The problem? How to find, include, and keep more people coming to your church.
Actually, that is three problems. Read on, and I will point to answers for all three. I will give you the target, but you will need more to develop the bows and arrows to hit the target. I have plans and materials for each of these elements, but I can only give you a few tips. A minimal investment will generate amazing results if you invest in yourself.
I want you to think about that VW bus’s four wheels and interior. We are going to explore how easy it is to grow if you pay attention to the right elements. Hint: There are 5 of them to look for. The visual might help you focus.
But for now – before we get to the key problems – you should be asking three questions. These questions will help prevent you from heading into a pit of paralyzing overwhelm.
Is this simple enough? If you can’t explain an idea in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, you will have a rough time implementing it.
Is this doable? If you haven’t enough energy to change how you invest about one hour each week, you are unlikely to get past your first burst of new energy. You are likely to run out before you get any results.
Is this affordable? If you don’t have any money,, you must work without it. But if you do have money, every dollar you invest must, in due course, bring back more than a dollar in income, or it won’t be sustainable.
Evaluate every possible jump-starting plan – including this one – by looking at all three areas. You can’t be anyone else. So, just become a better version of yourself. That applies to your church as well.
Don’t fall into the trap of saying, “I knew that,” with something you agree with but not having the history of being able to say, “I do that.” At least agree in advance that if you believe something here, you will say, “I will do that.”
This document will take you less than 20 minutes to read. Please pay attention, Your future may depend on it!
Stay with it, and you will find “The Church Bus” breaks it down in a practical way that any church can use. And in case you haven’t guessed it yet, this is about a metaphor not an actual bus.
Why is it so hard to do church these days? Everywhere you turn, someone has another “you should” for you to add. Do you remember the day when it was all about bussing people (mostly kids) to church? It was almost like you felt ashamed if you didn’t buy into that. Some people thought you actually didn’t care to reach people. This isn’t about that or any other direct method. It is more about how you choose what to do to grow your church.
You don’t want to add an extra hour to your day. You get 24. That’s it. Oh, and then they tell you “you should” avoid burnout. You get seven days. That’s it. Oh, and you are supposed to take one of those off. If you are a pastor, everyone else is “off” on Sunday, and you are at work. You only work one hour that day, they say. So “you should” be free to attend the Sunday afternoon barbeque and pool party. “You should” take a break and have some fun. And “you should” post your opinions on every current issue so others can bad-mouth you on their favorite social media platform. And “you should” be advertising on that social media platform and all the others. You can’t do it all, so it is a puzzle as to what to do next. Then someone may suggest “you should” be less distracted, and perhaps you need some ADHD meds. The list is endless, so let’s resist adding more pain. But it is a puzzle. Does it all seem overwhelming? That’s because it is. What next? It is a puzzle.
Most puzzles and riddles are not hard once you know the answer.
The good news is that it is much easier than we think. It has to be easier because Jesus can’t have given us the Great Commission and then have it be a kind of three-dimensional puzzle that we can’t figure out. And if making new disciples isn’t possible today, why would Jesus ever expect that of us?
Insufficient Engines for Growth
Here are some things you are going to read in contemporary books. They aren’t all wrong, but they miss the bullseye, and some even hit the wall, not the target. Maybe you have tried some of these.
These issues taken as a sufficient means of growing a church will not hit the bullseye. They aren’t totally unimportant or irrelevant. They are not of first importance given the needs of current Western culture. Here are three things you most likely have already. And you can always do better with each of them.
1. Better preaching/teaching
Something is wrong if you are talking in an echo chamber and people aren’t changing. But finding or becoming a better preacher won’t help if they don’t listen. The further you get into the details of theological discussions, the more you bear the risk of tuning regular folks out.
2. Different or better music
Good music inspires. But unchurched people won’t measure your church by its music. Have you ever considered how many church musicians it takes to draw a crowd? Too few new people will come in because they hear you have music that rivals what they already listen to. Make no mistake about it: music can stir the heart and open filters to receive the message. But there are so many different kinds of music. Whichever one you choose will miss the mark for at least one population segment. Keep about 80% of your music in the genre of what the majority prefers. Just do it as best you can. You can experiment with the other 20% of musical styles without driving people away. So, how would you know what the people on the inside currently prefer? Ask them. Do a survey and see what you get. Outsiders have bigger concerns about their potential engagement with your church than the type of music you use.
3. New or improved programs
New or improved programs aren’t bad. But it takes so much effort to start something new. You will improve your results pound for pound and dollar for dollar with more emphasis on other key factors.
In fact, these three elements will likely improve without much extra effort if you see them as important and essential for new people once they arrive. But there is almost no chance these things will bring new people by themselves. They will matter to get new people returning over and over. Don’t misunderstand. Many things matter: how you handle children and youth matters, where you meet matters. Even advertising matters.
