Coronavirus could set the church back 25 years

Twenty-five years ago, I began warning the church about its overemphasis on “attractional” strategies — that is, the come-to-us stance taken by many churches influenced by the church growth movement back then.

I wasn’t the only one, I know. Other voices made similar pleas, urging church leaders to resist the temptation to become more like marketers and less like missionaries.

But it was difficult for some people to hear our cry. They had been shaped by an ecclesiology that emphasized numerical growth over all else. And they had come to believe that to grow a church you needed the right-sized building, in the right area, with ample parking, and friendly parking lot attendants.

They’d been taught that a growing church needed a certain kind of excellent preaching, as well as an inspiring contemporary worship experience delivered by positive, upbeat leaders.

They had given countless hours to trying to deliver the best children’s and youth ministries in order to attract families, and a good program of cell groups built around a Christian education model to ensure pastoral care and a sense of community.

And because they knew every other church in town was trying the same thing, they had to make sure that next week at their church was better than last week in order to keep the people coming back.

This led someone to quip, “Church Growth – (1) advertise; (2) let people know about product benefits; and (3) be nice to new people.”

 

And the observable fact is that it worked! Churches that employed these strategies did grow. And so much so, they gave rise to a new kind of church – the megachurch.

In the 1970s, when the church growth movement was getting started, there were less than 100 churches with more than 2000 members (the accepted size of a megachurch). By 2012, there were 1600.

The number of megachurches in America nearly doubled during every decade over the last fifty years. In 1960, there was one megachurch for every 7.5 million Americans. In 2010, there was one for every 200,000 Americans. In fact, (fun fact) there are as many megachurches today in the greater Nashville area as there were in the entire country in 1960.

But as good as this sounds, it has to be compared with general church attendance records across the US. When you look at them you see that church membership has dropped from 71 percent in 1973 to 50 percent in 2018.

In other words, the US has more megachurches than ever before and less people attending churches than ever before.

I’m not suggesting all megachurches are bad. It could be argued that church membership stats would be even worse had it not been for megachurches. But as a strategy to reach more people with the gospel, the church growth movement, by its own measure, has failed.

As I said earlier, many of us have been calling the church to abandon the attractional mode and shift toward a more missional approach, one where growth isn’t merely measured by the 3 B’s; bodies, bucks, and buildings. We’ve yearned for churches that aren’t simply purveyors of religious good and services, but communities of mission-shaped disciples.

I thought we were making progress. I was under the impression pastors and church planters were getting the message. I honestly thought the church was shifting from its attractional stance to a more missional one.

Then the coronavirus hit, and churches went into lockdown, shuttering all their services and ministries and putting everything online.

And the result?

Since COVID-19 hit, church growth has spiked 300 per cent!

That’s right, according to the weekly polling undertaken by Carey Nieuwhof’s Church Pulse Weekly in association with Barna Research, 49% of all churches are growing right now.

Compare that to the 10-15% that were growing before the pandemic was unleashed.

Nieuwhof reports, “So literally in 30 days, we’ve moved from a tiny percentage of churches growing to virtually half of all churches growing. What’s even more surprising is that the growth trend holds up in every church size category… if you have 75 people attending, 750 or 7500.”

You’d think this was a good thing, and Carey Nieuwhof clearly thinks it is. But I don’t.

It’s the church growth movement on steroids!

 

The church growth movement began before the Internet. Back then, “church shoppers” had to drive around to their few favorite churches to try what each one had to offer on any given Sunday. The bigger ones advertised on billboards and television, but it was still a “try-before-you-buy” arrangement.

Then, with the Internet and the proliferation of church websites and advertising campaigns, church shoppers could check out who was preaching or what was on offer (like viewing a menu) and then attend whichever service caught their fancy. But they still had to get in their car and turn up to the service.

Now that all these church services are online every Sunday, they don’t even need to leave the comfort of their own home. Church shopping has taken on a whole new meaning. It’s UberEats for churches.

And every time someone logs onto an online church service, even for just part of the time, it’s recorded as an attendance and up, up, up go the numbers.

