By Eddie Lowen
Three college buddies and I decided to attend a conference that was 1,200 miles away. Inadequate budgets didn’t allow us to book a hotel along the way. Inadequate brains didn’t allow us to consider anything other than a 24-hour marathon drive.
During the early morning hours of our journey, as three of us napped, our on-duty driver missed a turn. About an hour later, I awoke and asked, “Where are we?” The answer: 50 miles off course. That’s how missed turns are discovered. Someone wakes up and says, “Hey, this is not where we intended to be.”
The insidious thing about a missed turn is the normalcy that follows. As my college friends and I sped down the wrong interstate, we were content and cozy. The tires continued to turn, while the engine hummed the same sound. The odometer was adding miles, suggesting progress, as familiar tunes played in the background.
When Churches Miss Turns
It’s painfully obvious that many churches now find themselves on a desolate road they never intended to travel. With church closures rising, church attendance declining, and church relevance lower than ever (from the perspective of the unchurched), many churches are saying, “How did we get here?”
The answer is: one missed turn at a time. Nearly every church that closes its doors was vibrant at some point. Look into any church’s history and you’ll discover a season of enthusiasm, newcomers, and momentum.
Unfortunately, there are no Intersection Ahead signs for churches. Leaders must scan the horizon to evaluate upcoming intersections and possible turns. Most churches coast blindly through them. Churches fail far more often from indecision than from bad decisions.
Allow me to highlight some turns that churches can miss. I’ll use street sign language to help.
From Obligation Way to Elective Avenue
Many churches are still hoping for a cultural revival that brings people back to church. They recall the days when “good people” went to church because that’s what good people did. During that era, even those who didn’t attend church faithfully would pretend they did.
Today, nearly everyone has stopped pretending church is important to them. There is almost zero cultural shame associated with missing church. So, why pretend to do what nearly no one expects you to do? It’s fine to post on Facebook that Sunday is your “favorite day” because you always sleep in, cook waffles, and watch the first NFL game in your pajamas.
Rise to the Challenge, Church!
If your church does not already strategize to give people a reason to participate, you’ve missed an important turn. If you’re waiting for people to return to church because they should, you are like the sad guy sitting in a restaurant awaiting his no-show date; he simply will not admit he’s been stood up.
Yes, I know what the Bible says about not forsaking “the assembly.” But our culture has jettisoned churchgoing as a value. That’s our reality. We now live in a time when churches must either give people a reason to attend, or wave goodbye to them.
Obligation Way is closed forever. The vast majority of people will participate in church only if they are convinced it is beneficial and worthwhile in the short-term.
At a recent new member event, a man waited 15 minutes for me to finish several conversations, just so he could tell me something. He said, “Eddie, I grew up Catholic and lost interest in going to church. My wife began coming here, then asked me to try it with her. Now I hate the thought of missing services here. I wake everyone else up, so we won’t be late. I’m now the guy at work telling my buddies they have to attend my church.”
Obligation doesn’t work. Giving people a reason to attend does.
The cultural shift I’m describing presents us with a choice: we can bemoan how times have changed, or we can overcome today’s cultural reality by giving people reasons to participate. Is it possible the church got lazy during the decades when so many people were committed to attending, regardless of the quality and content? Is it possible the church is like the spoiled child who was handed everything, then had trouble earning his own way?
If you’re bothered or bummed by what I’m suggesting, don’t be. All is not lost. People still want to hear sermons that resonate. People still want to worship a great God. In fact, people still want to sacrifice for something bigger than themselves. But if you want them in your church gatherings, you’ve got to earn the right to be heard by bringing your A game. There are no more freebies when it comes to church growth and health. The sooner we face the truth, the sooner we’ll see the trend turn in a better direction.
I don’t have room in this column to thoroughly unpack more missed turns, but I’ll mention a few so that you can consider them.
From Variety Circle to Laser Lane
It used to be cool for churches to hand people a brochure that outlined 100 ways to get involved. These days, if you want people to engage and grow, you must show them a path. Design a discipleship strategy and say, “This is how we do it here.”
From Counting Court to Mission Highway
Back in the day, churches attracted the boomer generation by having good worship services and counting things. Count the attendees, offerings, buildings. Count the number of missionaries or mission dollars. Boomers love counting.
However, younger generations are actually skeptical of big numbers and of people who seem too anxious to count things. It seems shallow to them. They are more interested in making their lives count than in counting things.
Counting isn’t dead—but counting for the sake of counting is so yesterday. That’s why your church needs a genuine mission that draws people in, not just numbers that add people up.
From Perfect Attendance Parkway to Twice-monthly Turnpike
This should be an article of its own, but there’s a reality our churches must face: our most committed people are attending less. Why? I can answer in two words: kids and money.
Kids: since Sunday is no longer “church day” for our culture, kids’ activities are now booked on Sundays. Even spiritually sincere parents don’t have the heart to exclude their kids from sports teams and other activities to do church.
Money: more people have the money to get away on weekends. As people acquire the resources to travel, they do. They may totally love your church, but they will not pass on the opportunity to head for the beach, the lake, or the amusement park in order to stay home and attend.
This has implications for volunteer scheduling. It has implications for online and evening services. It has implications for how people give. It has implications for small groups and ministry teams and worship rehearsals. You can fight it and preach commitment—yes, there’s a time to challenge people on these things—or you can recognize it and learn to work with it.
See any turns ahead? Slow down enough to evaluate them.
Eddie Lowen serves as lead minister with West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.