The key issue is that you must first concentrate on a few changeable things. Your church will grow if you find the correct things to do differently. If you can inspire 10-20% of your church to adopt a few key changes, your church will grow if people are living within a convenient distance of where you meet.
Concentrate on a few key elements and illustrations to hit your stride. You must learn to simplify things. Put the cookies on the bottom shelf where ordinary folks can get at them. Save your pursuit of deeper things for your private musings, and be sure you have a clear, simple message for your church. Save your pursuit of the next flavor-of-the-month method back to basics.
The Key Issues
The key issues are succinctly illustrated with the bus illustration that follows. However, the wheels on the bus won’t go round and round if they are sliding on an icy pad without a firm foundation or pavement to roll on.
It is always about firm beliefs that drive the existence of the church. If you are weak on these, your wheels will spin.
Robert Coleman asserted in his classic book The Master Plan of Evangelism a simple fact concerning the ministry of Jesus. He said, “Men Were His Method.” (That was written in the context of the 1960s when it was politically correct to say “men” when referring to all humans. But in point of fact, he did choose men.) It is all about the people, not the new toys. People. All people. “… from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages …” Revelation 7:9 We could properly add to that verse every age, education, economic standing, etc.
People are messed up. That is true outside the church and inside as well. Sometimes there isn’t much difference. But – and we will get to it later – there is always a major difference.
There are different ways to measure how a person is doing in life. Everyone makes up their own mind about what they will live for and care about. Here are some scales for you to consider regarding all the people around you.
I once was young. The transistor radio was the new coveted toy. Now that I am old, I still like (not covet) the new toys. I don’t pine for yesterday in any way. I plan to live today and into the future because yesterday isn’t coming back anytime soon. In doing so, it is imperative to separate the elements we must conserve from those that must be open to change. We must know the non-negotiables. But we must not include peripherals, which must be open to changes we cannot predict. It is a long way from a transistor radio to a cell phone. What’s next? We must know what hills we are willing to die on.
Anything that doesn’t fix people will fail. Further, it still is the intent of Jesus to build his church. It is through the church that tomorrow will be better. It isn’t about the accouterments to make the church smell good. The church will always smell good to God when we get it right. “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one, we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16)
The key element that must not change is the focus on the eternal welfare of people. When you get older, you must ensure you keep the main things the main things. It is no use to try to fix up yesterday. It is tomorrow we must fix. It takes curiosity to learn new stuff. It takes courage to unlearn the residual patterns and effects of the past, which are ineffective. For example, we are in trouble if saying people will face “a Christless eternity” is met with passivity. If people don’t care about being with someone they barely have heard, such an appeal will go unheeded.
Doctrine matters. This is about rescue. We must find the correct vocabulary to express soteriology in terms that resonate beyond the seminary and inner circle of Christians. Even to define the term “soteriology” as “the doctrine of salvation” – while true – won’t cut it. What does the word doctrine mean? What is salvation anyway?
If you aren’t clear on these (and other) foundations, you can gas up the bus to the max, and it will still spin wheels.
That Church Bus
I have developed a set of images to help me keep my head straight. My hopeful prayer is that they will resonate with you. One of those images is “The Church Bus”.
I picked up a toy model of one of those VW Vans the hippies used back in the day at Bethel, New York, a few years ago. That was the site of Woodstock back in 1969. There were about 500,000 young adults at that event. They were all about “All I am saying is give peace a chance.” The Beatles weren’t on the agenda that year, but John Lennon wrote “Give Peace a Chance” about a month before the event in August. Woodstock was billed as “An Aquarian Experience: 3 Days of Peace and Music.” I stood on the hillside of the massive grassed bowl where the bands played and asked myself, “What were they thinking? Peace. Sex. Rock and roll. Drugs. How did that work out as a solution for peace?
They were my contemporaries at the time. They thought they could change the world by gathering together for a rock festival. They had these lovely little granola vans with peace and love written on the side. They really understood that the world was about peace and love, but they didn’t understand how to get it.
I think this little van is one of my favorites because it illustrates the church’s life when the church puts people at the forefront. This little bus has space for passengers and four wheels. When well understood and working, those five elements create a symbiotic relationship of the elements the flower children of the 60s were desperate to find.
One big mistake is to think of all these elements as sequential. “Once we get A, then we will work on B.” We have to have all four wheels turning. We have to have someone behind the steering wheel. We have to take all the locks off the doors and encourage people to get in, stay in, enjoy new life, and encourage others to join and find new life. They are already looking in all the wrong places. A bus with a flat tire doesn’t work well. Therefore, it may be appropriate to fix a flat, but it is essential to grease the wheels and get it rolling.
Activation [Bus Body]
The church is like this van. It’s a bus – not a transit bus but a team bus. If you can get people on the bus and have peace and love, then people will stay and grow. We have people dropping out of church all the time because they find their church experience less and less relevant to their 24/7 experience.