My grave fear is that this spike in online attendance will be as illusory as the growth of megachurches last century. It will serve to mask the reality that less and less people are devoted to a wholehearted commitment to Christ, and more and more people see church as an event, a shot in the arm, a convenient uplift that doesn’t challenge their everyday life in any way.

There’s an old marketing saying that goes, “What you win them with, you win them to.”

 

If you’re winning people to a ten or fifteen minute viewing of a prepackaged worship and teaching experience, devoid of community, mission, correction, reconciliation or justice, you’re not growing the church. You’re fostering religious consumers.

Please don’t mishear me. I have no doubt that in all those hours and hours of online content there is plenty of beautiful biblical teaching and God-honoring worship. To all those erstwhile pastors and worship leaders and tech people who are engineering all these services to be accessed online, all power to you! You’ve got to do whatever you can to maintain a semblance of belonging during this lockdown.

But my fear is that this deadly virus might cause the kind of glitch in church-business-as-usual that sets us back 25 years, competing with each other to attract the largest audience share, expecting less and less of our viewers, and mistakenly calling it “church growth.”

 

 

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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32 thoughts on “Coronavirus could set the church back 25 years

  1. Amen

  2. Yes, I have heard how excited some people are about the number of viewers watching their live-stream services. In the past few weeks I have done my fair share of ‘surfing’ around some of the options though mainly within my own Anglican denomination (Australia). What is interesting now is that these culturally-based assumptions about increased attendances are on display along with the particular version of ecclesiology that goes with it.
    I recognise that for many people in my local area they find comfort in the live-stream service, the familiar face of their priest. But when one of the major challenges for the church is increasing clericalism, this is not helping but rather looks to exacerbate the problem.
    So much energy is being spent on “doing church” live and that it is only being done by the clergy. This is all part of the approach to “church” that has been around for the past three decades, the marketing, the ‘performance’, the event, and dare I say it, finding the worship music you like.
    However, this is the time of ‘exile’, a chance to reflect, to reconnect with people around us, to assess what is really essential for “being God’s people” involved in God’s mission in this strange new world.

  3. Well said, Mike. Quite sobering to me. My fear is that if this shelter-at-home, and the near complete shut-down of the economy, continues for much longer, decisions will soon have to be made that will affect nearly every church.

    Here in America in the midwest where I live, I have preached in many different churches in the heartland that pretty-much live from one Sunday offering to the next. There are thousands and thousands of these kinds of churches in America. And yes, there are many mega-churches that have more resources, for sure. But even there, there are a whole lot of givers that live from one pay check to the next. One of my neighbors who is very involved in his big church told me since he is not working and has no income: “I have no idea how I can continue to giving financially to my church. I give online and my bank account is debited every month on the same day. But I’m going to have to change that real soon if there are no changes in what happens with COVID-19.”

    It’s all pretty sobering. Jesus still says, “Don’t be afraid.” “I have overcome the world.”

    May God be merciful to His Church around the world that is called to be salt and light.

  4. Interesting read Mike…
    Perhaps, just perhaps, COVID19 could, rather than set churches back 25 years, may have lead people to reconsider their once Relationship with a Resurrected Jesus, the frailty of human life, and a preparedness to explore afresh God and a Fresh Start with their Faith…

    Nothing quite like a Pandemic to turn back the attention of His People, to the Most Significant Event in Humanity Ever; and to open Breathtaking Awesome Doors of Opportunities in Proclaiming the Great Commandment and the Great Commission!

    For in the end, it is a Resurrected Jesus, God, the Creator of Humanity, that thinks so highly of You and Me, that He wants to Enjoy A Relationship With Us…Mindblowing!

  5. And inoculating another generation of people from the power of the Spirit

  6. I think that we can distinguish between online models where someone logs in to a worship service performed on their tv or lap top, from an interactive one where you log in to a shared online experience… worship includes greetings, the exchange of joys and concerns , shared prayer and singing. Ours is an average sized traditional protestant denominational church… our attendance has nearly tripled. Not just in Sunday worship , but interactive Bible Study and weekly Prayer group and Mission teams ( working with deacons to minister to those with the virus and their families) We are in one of the US hotspots…. Ultimately , people are drawn to our community because of the need to be connected. Because we want to continue to be personally engaged we do not “market” the log in to the world on our web site, but welcome members to invite and share the log in with people they know, and who they want to connect to our community. Whether it results in “church growth” going forward is less important than meeting the needs of the community around us…

  7. Great article, Mike.

    But the scariest problem is that the “church growth” people are reporting is almost certainly a myth of legendary proportions. Given how much he has invested in the digital world, Carey should know better.

