Are People Coming Back to Weekend Services? – Episode 263 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

are people coming back to weekend church services

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Answering your frequently asked questions

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Are people coming back to weekend services? The answer is yes and no.

In 2019, Pew Research reported that “rates of religious attendance” were declining, and we all know the pandemic accelerated that decline. They also reported that 54% of Americans now say they attend religious services a few times a year or less, and only 45% say they attend at least monthly. In other words, more people don’t attend church now than those that do.

However,  the data is also saying “yes.” In the Q3 Unstuck Church Report, we found that average in-person attendance over the previous 12 months has increased by 30%. So, though most churches haven’t returned to attendance patterns before the pandemic, churches are seeing growing attendance again.

HOW CAN WE ENCOURAGE CHURCH ATTENDANCE?

The people currently attending your weekend services can be divided into two groups: People who were a part of the church before the pandemic and have come back, and new people. The great news is, both groups are at your church because they want to be there. So, how can we leverage this knowledge to encourage weekend service attendance? In this episode, Amy and I discuss:

  • Important mindset shifts for this season of ministry
  • Creating a remarkable weekend experience
  • The generational shift in church attendance
  • Why kids ministry is more important than ever
Pew Research reported that 54% of Americans now say they attend religious services a few times a year or less, and only 45% say they attend at least monthly. In other words, more people don’t attend church now than those that do. [episode 263]… Click To Tweet Though most churches haven’t returned to attendance patterns before the pandemic, churches are experiencing attendance growth again. [episode 263] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Everyone attending your weekend services is either someone who attended your church before and came back or a new person. The good news is that both groups are there because they want to be. [episode 263] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Farmers do very different things when they are planting versus when they are harvesting. Different seasons require different priorities. [episode 263] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet
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Transcript

Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Over the last two weeks, Tony and Amy have been answering your most frequently asked questions in our, “Ask Us Anything” podcast series. In this week’s episode, they tackle the pressing question of whether people are really returning to church services again. Before we get to this week’s episode, though, if you’re new to the podcast, head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the show notes. When you do, you’ll get resources to go along with each week’s episode, the leader conversation guide and bonus resources, as well as access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now, before we get into this week’s episode, here’s a word from Tony.

Tony (00:52):

We’ve talked a lot about focus strategies that are actionable and measurable, but what if the only thing stopping you is time? Think of tasks you never seem to catch up on, maybe it’s sermon preparation, volunteer coordination or supporting new members. What if delegating those could save you an average of 15 hours per week? Belay, a modern staffing organization with US based virtual assistance, accounting, social media and website services, has helped busy church leaders do just that for more than a decade. And today Belay has a VIP offer exclusively for Unstuck Church Podcast listeners. To claim this offer, just text “unstuck,” that’s U-N-S-T-U-C-K to 55123. And get back to growing your church with Belay.

Amy (01:49):

Well, welcome back to week three of our “Ask Us Anything” series. Week one, we talked about questions related to the new normal for giving and attendance. In week two, last week, we had Tiffany Deluccia, our sales and marketing director at Unstuck, answer questions related to digital strategy. And by the way, if you missed that, stop listening to this one and go back. It was so full of great words from Tiffany. Wasn’t that a great conversation, Tony?

Tony (02:14):

It was, yeah. I mean, really, I don’t even know why you and I show up every week. I mean we should just have Tiffany on every week for those conversations. Yes, very helpful. But I am looking forward to today’s conversation as well.

Amy (02:26):

Well, this week’s question was asked in a lot of different ways from our listeners, but the bottom line question was around are people coming back to weekend services. And so Tony, I’ll let you take the first stab at answering that question. Are people coming back to weekend services?

Tony (02:41):

Yeah, well, that’s a broad question and the answer is both yes and no. Is that helpful, Amy?

Amy (02:47):

Yes and no. Yeah. Well, any final thoughts, Tony, before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (02:52):

Yeah, it is yes and no. So let’s start with the no first. As I shared in week one of this series, in 2019 Pew Research reported that the rates of religious attendance were declining, and we all know the pandemic accelerated that decline. They also reported that 54% of Americans now say they attend religious services a few times a year or less, and only 45% say that they attend at least monthly. In other words, more people don’t attend church now than those that do. However, I would also say that the data is also telling us, yes, people are coming back to weekend services. In the third quarter Unstuck Church Report, I shared that average in-person attendance over the previous 12 months has increased by 30%. And though most churches haven’t returned to attendance patterns before the pandemic, churches are seeing growing attendance again. And that’s a good thing.

