Leadership Solutions Blog

Why People Aren’t “Coming” Back to Church

While the world around us has changed, a lot of the conversations in the Church still center around in-person attendance. We’ve touched on this in previous posts as well as our case study: Target Corp and the Flexible Church, but the reason all of our metrics in the Church are based around attendance is that it has always been a leading indicator, or predictive analytic, towards engagement. Meaning, the more people you can put in a room the better the chances are that you will move them through a discipleship pathway or assimilation process, aka: create “engagement”.

However, what we are learning now from the study provided by Crossroads Church as well as others, is that attendance is now a lag indicator. Meaning, instead of attendance driving engagement, we’re actually seeing that it’s engagement that drives attendance. By the time people come on-site, they already know a lot about you and they are looking for something more. Something different. But what is that? 

We have to ask ourselves this question if we want to see more people in person: “Why would a person or a family who has been engaging online decide to get into a car and go through the process of attending a service in person that they can watch online?”

Before you answer that question, let me give you a hint:
it’s probably not what you think it is or want it to be.

It’s not your message, they can get that online anytime during the week.

It’s not even worship for most people (based on our work with churches), nor is it the wonderful experience of being ushered in and out of service to keep a tight turn time on services. 

One of the most brilliant takeaways I recently had in a conversation with Kyle Ranson at Crossroads involved this equation: 

Value = Experience / Time (and/or Effort)

If you think about it, the impact of commoditization is that it delivers a similar or the same experience in a more compressed timeframe. For instance, I can now have products delivered to my door without having to put my kids in the car, find a parking spot, wait in a checkout line, and get home an hour later having spent more money than I intended to. I can have what I want when I want with the press of a button. Using this equation, digitization in retail has increased Value by delivering the same or better numerator (Experience) but decreasing the denominator (Time and Effort). 

This can also work the other way. Think about this: if we are streaming the same service online (worship, sermon, giving moment, baptism video, etc.) that we are providing in person, then is it possible that we are diluting the Value by asking someone to increase the denominator (Time and Effort) without changing the numerator (Experience). The reason people would rather sit on the couch and watch a service or listen to our sermons over a podcast while they’re working out, or even why we’re not engaging volunteers is simple: we’re asking for more Time and Energy without balancing the equation with a better (or differentiated) Experience. 

In our case study on Target we posed this question: “what can we provide in person that we can not provide online, and what can we provide online that we cannot provide in person?”

These two questions paired with the Value formula require us to think about something called a Differentiated Value Proposition. In short, a differentiated value proposition is a unique attribute of an offering that makes it stand out against other offerings, whether internal or external. 

A lot of churches are good at developing a persona: “we exist to serve young families” or “we are good at creating irresistible environments (and by this, they mean in-person environments)”, or even more specifically, “we serve 42-year-old dual income families with 2.5 kids, a minivan, and a dog (but definitely no cats)”. It’s a huge step in the right direction to know who it is your church uniquely serves, but that’s only step one. 

The next question is to look at the mediums by which this age group engages, and it doesn’t assume that all 42-year-old parents have the same needs or are asking the same questions. The different mediums we provide for engagement (buildings, online church, house churches) have to create differentiated value propositions but are not intended to take an experience designed for one platform and broadcast it across multiple platforms designed for different experiences.  

Before we dive further, we have to understand a critical point: buildings and digital platforms are NOT strategies in and of themselves.

Hear that: getting people into a building to hear a sermon is not a strategy.

Buildings and digital platforms are tools. Tools get used depending upon what you’re building, which is defined within a corporate strategy. Corporate strategy comes from having organizational clarity. Without having organizational clarity and a corporate strategy, it is impossible to truly understand what it is you are building with these tools.

This is the essence of our Clear Path Forward process, where we dive heavily into these issues to understand how different mediums can be used to create higher levels of engagement. In working with all the churches we have this year, we have found a consistent trend with almost all of them: 

The church doesn’t look the same, and there are a lot of new people. 

Not a shocker, but let’s go back to the original question: why do people come to church when they could watch service online if that is in fact the behavior that we ultimately want to celebrate? 

We all know this, but reason #1 for young families to attend on Sunday morning is that kids bring parents to church. I’ll put up with a lot of bad sermon illustrations if I know my kids are in a safe, fun environment with other kids learning about Jesus. I know I’ve found the right church when my kids wake up on Sunday morning and want to go to children’s church. 

But the other two consistent trends are very interesting. Most of the people who show up in person are there because they have already been attending online. They already know who you are. However, the other two things that they are desperately looking for are connection and care.

They’ve raised their hand and said “You’ve proven to be a safe place and I’m ready to be seen” or “I really want to develop meaningful relationships and get connected to other people who enjoy this church as much as I do”. 

So what are we doing to foster that? We still see churches executing their Pre-Covid model with a focus on turnover times: herd ‘em in and herd ‘em out. Get as many people through the doors as possible and out as quickly as possible. Oh, but… if you’re new, we have a fishbowl, (errr.. I mean a Next Steps enclosure) in the lobby with a bunch of people high-fiving and wearing our t-shirts in case you want to hear all about us and how you can take our four steps of assimilation. 

I use satire here to make us stop and think about what that experience may be like for people who are looking for children’s ministry, connection, and/or care. For extroverts and people coming with a church background, this Next Steps or post-service program is probably fine. However, it misses the mark for someone who is new (but not brand new) and wants a chance to meet more people in the church, and it misses the people whose reason for coming to church is to find hope, meaning, and community. 

With all of the different churches we’ve worked with this year, we’ve seen and heard some really cool ideas when it comes to creating a differentiated experience in person, which then translates later to a differentiated experience online. Churches are spacing out services and creating community experiences before and/or after services, more targeted experiences during the week, and looking at the digital platform as a real engagement strategy more so than our 2022 version of 1990’s TV ministry (aka a broadcast of Sunday morning). Even better, we’re seeing these strategies work, and that’s exciting. 

This is a great time to try new things. What can it hurt? How can we be creative about designing our experiences around the unique aspects of what each of those mediums provides to people, based on what they are looking for at the time they are looking for it?  

We love helping churches create clarity around mission and strategy, and we also happen to have some of the best people in the Church at doing so.

If your church is truly interested in understanding how to better engage people, whether in person or online (please say both), we’d love to have a conversation with you. Interested? Click here to take your Free First Step Towards Clarity.


Resi series Main

A four-segment digital engagement series developed by
Executive Leadership Solutions & Resi to equip leaders as they grow their church and maximize evangelism through digital engagement.

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