways of God requires more than short bursts of text.
Many churches have confused the popularity of digital and social media with effectiveness in communication. They are not the same. Just because a lot of people are using social media to interact or share where they were last night, pictures of their kids, and what they ate for dinner, doesn’t mean the same medium is providing useful spiritual content, challenge, or instruction.
The most important thing to remember here is that no ONE media will meet all the communication and spiritual growth needs of the church. We need to make the most of every media if we are to communicate all the messages necessary for outreach and growth in discipleship maturity. And that need leads us to the challenge of:
Churches misunderstood the meaning of "Less is More"
As the popularity of digital communication increased, the saying of "less is more" became a guiding principle for some church communicators. The results have been disastrous for resulting church attendance at special events and at spiritual growth producing ministries in the church. In addition to the tragedy of people attending fewer events and therefore missing out on vital church growth opportunities, what is really sad is that the practice of creating fewer and shorter communications is based on a false understanding of the phrase.
The statement “Less is More” from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the pioneers of modernist architecture, has been totally misinterpreted to mean that if you do less of something, somehow that is better.
That is not the intended meaning of the phrase. Following is a clarification of his statement.
“[‘Less is More’ had to do with] how he thought buildings should be constructed.
Namely that the building should be stripped of any
extras and that it should be constructed on essentials which would lead to clarity, utility and effect."
When you look at Miles van der Rohe’s style of architecture, it is clean and uncluttered in form, but certainly not less, not smaller, not lacking in the essentials that make the building what it needs to be to accomplish its purposes.
Unfortunately, the way many churches interpreted this is that if we communicate less, then people will attend the events. Read that statement again—it doesn’t make sense. People don’t attend things more if you communicate about them less.
In practical terms this worked out to using less paper. That meant no bulletin inserts or postcards, flyers, or announcements, all of which are some of the most powerful pieces of communication and connection churches can create because one of the most powerful ways to make sure people attend an event is still a notice on the refrigerator. A few years ago, the USPS did an ad campaign with the slogan “the refrigerator has never been hacked” to emphasize this point.
Or the statement was taken to mean that shorter announcements in paper and on the web, make more sense to people when surrounded by lots of “white space.” White space is supposed to make them want to attend more than if you fill the page up with the details of where is the event, time, duration, availability of child care. Don’t even bother with additional information such as them why they should be there or who is teaching or what difference it can make in their life. Again, no matter how tech savvy and cool the person making these statements appears to be, it makes no logical sense. Leaving out connecting details means leaving out the connections that get people to an event. Leaving out reasons why they should attend doesn’t make a church event essential, it makes it irrelevant.
Again, don’t misunderstand me. As a publication designer, I’m all for white space—that is why the book you are reading is designed the way it is, with a very generous left-hand margin, comfortable space between the lines of text and what is called a “rag-right” margin that has more white space and retains the natural spacing of words more than justified type.
But many of the people using the term today are not designers and have totally misunderstood its meaning.
The results are even worse in communicating to members, when some churches take the “Less is More” mantra that to mean that almost no communication is on paper and it all goes to the web or digital formats. This is very problematic because it ignores the many people in the church who still have little or no access to these forms of communication or even if they do, prefer not to use them as their primary communication source.
What to do about these people who don't get digital communications?
This is not a trivial matter; it is not a matter of taste only in church communications. It touches the core of who we are as Christian communicators, of those who communicate in ways pleasing to our Lord Jesus.
Didn’t Jesus say we should always be concerned for “the least of these?” Many of the people in this category today would be people who don’t have all the digital gear or the ability to take in the digital communications some of the more privileged of the church have.
They may be economically challenged; they may be older and not interested in or trained in digital communication methods.
The answer, of some churches, to this situation is that people who don't access all digital communication channels aren't part of the target audience the church wants to reach so it can grow, so that's just how it is. Other churches have cut from the budget ways print or other communication channels “only used by a few older people.” Another church mocked the people in the congregation who aren’t on Facebook, from a “skit” designed perhaps to get more involved (though no instruction or help to do that was offered). These are not Christ-like responses.
To be obedient to our Lord, to care for the least of these, to be a servant to all, we cannot simply ignore people because they don’t access the communication forms we prefer.
I read recently (forgive me I can’t recall where) that this elitism in digital communications in the church is a kind of “reverse Reformation.” The Reformation was all about access of the scriptures and church doctrine to all. A digital elitist attitude reverses that.
When this happens, then the next challenge to church communication follows:
Churches then quit printing as much as they need to
Less printing is a natural result of the of the decisions above (digital is best and less is more). Following these faulty premises, many churches quit printing essential information and the print pieces that connect people to the programs that can change their lives and make sense why they should come to church consistently.
