This is the first of three articles about the convictions I felt as I looked back on my time in vocational ministry.
The first personal conviction I came to was the realization that I had both implicitly and complicitly led in churches and ministries that were really effective in producing cultural Christians.
That is to say, we were really good at producing people who go to church, wear the free t-shirts, raise their hands, but largely ignore the life of submission to to the Lordship of Jesus. Cultural Christians are baby believers at best and churched unbelievers at worst. I know that sounds judgmental. It is. It’s a judgment on the realities of ministry as I’ve known it in what is regularly identified as healthy and thriving church environments. Sure, everyone in ministry wants people to be growing and engaged disciples, but we don’t really program our ministries to produce that outcome. It’s a secondary byproduct of church growth. Numbers grow – attendance, budgets, hands raised for salvation decisions, even baptisms – and as they grow the common mantra is that each number represents a life that’s important to God so numbers matter. It’s true, but incomplete. Most metrics within our modern churches are aimed at measuring outward actions and measuring the organizational health of the church.
These metrics rarely effectively measure the spiritual impact of how well the church is living out the most basic of commandments to us as believers – making disciples.
Instead, we quantify and categorize spiritual growth into easily measurable forms such as worship attendance, volunteering, financial giving, and small group participation. Yes, these are all potential actions and reflections of someone growing in their faith and are all things that are discussed biblically in the life of a disciple of Jesus but in and of themselves, they are a poor measuring stick of discipleship. In fact, for many church participants in suburbia churches, these are simply the cultural norms of religion. I’ve known many individuals during my time in ministry who check all these boxes of religious participation but would openly admit they hadn’t made a decision to actively accept Jesus or follow him. Their engagement was simply participation in the cultural-religious practices of their community and family.
My complicity in all this comes in the understanding that I’d gotten pretty good at my job of ministry assimilation. All you sci-fi fans probably cringe at that verbiage, but it’s a painfully accurate illustration of the process. For those of you not familiar with the sci-fi reference, it’s a term that describes an alien life-form or race absorbing other organisms and individuals in a way that they are brainwashed and brought into a cohesive singular group-think existence. It’s both a survival and growth mechanism that renders those “assimilated” as robot-like participants in their new reality. For most churches assimilation is the greater umbrella of guest retention to help new people find their place in the congregation in order to capitalize on the invitational culture they’ve created.
At its most basic and unspiritual form, church assimilation is a numbers game.
Let’s look at the numbers.
Congregations on the healthier or more stable side still experience 3-5% attrition each year. Congregants die, move away, “transition” to other congregations, etc… It’s a pretty normal part of modern church life. That means that for a church to be stable or grow they usually need to add more than 5% in new congregants each year. National averages also show that about one in every five “first-time guests” will actually become regular attending members of a congregation.
Let’s play that out in nice round numbers. Say we are part of a church of 100 people. In the next year, 3-5 people will leave for natural reasons. To stay stagnant at 100 people, we’d need to add about 5 people. To grow at commonly targeted rates of 10-15% we would need to add 10-15 people on top of the 5 to offset attrition. That means for our little sample congregation we’d need to add 15-20 people over the course of a year to be in a healthy growth range.
Still with me?
Continuing the math, that means we would need to have between 75 and 100 first time guests in a year for 1/5 of them to stay and become part of our church. On a small scale, that seems somewhat challenging, but probably doable. Consider the numbers game for a large church though – add a zero on the back of all those numbers. Suddenly you need a massive amount of guest traffic to maintain growth. Couple that with the reality that most large churches lose more than 3-5% in a given year from attrition, and the math gets even more challenging.
Think about that for a minute.
In a church with an average attendance of 1,000 people that means that 750-800 people will walk through their doors in a given year that don’t stick.
Even in baseball, where a .300 average is superb, batting .200 doesn’t cut it. Those are horrible averages. The painful truth that 4/5 of church guests don’t stay is rarely addressed as long as there is a large enough and consistent enough flow of first-time guests to keep the growth curves up and to the right. Put another way, that means 80% of people visiting churches aren’t finding what they’re looking for and we seem to be largely OK with that reality. We chalk it up to the usual suspects of reasons. We live in an overly consumerist society. People, especially Christians, are way too picky. They must not have been ready to change their lives. We’ll see them again at Christmas and Easter.
