10 Things to Do When the Numbers Are Few

The Word of God is always moving forward, always advancing, always taking new ground. Likewise, the Kingdom of God is always expanding and enfolding more people. Therefore, declining attendance should be viewed as a crisis situation for any church.

Declining attendance should be of highest priority and therefore immediately addressed.

Former ESPN president and executive chairman of ESPN, Inc. George Bodenheimer’s new book Every Town Is a Sports Town: Business Leadership at ESPN, From the Mailroom to the Boardroom is the best leadership book I have read since Creativity, Inc. I cannot recommend it enough.

In 2001, ESPN faced a crisis of declining ratings (less and less viewers). For pastors and church leaders, this is the equivalent of declining attendance. In both cases, fewer and fewer people are making time in their schedules to experience the products and services you are providing.

As I read how Bodenheimer and the team at ESPN addressed the issue of declining viewership, I realized it provided an incredible example of how pastors and church leaders should address the issue of declining attendance in their churches.

The following are 10 Things Pastors and Church Leaders Must Do When Church Attendance Is Declining I gleaned from this great section of the book:

1. Pastors Must Admit Declining Attendance Is a Crisis—Few issues in church life are more important than declining attendance. It cannot be marginalized. In 2001, ESPN’s ratings had declined 19 percent. Bodenheimer noted, “We were clearly in a crisis.”

2. Pastors Must Make the Church Budget Reflect the Declining Attendance—It is bad stewardship to throw the congregation’s hard-earned financial resources at sub-par ministries. Bodenheimer wrote regarding the proposed 2002 budget, “I was not going to approve a budget projecting that we were going to do worse next year than we did this year.”

3. Pastors Must Bring the Smartest Minds Together to Address the Issue—I would recommend people who were not part of the decision-making team that caused the declining attendance. Fresh thinking and new ideas are desperately needed. Bodenheimer formed a “Priority One” team to address the issue of declining ratings.

4. Pastors Must Identify the Specific Reason for the Decline—This cannot be spiritualized or sugar-coated. ESPN’s research department discovered, “Viewers are telling us that they are ESPN fans, but they are switching channels because many of our programs are uninteresting to them.” Is it possible our services are also predictable, boring, unimaginative and answer questions no one is asking. If so, no wonder people seek alternative options.

5. Pastors Must Accept Responsibility for Declining Attendance and Take Immediate Action to Solve the Problem—Bodenheimer and his team looked in the mirror and bravely discovered the problem was them. He wrote, “We certainly did, in fact, have influence over our ratings decline.” He added, “It was our own fault. ESPN leadership, I felt, had to accept responsibility and take action to correct the problem.”

6. Pastors Must Kill Underperforming Ministries and Programs—What ministries, programs or styles no longer work? And are you willing to change them to something which will work? Bodenheimer wrote, “We would look at each and every program to determine which shows were working and which weren’t worthy of ESPN’s airtime.”

7. Pastors Must Also Accentuate What Is Working—In addition to stopping what is not working, additional resources must be leveraged toward what is working. After looking at each and every program, Bodenheimer noted, “We revamped our programming by eliminating low-rated shows and expanding the live hours of news and information shows like SportsCenter.

8. Pastors Must Be Data-Driven—This eliminates emotional attachments to poor performing friends and pet projects. ESPN developed new statistical models to prioritize on-air commercial promotions.

9. Pastors Must Act Decisively to Reverse Declining Attendance—People’s eternities are at stake. Hard choices cannot be delayed. Bodenheimer reflected, “Looking back, our 2001 television ratings plunge could have been disastrous for ESPN had we not taken immediate and effective action.”

10. Pastors Must Expect Resistance When Reversing Declining Attendance—There was obvious pushback from many at ESPN when changes were being made. However, when the decisions yielded improved ratings, everyone got on board.

The experiencing of reversing the decline in viewership gave ESPN a template for handling future crisis situations. The following is the company’s strategy for such situations:

1. Get everybody together to discuss the problem.

2. Make it a priority.

3. Determine the specific cause of the problem.

4. Create a detailed plan of action.

5. Communicate the plan to the entire organization and encourage everyone to help.

I love ESPN. But losing viewers of sporting events pales in comparison to smaller numbers of people hearing the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.

Pastors and church leaders, are you prepared to do what is necessary to reverse declining attendance?