    For a bit of context: I’m a worship leader and the Director of Worship at a healthy church plant in Nashville. I’ve also owned a marketing agency for the past twelve years. It may surprise you to learn that I agree with almost everything you’ve said here.

    Back to the problem: What I’ve seen instead is few churches have even managed to maintain their previous attendance numbers in actual attention. Most churches are reporting nearly useless metrics, I can only assume without understanding what they mean or willfully ignoring their true meaning for the purpose of posturing. For example, many churches I’ve come across (including our parent church) were taking Facebook’s “peak live viewers” (or even worse, reach) number as a proxy for attendance while gleefully ignoring the difference from the total view count on Facebook live. For example, our parent church took our “Peak Live Viewers” number and multiplied by its normal factor for adults to kids in order to determine total all ages attendance. So, their records showed that we had a bumper crop of 1700 people in the “room”. I can only imagine what their own numbers looked like.

    The reality? Digging a little deeper showed that, instead, we had a mere 168 returning viewers who watched our Livestream for more than one minute. At most, accounting for households and overlap, we had 350ish people of all ages watching our live stream on Facebook on the week in question. We’re a church of 600 in what was the real world. What churches are failing to realize is that Facebook serves videos to people at a nearly endless stream, causing a HUGE and perpetual churn in Livestream viewers that is happening the entire time. Because the “live viewers” count appears steady, people assume that folks are watching the entirety of their stream…. few are. The math isn’t hard either. Look at your peak live viewers and the total views and notice the discrepancy. In most cases, it is probably very large. That should give those churches pause before celebrating. The real number they should be looking at is “returning viewers” and retention rate, but both are buried inside Facebook’s insights platform. And with good reason: Facebook want you to not quit streaming. Those numbers are quickly deflating. Good marketing isn’t based on building the lie, it’s telling the truth better. But the church, including some huge churches that I know and love, are celebrating a reach it isn’t actually having. It’s nearly tragic. I pray we can celebrate a true new awakening, but this isn’t it, not yet.

    The second thing we noticed is that retention from newsfeed Facebook shares was very low. It turns out Facebook was better at serving our Livestream videos to interested parties than our people were at recommending it through newsfeed shares. Why does this matter? That those Facebook algorithm recommendations were likely not reaching new people at all, but instead, people who fit the criteria of those who watch long, Christian theme content. AKA preaching to the bored and lonely choir. But personal invites in Messenger or reaching out to people we actually know IRL off-network? Of course, that works. Like it always has. Like it always will.

    Which sort of serves your point, if we’ve settled for numerical success instead of reaching real people in the real world, it reveals pretty quickly the degree to which our heart for the lost has been upended by our need to serve our own egos and fuel our pride and sense of legitimacy. It’s easy (albeit foolish in the long run) to play with numbers. Real behavior is much harder to change and often takes something more like long obedience in the same direction.

    1. Thanks for the truth check. You have helped me to discern a more humble reality and a more realistic image of what is happening.

  8. Sir how do we reestablish Matthew 4:19 as the foundational basis for life as missional communities. Can Christopher J.H. Wrights’ book The Mission of God, Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative be a start in moving away from consumer Christianity? He says that, “his concern has been to develop an approach to biblical hermeneutics that sees the mission of God (and the participation in it of God’s people) as a framework within which we can read the whole Bible.” (Preface The Mission of God) I believe that the house is only as good as the foundation it is built upon!

  9. I sure hope you’re wrong friend! My hope is that people are learning what it looks like to be present in their neighborhood without an event. I’ve wondered if they are developing new habits without event knowing it…ie. “I haven’t been to a building in 8 weeks and look, I’m still a Christian and now know my neighbors.” I’ve hoped it will spur incarnation and house/dinner churches. But, as with everything, I’m sure there will be consumers of online services as well. Very interesting read on the possible future.