Amy (03:51):

It sure is. And there are two groups of people coming to the weekend service, right? The first group is made up of people who were a part of the church before the pandemic. And the second group is new people, right? New people who are trying out church, and Tony, you’ve shared several times in the past few months that you’re meeting a lot of new people at your church as you serve on the weekend. And that’s a common thing I’m hearing as well with the pastors I meet with each week. And this is great news. Both groups at your church are there because they want to be. So today, maybe, let’s focus our conversations around the good news: that people are coming back to church, and let’s identify some priorities that every church needs to embrace in this next season.

Tony (04:29):

Amy, I like that approach because it’s so optimistic, and I’m such an optimistic guy, don’t you think?

Amy (04:35):

Oh, so optimistic.

Tony (04:37):

Actually, you’re much more the optimist than me. So I’m going to let you take the lead here in today’s conversation. So, Amy, what’s the first priority every church needs to embrace for this next season?

Amy (04:51):

I think the first priority is really adopting a fresh mindset, Tony. We’ve been dripping this concept into our podcast for these past few months, but we need a new starting line. Churches don’t ever have a finish line, so let’s just create one. Let’s start a new starting point, a new starting line, and it’s today. And let’s take a fresh start. And part of that I think is really re-envisioning your mission to your people. You know, remind people of why you exist. Cast a fresh vision of where God is calling your church. I don’t know, Tony. I think people love to be part of something new, and this quote’s been around forever, that “vision leaks” and it does, but so does understanding our mission. People forget about that, too. And people love new things. So to put a fresh spin on that, you know. I think about our multi-site churches, you know, when they launch a new location, everybody begins to rally, right? More people, they step up and serve. They love to be part of something new. And it brings back to mind, Tony, the conversation that we had with Julie Mullens back in, I think it was, January, but we just, you know, spoke with her again a few weeks ago. But she talked about this mindset of when you’re in planting season versus when you’re in harvest season, and it comes out of Ecclesiastes 3, you know, for everything, there is a season, there’s a time to plant and there’s a time to harvest. Re-envisioning of your congregation through the mission and the vision is really how you prepare the soil before you plant. But I loved how she talked that through that this is planting season. So part of planting season, right, is throwing seeds, sharing the gospel, sharing the good news of Jesus. But it also applies to our teams, you know, what they actually spend their time on. And I wanna give credit again where credit’s do. Julie just was a great concept, but farmers do very different things when they’re planting versus when they’re harvesting. So our staff and volunteers might need to be doing different things in this season. And Tony, I know you love to garden.

Tony (06:50):

I don’t know what it is. This is two episodes in a row now that we’ve been talking about gardening. So I don’t know, is this God speaking to me or do I need to get some different people on this podcast?

Amy (07:01):

Yeah, well, I like to garden, and it is clearly harvest season up here in Minnesota. But two months ago? I was doing very different things in my garden than I’m doing now. I was testing my soil. I was planting my seeds, nurturing them, watering and feeding, weeding around them, celebrating any signs of life, you know, when they burst through the ground or get their first flower or fruit on them. And likewise Julie’s team is trying new ministry strategies right now. They’re recognizing they’re in the planting season, and in their context, and I say that because different churches are in different communities and context, but in their context, they sense that they need to open their doors and get people back together for some more face-to-face time. So small groups are meeting back on campus and that was not possible in harvest season, right? They were trying to get everybody out of the buildings, but they’re taking a new mindset and they’re trying something right now. And if I remember, right? Early in the pandemic, they redeployed their staff regardless of their role. They had them call people, visit people, so different seasons just require different priorities. And that mindset shift, Tony, reminded me of Isaiah 43:18-19, you know, when God’s people were in captivity in Babylon, he said, “Forget the former things. Do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up. Don’t you perceive it? I’m making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” So in other words, let’s not focus on the captivity we’ve been in. Instead let’s embrace a new starting line, a fresh vision, this re-envisioning of your mission, and then rally your team around the planting season, asking what strategies need to be developed so that we’re good sowers right now. So I think that’s one of the top priorities every church needs to embrace right now.