AGAIN, PLEASE don't misunderstand me there. I'm not saying at all that churches should not use the tools of the web and technology, digital tools should be used and used effectively (that challenge is for other articles) but they should be additions to church communication programs and should not take away the print communication programs in churches.
You simply cannot get people to come to church and become involved with the ministries at the church by not telling them about it or telling them about it through channels they don't regularly access or through channels that aren't intended for the kind of message you have to get across.
Print (and often lengthy print at that) is still the preferred and most effective form of communication today if you want to keep members and to grow your church.
Research to back up the importance of print
More and more studies are coming out on the effectiveness of print communications over digital if you want a measurable response. It isn't just churches that were initially confused that the popularity of digital and social media equaled effectiveness. The advertising industry jumped into digital ads as the supposed driver of huge sales. It hasn’t turned out as expected and there are now several studies out that discuss why the large amount of digital advertising has resulted in a disappointing response as compared to print. Below are three references to this. Effective Church Communications will be coming out with a more detailed report on The Power of Print over Digital Communications, please check our website (www.effectivechurchcom.com) for notice of it. However, these three references are very instructive and along with them I’ve included some initial church applications:
#1 The 2015 DMA Response Rate Report states that:
Direct Mail Outperforms All Digital Channels Combined by Nearly 600%
Application to church growth and involvement: It isn’t enough to notify people through an email if you want to get an increased attendance at a church event. Send out postcards in additional to digital notices if you want to get people to attend seasonal events or ministries at your church in addition to posting the notices on social media.
#2 Increased consumer preference for paper grows
Here are some statistics from a fascinating survey, “The Attractiveness and Sustainability of Print and Paper” conducted in July of this year that confirmed that not only do people prefer communications on paper, but that preference is growing. Here are some representative statistics from the study:
- 94% agreed that print and paper can be a sustainable way to communicate (compared to 72% in 2013).
- 79% agreed that reading from paper is nicer than reading off a screen (70% in 2011).
- 76% agreed that print on paper is more pleasant to handle and touch when compared to other media (68% in 2011).
- 76% agreed that paper is based on a renewable resource (65% in 2011).
Application to church growth and involvement: People prefer reading materials from paper. (Quick question—how many of you printed this out to read it?) For other than brief announcements, consider brochures, flyers, informational papers, longer bulletins and bulletin inserts if you want people read them and take action on the content in them.
#3 Even in the digital world, people still like to read
Data from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism reinforce the notion that lots of people like to read in-depth journalism on mobile devices. In a study called "Future of Mobile News" last October, Pew found that 73% of tablet owners access long-form content either regularly or sometimes; 19% do so each day. The same overall total was true for phones, with 11% regular consumers
Those readers have healthy appetites. About 60% of the tablet users who access long-form read two to three articles in a sitting, and another 17% read four or more. Often, the report found, they devour articles that they hadn't initially planned to read.
Application to church growth and involvement: Don’t be afraid to have pieces that are longer than 500 words on your church website. This was a number that was very popular in the early “Less is More” days.
People want to and will read longer material if it is worthy of their time and effort. The content of Biblical teaching is worthy of your effort to put it up on your site. Don’t underestimate the importance of the messages of your church and the need your people have for them.
Final challenging application to church communications
If you want to involve the members of your church that aren't attending and if you want to add new members from the community to your church, you need to increase the number and effectiveness of your communications. In addition to making the most of all the digital channels available to you, you probably need to be printing far more than you've been doing.
As the saying goes, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got." If your current level of print communication isn't producing the results you want, considering adding pieces like postcard reminders and outreach, invitation cards, expanded bulletins with inserts and informational flyers. The Effective Church Communications website (www.effectivechurchcom.com) has many of seasonal communications and well as year-round materials that will work well for you in outreach and as reminders. In addition, there are hundreds of articles and tips on how to make all your communications more effective.
Here at Effective Church Communications we've studied what has worked in growing, spiritually healthy churches for a long time and the result of that and our own study is our Five Steps of Effective Church Communications and Marketing. This is a plan that takes all the scattered communications of your church and puts them into a sequential, orderly plan that will enable you to take people from outside the church and with the 5 steps of INVITE, INFORM, INCLUDE, INSTRUCT, and INSPIRE you will help them become mature disciples of Jesus.
We have a book that discusses this in detail (The Five Steps of Effective Church Communications and Marketing) and numerous articles and materials on our website about it, but to help you understand in practical ways what you need to do to communicate with your people so they will come back, attend church and grow in their faith, we’re sharing the following overview.
For the remainder of the book and additional books by Yvon Prehn and Effective Church Communications, CLICK HERE