  10. It’s a an interesting premise and certainly speaks to the attractional mode of Church “faux growth”. But could it be, that rather than set the Church back 25 years, CV-19 has in fact simply exposed the fact that the Church never truly left CG? Certainly there have been those who have embraced missional modes of community, but maybe what we’re now seeing with this mini-revival of “likes” or “views” is simply an ensconcing into what has continued to be. Rather than catapulting the Church deeper into community it’s simply sent it “back to the future” with the only difference being that it’s behind a computer screen?

  11. Maybe it’ll set the church back 1,960 years to when it was actually a church.

  12. Tim Peery, I agree with you. Maybe this unchecked virus will be used by God to bring people back to Himself and we will see REAL Christianity.

  13. I”m excited to see where this lands. It could be an overdue correction in the way people see church. I agree with Tim Peery on this one. What we have promoted and served for too long is not what Jesus modeled or left us with. The professionally-religious will need to adjust to a new reality that is less pew/program and pass-the-plate dependant and centred. For pastors who have wanted out for too long but have been afraid of losing status or income, this may be the push that gets them onto a new path. For people who have attended from a sense of obligation or guilt or for lack of creative thinking…this must be a great taste of what many who have already left the building have enjoyed. I’ve been encouraging people to slip out the back door or institutional church for years so the prospect of this change is hopeful all around. This could be really really good!!!

  14. Fair enough Michael. Here in Australia we can’t congregate in groups larger than two. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on a Missional solution in this circumstance. Does it come back to the personalised perspective of I’m a disciple making another disciple via the on line platforms?

  15. I totally hear the concern about moving back to an attractional model of church… but so far (with my admittedly limited vantage point) I’ve seen the opposite! I’m watching churches get creative about how they build genuine connection during the week, and how they serve those around them. People are learning the value of community in a new way. I’m actually excited to see how this season brings churches of all shapes and sizes to back to the heart of Christ.

    Mike, I’d love to hear your thoughts on creative ways for churches to be missional in this time. Are there any clever ways we could implement BELLS, or take advantage of the fact that it’s easier than ever for someone to ‘walk into’ church?

    1. Here’s some ways to be missional:

      Prayer walk your neighbourhood, praying for each household | Pray generally for those infected, those in high risk categories, and for politicians and decision makers | Offer to pray for your neighbours | Host a front yard prayer meeting (appropriately distanced) | Write encouraging messages on the sidewalk in chalk | Set up a chalkboard in front of your house and write fun and encouraging messages | Deliver gifts (hampers, toilet paper bouquets, cookies) | Drop notes in your neighbour’s letterboxes offering practical help, like shopping for the elderly | Launch a street Facebook page to share needs, ideas, jokes, and encouragement with your neighbours | Talk to neighbours as you walk (keeping your required distance, of course) | If you’re musical, hold a driveway concert | Join a front window bear hunt for local kids | Host a virtual dinner party using Zoom | Project a film onto the side of a building for your neighbours to watch from their front yards | If you live in an apartment, lower a basket by rope filled with comfort items for the homeless | Set up a little pantry outside your home and fill it with toilet paper and non-perishables | For apartment dwellers, launch a balcony choir or exercise class | Host an online trivia quiz | Clean up trash from the streets and parks | Begin podcasting or blogging to share your faith | Raise funds for a cause using an online donations platform | Try to form a coalition of pastors, business leaders, community leaders, and others to help meet the needs of families and those in financial difficulty |

  16. Hey Mike,
    Totally understand and not sure I can completely agree that this will set us back 25 years. I actually feel-think it could propel us forward. Sure, there will be anecdotal evidences, especially if a church is “attraction” and “event” oriented… Hence the comments you make regarding consumerism. My middle son attends university in an honour computer engineering programme. He’s a straight A top shelf nerd. He only attends about ⅓ – ½ of his lectures – watches them on line at 1.5x speed, saves not just class room time, but commuting. But he’s a nerd… It works. He is deep invested in ministry and three tutoring jobs… so he is managing his time. Hard to argue and for him learning is not face-to-face oriented. BUT most people are not download information learners, but engaged learners. That is reason one.

