Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Invisible Members

Most churches think about their worshipers as falling into two main categories: active members and visitors.  The "active member" is someone they count on to attend at least 45 times per year, pledge, serve on a committee.  The "visitor" is the person who has attended one, two, or maybe three times - after which churches pretty much expect that they will decide to stick around or not.

But the new reality is that the average family - especially one with children - attends church 20-30 times per year.  To them, that's plenty frequent.  It's a lot more than most of their friends.  It represents those Sundays when they didn't have a kid's sports game or family vacation taking precedence.  These members are often invisible to a church's planning; they continue to be regarded as an anomaly - even dismissed as not fully committed - which is why you are likely to lose them.

As a church attracts the modern family, it begins to change the actual norms of a congregation, which many church leaders have been very slow to adapt to.  Here is what it looked like for us statistically, as we examined our 2015 numbers:

  • Membership was up 3%.
  • Stewardship was up 10%!
  • Worship attendance fell 2%
So this is what I believe is a critical question for church leaders to wrestle with:

How do we structure our churches around a norm of persons attending 20-30 Sundays per year?

We are taking three main steps:

1.  Fewer programs, planned further in advance, communicated redundantly

If people can't attend every Sunday, how often will you get them for a church event?  Not often.  So we are more strategic about which events we want them to attend, and actively paring the number of events back.  And to make sure they can attend, we plan earlier (get on their calendar as soon as possible!) and communicate redundantly by every means possible, including multiple pulpit announcements on successive weeks, multiple email blasts, and even direct mail (paper still has a use).

2.  More opportunities to stay connected other than on Sunday

The younger churchgoers want to leverage the time they have into making even a small difference in the world.  So we are planning more "quick hit" mission opportunities.  Lots of collections of things - even if they are busy four Sundays in a row, they can stay connected by dropping off a bag of clothing, a used cell phone, a package of food.  Give them chances to be a part of doing some good in the community that fits into their schedules. 

3.  Stress online giving

We signed up with an online giving provider (eChurchGiving, aka PushPay) that gave us both a mobile giving solution and the ability to create a fantastic smartphone app.  We did a soft launch of the online giving over the summer of 2015, with a big push at the end of the year.  The main strategic push is for people to setup automatic recurring gifts.  Most people budget their expenses monthly.  Encouraging people to set up an automatic, monthly, electronic gift to the church ensures a steady flow of income even during those stretches when they cannot be physically present.  Seven months after launch, our members have already set up automatic recurring gifts that amount to 11% of our projected offerings for 2016.

We are still working through the adaptation adjustments to this new reality.  The biggest danger is that it is really easy to over-rely on the few persons whom you can still count on to be there every single week.  Chasing down the less-frequent attendee is more work.  Adapting your schedule to theirs is inconvenient.  But the alternative is burning out your diminishing number of every-week attendees - and worse, leaving the less-frequent attendee feeling disconnected from the life of the congregation.

So we don't have all the answers, but we believe we're asking the right questions.