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5 Reasons Engagement Will Drive Almost All Future Church Growth

5 Reasons Engagement Will Drive Almost All Future Church Growth
  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
As culture changes in front of our eyes, you might be wondering, what will drive future church growth? In addition, you’re probably frustrated that the things that used to help a church grow don’t ‘work’ anymore (here are nine things that have stopped being effective). You’re definitely not alone in your experience or your frustration. As Western culture becomes increasingly post-Christian, our approach to church needs to change because our culture has changed.  None of this means the mission of the church has changed. The mission is the same in every generation. But the methods we use—our strategy—has to change, as I outlined here. So what’s one of the biggest changes we’re going to see? Simple. If you want to see your church grow, stop trying to attract people and start trying to engage people. Here’s why.

5 Reasons Engagement Will Drive Almost All Future Church Growth

The current approach to church has largely been driven by getting people to attend. The idea is this: Get them in the door, and then hopefully at some point they’ll engage in the mission. Why is that approach becoming less and less effective? And why will engagement emerge as the main way to spark church growth? Here are five reasons:

1. Attending church is a relatively new concept.

Flip back to New Testament days. Jesus never said ‘Attend me.’ He said ‘Follow me.’ The only reason you would follow Jesus (in Jesus’ day) is because you were either intrigued by who he was and what he did, or because you had come to believe that he was who he said he was. In other words, you were engaged. You didn’t attend Jesus. You followed him. A similar dynamic emerged in the first-century church. Early Christians didn’t attend church. They were the church. If you look back at the genesis of the Jesus movement, the idea of attendance as a hallmark would have been completely foreign. You only attended because you were engaged. Period.

2. Attendance naturally grows out of engagement.

As the Christian movement grew and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, mere church ‘attendance’ became an option. Fast forward to our lifetime, and even in growing, effective churches, attendance had become an established path to engagement. The big idea was this: Come, and eventually you’ll get engaged. That worked (quite effectively, actually) when people used to flock to church. But in an era when the number of unchurched is constantly on the rise and even Christians don’t attend church as often anymore (here are 10 reasons for that), that strategy is becoming less and less effective. Yet, many churches (even growing churches) are still counting on getting people to attend, hoping it drives engagement. The shelf life on that strategy is limited because the number of people who want to attend church drops every year. Consequently, in the future, church attendance won’t drive engagement; engagement will drive attendance.  The goal will become to get people engaged faster and to engage people more deeply in the true mission of the church. (I’ll blog on how to do that next week). In the future, the engaged will attend because, in large measure, only the engaged will remain.

3. Trying to attract people in a post-Christian culture can work against the mission.

I am all for making church as attractive and accessible as possible. But in the future if that’s your only approach (better lights, cooler vibe, hoping people will come), you will get diminishing results. (I wrote on the death and rebirth of cool church here.) Why is that? Well, as outlined above, when attendance was more normative and in some senses ‘automatic’ in our culture, attraction was a decent strategy. Because people would go to church, creating a better church was a good approach. But (and here’s the underbelly), it also fed into consumerism. Consumerism has defined the last century of North American and Western culture. To some extent, the attractional church has played into consumerism. Build something attractive and people will come. Again, that strategy was very effective when people instinctively flocked to churches, not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of baptisms and authentic faith-building. And you shouldn’t make your church inaccessible or unattractive on purpose. That’s just … weird. But in the process, building attractive, relevant churches has had an unintended side-effect: People have come to evaluate church by what they get out of it, not by what they put into it. That’s a mistake. Along the way, discipleship has even been redefined in many circles to mean consumption of knowledge. The more you know, the more mature you are. I believe that’s a flawed approach (here’s why). Authentic discipleship has always been about dying to self.  It’s about giving far more than it is about getting. Again, I’m not slamming the attractional church. I’m all for building bridges to the culture, not erecting barriers. Anyone who knows church knows that at the heart of every attractional church is a core of Christians who sacrifice—who give, who serve and who invite. What’s exciting is that selflessness will move to the forefront in the future church because those who remain will be engaged in the mission.

4. Our culture is ripe for an alternative to consuming.

One of the frequent criticisms non-Christians levy at Christians is that we’re self-indulgent and hypocritical. Those critiques are not without warrant. As a more selfless church emerges (even excellent, selfless churches), that will drive more curiosity and interest from unchurched people. While you can debate what Millennials really want out of life, there appears to be a growing attraction in our culture to rebel against consumerism, as the Minimalist movement of the last few years has shown us. People are longing for an alternative to life as they know it. The church is that alternative. Christians obsessed with giving away their lives away trump Christians obsessed with themselves and their preferences.

5. People become the most passionate about the things with which they’re most involved.

A final reason that engagement will drive future church growth is simply this: People become most passionate about the things with which they’re most involved. Just talk to a football dad or a baseball mom. Or your foodie friend who just found yet another recipe. Or your triathlete friend who set another personal best. Engagement fuels involvement. Involvement fuels passion. Passion fuels invitation. That’s why your friend wants you to try that recipe, to watch the game with them and at least attempt a 5k. Engagement leads to invitation. Invitation leads to unchurched people following Jesus. In many ways, this can only be a good thing. 

Over to You

What are you seeing about the decades old use-attendance-to-drive-engagement strategy?