    AND many churches are not centred at consumer events online on the sofa. While we’ve seen inline consumption of movies sky rocket – we also still see people going to movie theatres, especially the boutique where the engagement and experience is wider than just the movie. Being part of a church service is more than just watching it on a screen – so much is lost, including the consumer experience in being there, worship, engagement with others, etc.

    Third though, my main reasons why is may propel us forward: The church is not a deliverer of some abstract information. For most saints, even in our consumer centric world – which I hope is being shattered or at least set back big time in this virus, there is the tribal aspect of people.

    1. From any society’s earliest days we are “tribal” – having a people, going together, journey more important than destination is vital. In our global over connected world, we’re seeing devolution take place in every space in the world. Americans see themselves now more as their region, or maybe their state – not the USA… The UK… when I was a lad, you’d see mostly if not only the Union Jack, then you saw the Scottish and Welsh flags, but now you see even the flag of St George… and regional identities are resorting within. I see it in NZ and in Aus… people need tribal defining and identity and know where they belong.

    Nothing I do is flash. I’m not live streaming – it’d come across so weak, but we are working at the relational level before C-19, and are working hard through it… we are growing and the defining common these is “welcome, community, belong, room at the table, purpose, communities (shared purpose we commit to… you know this word so well) etc. It’s the known face-to-face and it is how the Gospel has always thrived and been spread, not flash programme.

    2. We’re also at heart religious people… we naturally establish “thin spaces” where it is spiritual. We hold to the one true and Living God… I do! Yet, all people do this… we know, Gen 1, created in our image, male & female… even in our deconstructed casual individual experience of God, we yet long and set aside thin spaces and even when denying it, even when people are doing funerals in parks – they want a setting where the “space is thinner” – but many yet with an echo of Christ in their heritage, want those defining moments in a church – that looks sacred, that is a thin space, not a corporate conference room. No one longs to be married in Hill Song or Saddleback… no; they want a spiritually defined thin space.

    Sure, there will be wider tech utilisation… my people already asking if we could live stream weekly when we’re back together for when people can’t attend… I’m going to resist it (above reasons & my detesting being a tele-preacher…) mainly for the defining of what is the church – a people, not a service.

    Just my 2¢… Cheers!

  17. In regards to my above comment: Actually agreeing with you – Not disagreeing with you, in your thoughts, actually agreeing – and resisting the tech flash mob idea of marketing God in the tech plug and play idea.

  18. Thank you for this article. I do not see the consumer church or the missional church freeing people from the dark places where most christians hide their entire life. What about a miracle healing church, but not the outward show that we normally have seen, but one where pastors and leaders speak honestly about the salvation “healing”they are experiencing in their lives. The increasing freedom from the power of sin they are living.

  19. I have no idea if this”ll take us forward or backwards. I imagine it will have positives and negatives. I am worried that quite a few are really enjoying “doing church” in the pjs with comfy chairs and good coffee (and i can’t bear to think of the mute button 🙂 ) Thtas fun for a while but the lack of person to person stuff is a worry in these already crazily individualistic days.
    But at the same time, quiet a few people who dont normally come to church hare apparently watching the livestreaming (and got one lady watching and being encouraged in Siberia! – she is apparently the only Christian in her village – that she knows of.
    These seem positives, but helping Christians disengage from the community …. thats a worry.

  20. Whilst I found the article helpful and striking a need cautionary note. I can only report my personal experience. Whilst numbers aren’t everything they do point to something. We mow have people positively engaging with the church who would never have attended our Sunday service. We know this because of the largely positive comments that they are leaving. One of my wife’s colleagues asked her if she could log into our service (she is not a Christian and doesn’t attend church) or was it just for the congregation. She logged in and found it really helpful, my wife is now able to have meaningful and open conversations with her. This does feel to me to be missional. That story could be repeated many times over just in our congregation. Other churches in the area are also reporting the same thing. A large Episcopal church in the centre of Edinburgh made the national news because of the impact the their services were having. So whilst, I agree, that there are dangers that we should be aware of, there are also wonderful opportunities, especially for the local church. I can only report that we have found increased opportunities to engage with our local community. But then we were already engaged and are seeking to live missionally through lots of social action.