My job in multiple ministry roles has been to figure out how to make more people stick. If 1/5 is the average, how do we make sure we’re at least keeping pace with the averages but also finding ways to surpass those retention rates. How do we make our church more attractive to the guests that visit? Smiling guys helping you find a parking spot. Coffee that’s better than Starbucks. Friendly greeters everywhere in bright colored shirts with big smiles. Super comfortable free t-shirts in exchange for contact information. Quick and direct follow up communication. A direct invite to something coming up in the life of the church to entice a return visit. A personal follow up from someone with a “Pastor” title to help it seem official. Each of these intentional touches and more… systematized and automated to function for the masses, knowing we’d regularly have 50 or more self-identified first-time guests each week.
Replace the church logos with branding for a retail store and you’ve got a pretty good marketing plan.
Treat your customers like they’re special, and they’ll come back! I’m well aware that this all seems cynical. To some extent, it is. It points to the mechanisms of ministry, not the heart behind it. Many people I know and love serve within these volunteer teams or are in paid staff roles and I think most of them have honest intentions and faithful motives for their participation. I’ve also known many people who have found these touch-points to be refreshing and unique to their typical experiences of church. They’ve felt cared for, welcomed, and noticed – exactly the intended outcome and the reason those systems are in place. There are also many individuals who visit multiple attractional model churches and get nearly identical guest treatment and communication. When you get what reads like a form letter as a first time guest from multiple churches that are nearly identically (thanks for the template, Nelson Searcy) the genuineness of the contact fades quickly.
It’s not that any one of those things is inherently wrong, it’s that they all play into a larger culture of miss-focused priorities aimed at making the church as attractive as possible.
The model gets really good at making church cool, shiny, and culturally appealing. People come back for the coffee. They come back for the offer of another free shirt. They return because of the church’s social media posts that say things like “big cool service intro this week – you won’t want to miss it!” One of my college professors used to say “you don’t have to see the tracks to ride the train.” Most guests don’t see the tracks, but they’re progressing forward through a very intentional path. Lure them back. Get them to stick, and hopefully, they’ll eventually make a decision to follow Jesus. If they’re already believers, get them plugged into a serving role and giving as quickly as possible. If a fun parking team and great coffee are what it takes, then it’s well worth it.
I’ve heard many prominent Pastors in the attractional church world say things like “we’ll do anything short of sin to reach people for Jesus.”
It’s the common response and explanation for things that seem outside the box of the traditional church – crazy marketing gimmicks, giant LED walls, racy sermon series topics or titles, extravagant lobby experiences, etc… Whatever it takes to get people here so they can hear about Jesus. They’re drawing upon the words of Paul, who said: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22b). I doubt that Paul had live animals in the lobby, pumpkin spice coffee at the church cafe, or 100+ decibels of the latest ambiguously worded faith-relevant pop song playing to kick off a worship service in mind when he penned those words. The greater context of Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 9 is his personal conviction that his freedom in Christ is great, but it’s constrained by his own desire to reach the lost in a way that nothing he did would create hurdles to see Jesus. His tone and explanation don’t seem to be “lets proactively do all we can to attract lost people”, but instead its a careful examination of his own actions that say “may I not say or do anything that would give people an inaccurate picture of Jesus.” There’s a huge difference. One that we have misinterpreted and abused in our own attempts to be culturally relevant.
I fear that in the churches’ willingness to go to extremes just short of sin to reach the lost, we have given the world we’re trying to reach a really inaccurate picture of Jesus.
We’ve created a movement of churches that have become really good at producing cultural Christians.
We’ve gone to great extents to reach people but the very things we do to attract them become the distractions that keep them from seeing Jesus clearly.
We evangelize to our church in hopes that they’ll meet Jesus, instead of evangelizing people to Jesus in hopes that they’ll become part of the body of Christ.
I’ve contributed to this reality and even helped make many congregations better at doing it.