It’s a challenge you face as a church leader: what do you do with people who only occasionally attend church?
Like at Easter or Christmas or special occasions?
But infrequent attendance isn’t just for holidays anymore. It’s for every day. How do you respond as people generally attend less often?
You know, the couple who comes once every two months but who absolutely calls your church home?
So, the question is how do you interact with infrequent church attendees who don’t seem to be embracing the mission of your church the way you hoped they would?
You embrace them anyway.
That’s what God would do (Have you read the Gospels?). I also think that’s what emotionally intelligent people do.
That also means, if you’re like me, that you have to fight your inner urge to dismiss infrequent attendees, write them off or just roll your eyes at people who only show up once in a while.
I know. That’s the real issue, isn’t it?
I chose the word “embrace” on purpose, because I know there’s something deep-seated in many of us that wants to reject people if we sense they’re rejecting us. And people who don’t come out to church much on Sunday can feel like rejection if you’re an insecure church leader. (Which, by the way, is many of us on this side of heaven. Here are five signs that will tell you whether you’re an insecure leader.)
When I started in ministry a couple of decades ago, if someone didn’t attend church for a while it was almost always because they left.
Today, I don’t actually sense that the people who haven’t been at our church for a few weeks or a few months are rejecting us. In fact, when I run into them, they tell me they love our church. And that they can’t wait to get back at some point.
Most people who haven’t been at your church for a few weeks or a few months aren’t rejecting you. Infrequent attendees haven’t left your church. They just haven’t been lately.
So what do you do?
There are at least five ways you can respond.
1. Develop Some Empathy.
Many of today’s church leaders grew up in church. We remember a time when church attendance was simply the thing you did every Sunday. And as church leaders or volunteers, it’s what we still do every Sunday.
So at times it can be a little hard to empathize with people who don’t see things the way we see them.
Personally, I think participating in the mission of a great church weekly (including Sundays) is one of the best things a Christian can do. Unless I’m fooling myself, I think this is a personal conviction, not just a vocational conviction. If I stopped doing vocational ministry tomorrow, I would still want to participate weekly in the mission of a local church, including the Sunday ministry.
But just because I see it that way doesn’t mean everyone sees it that way.
And—here’s the danger—if you start judging people for not seeing it your way, you almost certainly turn them off. People—especially teens and young adults—can smell judgment a mile away. Judgment creates barriers.
So what do you do instead?
It’s not that hard to do if you realize you probably have an attitude about other organizations similar to their attitude toward your church.
Take going to the gym for example.
I have a gym membership. Truthfully, I haven’t been there in two months. But I spin on my bike trainer at home, do push-ups and hike. I watch what I eat and I do other exercises. To me, my goal is fitness and health. It’s not going to the gym. The gym is a means to an end, and it’s not the only means for me.
Am I going to make the cover of next month’s muscle magazine? Nope. But that’s not my goal.
Many people think the same way about church. Especially if you’re reaching unchurched people. If a formerly unchurched person shows up 12 times a year, that’s far more than they’ve ever been in church! They might think they’re doing great, and maybe they are compared to how they used to feel spiritually.
So rather than judging them for it, tell them they’re doing great. And invite them into a deeper conversation about faith and life.
I realize the gym analogy breaks down because I don’t think the Christian faith is an individual pursuit like fitness can be. And clearly, I would be in better shape if I went to the gym three times a week and had a personal trainer.
But if you stand there with a scowl on your face every Sunday angry about empty seats, why would anyone want to sit in one?
2. Separate the Mission From the Method.
Somewhere along the way a lot of us end up confusing the mission and the method.
Your mission is to lead people into a relationship with Jesus, not to get people to show up for an hour in a box every Sunday.
Please hear me, I value our time together on Sundays as a church. And I think it’s presently one of our very best vehicles through which to advance the mission of the church.
But our mission is not to fill seats on a Sunday. It’s to lead people to Jesus.
You should be obsessed with your mission, not with filling seats.
Truthfully, some of us are more in love with the method than the mission. If that’s you, repent. I have. I am.
That shift will create a whole new mindset in your team.
It will help you run offense, not just defense.
You’ll start to think of fresh ways to help people on their journey toward Jesus.
And—don’t miss this—if you really help people move into an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ, they might show up more regularly in your church on Sunday. Ironic, isn’t it?
3. Use Technology to Help People Every Day.
Church leaders today have an advantage that we simply didn’t have a decade ago.
Social media and even email are great ways to help people deepen their journey with Christ, not just sell your latest program.
What if you started viewing your social media channels and email list as an opportunity to come alongside people and help them grow in their faith?
You have to be careful how you approach this because if you’re just trying to drive attendance, people will notice.
But if you encourage them, inspire them, challenge them and help them, they’ll welcome your presence.
So how do you do that?
Simple. Be helpful.
If you run your social media and email content through a helpful filter, people will be thrilled to hear from you. And it will deepen the bond you have with infrequent attendees. They’ll come to see you as a friend, not just one more person trying to sell them something.
Be the favorite person in their inbox, and their favorite thing to see on their newsfeed.
Never underestimate what being helpful does for everyone involved.
4. Start Measuring Outputs.
Church leaders are programmed to measure inputs, not outputs.
We measure how many people showed up, what they gave, who they brought and even online traffic. But rarely do we measure outputs.
What if the church became as much a sending organization as a receiving organization?
What if you developed ways to measure spiritual growth? Like how much time people spend with God personally each day reading Scripture and praying? The stats are surprisingly low. According to a recent study, 57% of Americans read their bible four times a year or less. Only 26% read it more than four times a week.
What if you helped the people around your church change that?
And what if you got innovative and started thinking through whether people were better off five years after joining your church than they were before? Or whether they feel closer to Christ? Or whether they’re making a difference in their workplaces and neighborhoods? What if you helped them be the church, not just go to church?
Leaders get passionate about what they measure. So measure thoughtfully.
5. Celebrate Wins.
It’s strange that when a child takes their first steps, we applaud wildly, but when a Christian takes their first steps, we call them immature.
Sure, so a new Christian doesn’t read their Bible every day or attend every week or give the way you want. I get that. Many long-time Christians don’t either.
Rather than judging them, why not love them?
Why not celebrate when they take a step?
Send a handwritten thank you note to each first-time attendee. Welcome them when they come back. Throw a party when they show up again three months later. Celebrate like crazy when someone gives their first $5 gift. Jump for joy when someone decides to serve or high five them when they decide to get in a group.
Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. The point isn’t to get weird.
The point is to celebrate. As Andy Stanley says, what you celebrate gets repeated.
This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com.