  21. A very interesting and sobering article with some very well made points, definitely worth church leaderships looking at how they are evangelising and their motives behind that.

    A quick point, the Gallup survey about declining church memberships appears (unless I’m reading it wrong, happy to be corrected) to be based on a survey question about “attendance to a church, synagogue or mosque”. This would seem to look at general attendance at organised religious institutions, but certainly not just Christians attending churches. It may be that numbers attending churches has fallen, but it may also be that as tensions rose in the middle-east people stopped attending mosques which accounts for the fall.

    I’m not saying the claim is definitely wrong, but you can’t make that claim from the data provided. It might add more validity to the article to look for a different source. Just a thought…

  22. “If you’re winning people to a ten or fifteen minute viewing of a prepackaged worship and teaching experience, devoid of community, mission, correction, reconciliation or justice, you’re not growing the church. You’re fostering religious consumers.

    Or maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re giving people who otherwise wouldn’t turn up at all, because of the judgemental attitudes they believe (right or wrong) that they’re going to be met with, an opportunity to feel safe while they approach church. And avoid being criticised and shamed for saying no this place isn’t for me, maybe that one is.

    Fact is, many people would feel like a megachurch service was in fact a pre-packaged “experience” that left them feeling invisible and lonely anyway, and had very little to do with what they came there looking for. Watching three or four online services from small local churches, seeing them doing the best they can to keep their communities together in some very troubling times, being human and a bit rough around the edges instead of presenting a slick (marketing?) package, and feeling safe to just listen and see how they might connect with it – if you seriously think that is the end of church, you have no idea what church is.

    1. I’m with you. 4 soils.

  23. Amen Mike! We’re into this: http://www.livingandtelling.org.uk 🙂

  24. Interesting comments that we are seeing people who were not engaging doing so. We know part of it is crisis grabbing. Some will fade away and some will go on, 4 soils.

    I do not believe it’s sustainable in the consumer model of online as you commented. As a bridge, I’ll do and use a lot. Did a whiskey tasting men’s event Last month. Thoughts of you!

  25. There is both a physical and spiritual aspect to church community. How the coronavirus will impact churches will depend on where the latter is (has been invested) on. The purely ‘physical’ churches will be like the house built on sand. They are bound to fall. But for churches or small groups connected by God’s spirit, physical distance will not ever separate them. They are houses that are built on ‘rock’.

  26. I very much agree. I have also argued for years that church = people, and should be a 24/7 local presence with meeting as a refuelling station for that daily witness of observable lives in and with the community. Not a weekly self-centred, consumer fix (what a friend of mine called ‘Christian hedonism’). On a practical level we are finding that churches with an already well-established local footprint have a head start in serving their communities in this current crisis.

  27. Hi Mike
    Hope you are well. Interesting to get caught up on church stats. I didn’t read all the comments so someone has probably already said something like this. But my thought is that this might be a good thing as “church goers” are now staying home or better in their neighbourhoods. I thought that our ecclesiology shifted to people in place or better the neighbourhood? And that the commuter gathering on Sunday was a bit problem anyway in that it dislocated folks? So my take would be that the church is advancing 25 years through this. Hoping it’s a new era of christians taking responsibility for their neighbours/hoods!

  28. Hey Mike. Thanks so much for the reminder that it’s the quality not quantity of interaction with the world. I love your quote about what you win them with, you win them to! I’m going to try and win some people with love for God and for my neighbours this week.

  29. Thanks Mike. The statistics I imagine are worse for small churches: my experience in working with large denominations with smaller footprint is definitely worse regardless of Covid19. Thank God for Mega Churches because most people have not heard of smaller churches. Thank God for smaller churches because some people may not have not have had great community in mega churches. Thank God for the Church.

    Living in Australia my experience will no doubt be different to the family in America. The church is not set back 25 years as it assumes a timetable we all don’t have access to today. There is someone today that God is stirring to pray fast and humble themselves for their neighbour, their country and their family. I am confident for that person to bring renewal and to propel others into the future 50 years. Caleb and Jacob I imagined tried so hard to convince 10 other family groups that there is a lot more available that we can imagine here. Statistics never drive the church to grow, humble hearts hungry for loved ones do.

    Thanks for your continued work.

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