5 Keys to Keep Leading When Your Attendance is Shrinking

Unsplash/Gregory Hayes

What to do when a portion of your church simply disappears

One of the biggest challenges most pastors are facing right now is that a meaningful percentage of their congregation seems to have disappeared.

Or at least they think that’s what’s happening.

In the current climate of reopened in-person services, online church, so many people moving and the uncertainty of the post-pandemic world, it’s hard to tell who’s still around and who may have left.

According to Tony Morgan’s Q1 2021 Unstuck Church Report, physical church attendance is down 28% from even 2020 levels, which means that a chunk of most congregations has slipped away. (In more encouraging news, online service views are up 123%, which likely reflects the work churches have put into their online services over the last 12 months.)

But this still leaves the nagging question: Where did the missing people go?

• Are they watching online?
• Are they still with us?
• Have they gone to another church?
• Are they upset with me because of what I said/didn’t say about _______?
• Are they simply gone?
• Why did they disappear?

Combine that with the fact that, according to the Barna Group, by the end of 2020, 20% of church attenders said they stopped attending church altogether during the pandemic, and it leaves pastors really wondering.

So … what do you do?

How do you respond to what feels like an emotional gut punch?

Here are some ideas on how to lead when a good chunk of your church simply disappears. But first, a story.

THE YEAR HALF OF OUR CHURCH DISAPPEARED

I’ve led through the dynamic of disappearing attenders before, so I recognize the pain and confusion it causes. It get it.

In 2007, I left the denomination I was part of at the time. The congregation voted 96% in favor of becoming non-denominational, even if it meant losing the building we had just built a few years earlier. While any story like this is complex, the goal was simple: to reach even more people.

In the end, it turned out the denomination kept the building (which is fine) and we started over again, launching Connexus Church in two cities with two portable locations.

Opening Sunday for Connexus broke all previous attendance records, teetering on just under 1000 attenders, which for us at the time was deeply encouraging.

But the church plant wasn’t exactly as sexy as what we left.

The almost paid-for comfortable new building was gone. We exchanged it for movie theatres that smelled like popcorn and had sticky floors from all the spilled soda the night before (don’t worry, we soon hired our own cleaning crew). Portable church also meant volunteers were on site by 5:30 a.m. to set up.

With the new church, we were also deeply focused on reaching unchurched people. Our previous growth had involved unchurched people, but there was honestly a lot of transfer growth too. I really wanted to create a church the unchurched loved, so we went for it.

Within 18 months, under my leadership, I grew the church from 900 down to about 450 attenders. Ugh.

Volunteers left. Donors walked out. Leaders quit. What was really hard is that a few left angrily, but most just quietly disappeared.

There were just fewer and fewer people in the room every month.

So what do you do when half your church disappears?

1. Process Your Pain.

To pretend it doesn’t hurt when people leave is a lie.

As Terry Wardle taught me, ministry is a series of ungrieved losses. When our church shrank that year, it was demoralizing and exhausting for everyone who stayed, and I felt depleted and utterly discouraged. I even offered my resignation to the board. They didn’t accept it, but it was so hard.

From Outreach Magazine  Gary Thomas: When to Walk Away

So what do you do when your church shrinks or moves into the kind of uncharted territory so many find themselves in now?

Start here: Process your pain.

If you don’t, your loss will come out as anger, aggression, cynicism, despair, defeat, physical illness or about a hundred other ways.

Call a friend.

Pray.

Vent.

Weep.

See a therapist.

Release it … all of it.

I found that the only way through the pain is to process the pain. On the other side of that, you’ll find healing.

It took a while, but I did.

2. Don’t Lose Hope.

At the same time you process your pain, it’s critical to never lose hope.

And if the mission of reaching new people and making new disciples isn’t a hope-filled vision, I don’t know what is.

It can be tempting to get lost on the pain or to try to avoid the pain altogether, thinking that denying the pain will make you stronger. It won’t.

Pain and hope are strange companions, but great companions.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins said the chief job of leaders is to never lose hope and name the reality they’re facing, no matter how brutal it is. He called it the Stockdale Paradox, quoting from POW Jim Stockdale:

“You must never ever ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are.