Tony (08:46):

Yeah. And just to help catch a picture of this being a planting season and really focusing on the new people that we’re engaging to in the churches, I’ve suggested this to a few churches in recent weeks. If you’ve not done this, you might wanna consider in the middle of one of your services, at some point beginning, middle, whatever. Just ask people if they have started attending your church since let’s say the beginning of the pandemic. So since March 2020, would you stand up? And I think that visual of just seeing all the new people that are engaging at your church would be helpful for them, for one thing, just to see I’m not the only one that’s new to the church and that’s taking next steps, but it would be a good thing for the rest of your church that’s been around for a while, too, to see all those new people that are connecting because I think in this season, there’s just this sense, especially for folks that have been around the church a while. We’re not seeing the momentum. We’re not seeing the impact that our church has had in the past. And for many churches, though, I do think there are a lot of new people showing up, and this would just be a healthy thing for your entire congregation to see all those new people that are engaging. So it’s a planting season, and we need to have that planting mindset right now. Amy, what’s the second priority we need to consider?

Amy (10:13):

I think the second priority is just ensuring you’re actually creating an experience that people want to come to. And I recently heard someone say that people attend a weekend service, but people invite to a weekend experience. And I love that. I wish I gave credit where credit is due, but I can’t remember who said it. You know, I was just working with a church a few months ago in Delaware. And that was my experience. I love that weekend experience wanting to come back and wanting to bring a few of my friends with me. It was just, it was remarkable. It was remarkable. You know, my pre-ministry background, Tony, was in marketing, and one of my favorite authors/bloggers/podcasters in that space is Seth Godin. And he wrote a book, an entire book on this concept of being remarkable. It’s called The Purple Cow. And I actually reread the book when I went into ministry because so many of the concepts aligned with what I was trying to do, which was to create remarkable weekend experiences at my church. And he said, quote, “Something remarkable is worth talking about. It’s worth noticing. It’s exceptional and it’s new.” And I think we all get this, you know, this concept. I mean, think about your own life. When you discover something remarkable, you talk about it, right? My daughter, Sammy, she just recently had a baby boy, and like most newborns, he wasn’t sleeping well. And she was up all night and was actually losing her mind just a little bit. And Tiffany, who was on our podcast last week, who has two young kids, she immediately recommended this online course for new moms that walked through sleeping tactics that helped her when her son was an infant. Well, I bought it for my daughter who immediately took the course, and the next night she got three, three hour blocks of sleep. So guess who is the evangelist for this course now? Right?

Tony (11:53):

That’s right.

Amy (11:54):

Yeah. Seth would actually call her a sneezer because she’s spreading an idea virus. She’s telling everyone she sees about this great website. And she’s sneezing it because it made a difference in her life. It addressed this relevant need. So when people try something, they always ask, will this make a difference in my life? If it does, you’ve got ’em, and if it doesn’t, they move on. So this isn’t a new topic, and I’m probably preaching to the choir, and we’ll get on the solution side in a minute. But remarkable does not describe my general church experience. It’s rare that I feel like I’m experiencing something new, something I wanna remark to others about. And to be clear, they’re usually not bad experiences, but I just don’t leave wanting to go tell my friends about it. So healthy churches grow because their people find the experience transformative, and they tell their friends about it. And Sean on our team and I were just talking. We both used to run surveys in our large congregations, and we both had the same number. 90% of people said that they started attending our churches because a family or friend invited them. Well, let’s get on the solution side. Here’s a few things to consider as leaders strive to ensure what they’re creating on the weekend is remarkable. Tony, do you wanna start?

Tony (13:11):

Yeah. So first, don’t design an experience for everybody. Instead, design an experience for the people in your mission field that you’re trying to reach. In other words, narrow your focus a bit. In my experience, working with hundreds of churches through the years, many churches feel like they’re missing the next generation, which is young families. And if that’s you too, then figure out what their needs are and use the weekend experience to help them with their real needs. And by the way, their needs are probably pretty similar to the needs of those folks that are already coming to your church. So consider who is it specifically that we’re trying to engage? And design an experience with that person in mind. Secondly, take some risks. I love the scripture from Isaiah that you mentioned earlier, Amy. Try a new thing. Take a risk. Three songs, announcements, 35 minutes of talking. It’s become kind of our new tradition as a church. So here’s my challenge. Gather a diverse team, brainstorm the question. What would remarkable be in this season in our context? And what could we try to be remarkable in this season?

Amy (14:19):

Yeah. I really love that idea, Tony. In essence, being safe might actually be the risky move in this case. And the one thing that I would add, and again, maybe inspired by Isaiah. Forget the former things. You know, what was remarkable in 2005, 2015, might not be remarkable in 2022. So what’s the new remarkable? I bet if we took some time to brainstorm that question, some great ideas would surface. And actually I would like to be a part of that team meeting surrounded by some 25-35 year olds to figure out what are those new remarkable things that we could be trying as a church.