What’s your vision?

What’s your why?

Focus on that … because sometimes that’s all you’ve got left. I promise you it’s enough.

3. Look for the People You Can Build the Future of the Church On.

Despair is overrated.

Despite what you might feel, there are still passionate people at your church who are serving, inviting their friends, giving and leaning in hard on the mission.

Giving them a crystal clear vision for the future is key to keeping them engaged.

There are two real options you face as a leader when people are leaving.

You can try to win people back. This one’s tempting. It’s easy to think that backing off of change or trying to please unhappy people is your ticket to a better future.

The reality is that many of the people who left had other churches to go to that were more “traditional” or insider-focused. The church we were trying to build was for people who didn’t go to church … and that meant we were going to focus on doing things differently.

Instead of trying to win people back, focus on moving the remaining people forward.

That will get you much further down the road.

Fickle, upset and disengaged people are hard to build the future of the church on.

Ask yourself: Do we still have engaged, passionate people who believe in the mission?

Almost always the answer is yes.

So, focus on them.

By the way, you’ll find that group deeply energizing. Focusing on the people leaving, by contrast, can be very depleting.

4. Focus on Engagement, Not Attendance.

The best thing you can do when people are leaving is to engage or re-engage the people who remain.

Engaged people are your future.

From Outreach Magazine  Drew Hyun: Mobilizing for More

Over the long term in a church, you can accomplish more with 300 engaged Christians than with 3,000 disengaged attendees.

The disengaged group will dwindle. The 300 engaged Christians will advance the mission and never stay the same.

It’s true that only God can bring growth. But he uses engaged Christians to do it.

Engaged people are passionate people. They know what the mission is, they serve in it, and they live it out.

They’re passionate enough about it to invite their friends.

Getting crystal clear about your mission and granular about friends, family, coworkers and neighbors that everyone would love to see discover the love of Christ is a great way to move forward.

5. Invest Even More in Church Online.

In an attempt to win people back in the building, I’ve heard some speculation online among pastors that they might cut back the resources they’re putting into church online or perhaps stop it all together.

In my view, that’s a big mistake.

We’ve been online at our church for over a decade, and for years now virtually 100% of our in-person first-time guests have come after checking us out online.

Sure, online church is new. Yes, it can be confusing. But there’s so much opportunity.

In the last few weeks over 4000 church leaders have completed the Church Outreach Assessment, an assessment designed to help you see how well your church is positioned to reach new people in the future. (It also comes with a free teaching series on how to reach more people.)

We’ll be sharing more data soon, but here’s one surprise.

Only 35% of churches have a process to capture the personal information of people online.

While all of this is new to many churches, don’t give up. Keep investing in online.

Learning how to do things like capture the data of people when they visit you online is key to reaching more people. (Hint: I’ll have a lot of practical help coming up on this shortly.)

Everyone you want to reach in your city is online, and digital scales in a way that physical church doesn’t.

There’s a growing group of pastors and leaders, who are fully embracing a hybrid church model: deciding to become 100% physical and 100% digital.

They see digital not as an “accommodation,” but as both real ministry and an abundant opportunity.

Forward-thinking pastors realize that the best answer to the question “Should ministry be digital or physical?” is yes.

If you want to reach more people: go to where they are, which these days, is online.

OUR STORY: A MUCH BETTER FUTURE

So what happened at Connexus after that steady 18-month decline after launch?

Well, we processed our pain, never lost hope, found the people we could build the future of the church on, focused on engagement, not attendance and invested a lot in online ministry.

The result?

After 18 months of decline, new people started coming. People made decisions to follow Jesus and got baptized. They then invited their friends.

Fast-forward to today, and over 4,000 people call Connexus home. And every week thousands attend online (and soon again) in person.

What’s best is that over 50% of our growth over the last decade has been from people who previously didn’t attend church.

Winning people back isn’t the way forward. Moving people forward on a crystal clear mission is the way forward.

Read more from Carey Nieuwhof »

This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com and is reposted here by permission.