Tony (14:57):

And that leads me to what I would say is both an important part of creating a remarkable service and is that it’s really the third priority every church needs to embrace right now. And that is to prioritize kids’ ministry. Barna recently reported that millennials make up the largest group of people who are returning to church. And man, that’s good news.

Amy (15:18):

Surprising.

Tony (15:18):

The percentage of millennials reporting weekly church attendance has increased from 21% to 39% since 2019, and among Gen X, attendance has increased eight percentage points from 24 to 32%. While boomers, on the other hand, we’re seeing a slow decrease in attendance. They’re down from 31% to 25%. So millennials now in that age group, they’re the ones that have the young kids. They’re the ones that are thinking about what does it look like to parent, to guide my kids to take next steps, not only spiritually, but in life. And so we need to program, we need to create experiences with those young parents in mind. And goodness, I’m just encouraged by that because for so long, we’ve been talking about how difficult it is to engage millennials. And thankfully, I always thought, well, they’re slower to get married. They’re slower to start families. Maybe when they start having kids, they’ll also return to church. And we’re actually seeing that now. Back in episode 233, I shared some data from our secret shopper experience, and the strongest correlations in that data, when it came to reaching new people, was first, the guest service experience. And then second, it was the health of the kids’ ministry program and environments. And by the way, this isn’t the first time that our research has found to link between kids’ ministry and churches that are reaching more new people and experiencing growth. And I don’t think we can ignore the opportunity around this, particularly if your church is trying to reach young adults. I have shared with some folks that I love my church, and I love the intentionality they have about engaging young families. And part of my volunteer engagement at the church is I’m connecting with new folks that are showing up for the very first time. And several months ago I saw this new family. They had moved from out of state, and they were kind of doing some church shopping. They came in. I met with them, and they had two young girls. And so, I introduced myself. I told them a little bit about the church. I helped them get their young girls connected in the system so we could get them checked into the kids’ ministry area. And, unfortunately that day, I didn’t see them again after the service. In fact, I didn’t see them until several weeks later. And I ran into them in the lobby and I, again, and I just asked, you know, it’s good to see you. I’m glad that you came back. Have you been coming back every week? And the mom had kind of this sheepish sheepish grin on her face, and she said, no, to be honest, we’ve been checking out some other churches. But yesterday when we were talking with our girls about going to church today, she said, the girls were just begging, can we go back to that first church that we visited? And I thought this is a win because the church, and especially the kids ministry area at the church, they’re so intentional about creating great experiences for kids that, believe it or not, it’s these two little girls that kind of made the church decision for their family. And so, again, it’s that intentionality. And we talk about that word often around here, but my goodness, if you’re trying to reach young adults, young families, you have to be very intentional about the environments that you’re creating for their kids as well.

Amy (18:56):

Yeah. Hey, going back to that Barna research you just shared. I wonder if the pastors listening are experiencing that last stat. The boomers, right? It said while boomers showed a decrease in attendance from 31% to 25%. On our last call with our advisory team, I remember one of the pastors basically saying just that. He said many of our senior adults are perfectly content sitting on their porches Sunday morning, drinking coffee, and then connecting with their small groups. The problem is they aren’t serving, right? They’re not staying connected, you know, to the church. So it brings me back to the first priority of re-envisioning your church around the mission because churches need this generation, right? To serve and help reach the up-and-coming generations and connecting their servanthood to being a part of reaching and discipling, you know, the kids that are there, you know, their grandkids or their children’s ages. I think it’s often a catalyst, in this case, to getting off the porch and getting back into ministry. Well, I hope people enjoyed the good news that people are coming back to weekend services. And as always, I hope there was at least one takeaway for every listener related to how they can improve their readiness when people show up. Tony, any final thoughts you wanna share before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (20:10):

Yeah, if you need some help defining your fresh vision for the future or identifying the priority initiatives your team needs to rally around, especially in this season, we’d love to help. In fact, over the last six weeks, we’ve served 28 churches helping them do just that. So if you’d like for us to come in and help you shape this vision, this direction for the future, especially around the weekend service experience, please reach out to us and you can do that at theunstuckgroup.com.

Sean (20:41):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. As we mentioned at the top of the podcast, our friends at Belay have a VIP offer exclusively for Unstuck Church Podcast listeners. Belay’s modern staffing solutions have helped busy church leaders delegate important details for over a decade. Their US based contractors provide virtual assistance, accounting, social media, and website services to level up your church through the power of delegation. To claim your VIP offer, just text “unstuck,” that’s U-N-S-T-U-C-K to 55123. That’s 55123. And get back to growing your church with Belay. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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