I was talking this past week to a friend about a mutual friend whom I met in grade nine and had since lost track of. He met the Lord, as did his wife. They attended our wedding. I sadly learned that he and his wife don’t go to church; neither do any of their children. They gave up on the church. They were very actively involved, but that particular local church they were involved in didn’t give them enough. They may have not contributed enough to achieve what needed to be achieved. I doubt it was the latter. But the end result is no matter who is to blame, this is bad. It gives me grief.
But here’s the deal. If there’s love in the house, the house will be packed. We have to understand what love is. Love isn’t just nice, nice, keeping it all on the surface. It’s a matter of tough love sometimes with people who genuinely want the best for others. That’s the nature of the church.
If we can get them in, they will stay if and only if their total church experience leads them toward personal wholeness and prepares them for eternity.
The people on the outside don’t understand what it takes to get in. And underneath that they don’t see the point of getting in. So, the four wheels on the bus illustrate four different aspects of church life that generate growth. If you get them right, the bus will be packed. It works over and over again.
Bear in mind that this is always a both/and proposition. One of the grand mistakes is thinking that if you get the inside of the bus fixed, others will want to join. True. But the mistake is you can’t get the people fixed unless they see new people starting enthusiastically along the road they were once enthralled with at the beginning. Therefore, stop thinking sequentially this/then that. It isn’t either/or. You have to have both elements to keep that bus rolling forward.
We will return to what goes on inside the bus later, but we need to concentrate on the wheels first because a stationary bus may look good in a museum, but it doesn’t get people anywhere.
Acquaintance [Front Right Wheel]
It’s not that difficult. Recently, a pastor friend asked, “What would I recommend for growing his church?” I think his church has plateaued at quite a large level. I replied, “That’s the place to start.” The problem is that once you get this wheel rolling on the “old friends” – the people you know – you’ve got to have a welcoming church body to invite them to. Any form of perceived snobbery will kill your efforts. The key issue here is that the church participants must accept responsibility for bringing their friends. Everyone they invite won’t come right away, but some will. Some will come after repeated tasteful invitations. Some will never come.
Assimilation [Front Left Wheel]
Once they get in, they must have a sense of belonging, starting with being welcomed.
Almost every church I’ve ever run into is friendly with their friends, but newcomers consistently say they don’t experience friendship. And if they don’t experience friendship, then they’ll never get into the love. That’s how we’re going to work with people. So many evangelistic programs have been built on reaching people out there. Almost everybody tells me their church is friendly. Almost everyone is wrong. They know the church they visited last year while on vacation made them feel awkward, but they don’t think their church makes visitors feel awkward. You go to their church and feel awkward. They come to your church and feel equally awkward. But both churches rate themselves as friendly.
I particularly like the three circles presentation that’s evolved in the last few years. That’s a great way to present the Gospel. But out of context, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. If you don’t know that simple presentation, go to YouTube and search for it. It isn’t as powerful by itself as some think because the newcomer needs to see the message lived out in the lives of people experiencing it. If the people of your church aren’t living proof, why should the outsider believe your simple presentation?
That’s why if you get them to church, keep them coming, and continue being welcomed and feeling warm in the environment, then, in fact, some of them will stay. Some will wander away. Those who stay will ultimately find the Lord if you keep giving them the Gospel as they continue to meet. The key for newcomers is that they have a sense of belonging. Getting baptized ASAP is the key, critical issue to enhance their sense of belonging.
You need some systems in place to make people feel welcome. But they don’t want to feel “processed.” If you are too aggressive, that welcome might make them feel pressured. However, if a welcoming atmosphere demonstrates an underlying embracing culture, you will win. The number one thing you can do to grow your church is to take care of every newcomer. Some will stay, and sadly, some will wander away. Focus on the ones who stay.
Announcement [Back Right Wheel]
The back right wheel on the bus represents those who are currently unknown to you in a personal way. This is where it gets challenging.
If people in your community don’t have church on their minds even though they don’t have a church home, you are likely to have a hard time getting their attention until you personally talk to them one at a time, as briefly pointed to in Acquaintance above – that right front wheel.
Social media advertising has benefits, but remember that people who don’t go to church are not likely to notice your church advertising unless they are looking for a church. That is true of other advertising, such as putting a big banner in front of your church or renting road signs. You can chew through a lot of money on advertising before you get any results. And as you remember from the beginning, one of the issues you have to consider is the affordability of your methodology to reach people. Internet advertising of various kinds has the advantage only when people click on your ad. Further, you can Target your ad to a particular geographical area. If your community is small, very few advertisers will be targeting your community, and so you are likely to reap better results than in a big city.
Evangelistic events used to reap great results when they were supported by the church people inviting others to the events. Events can be powerful if and only if you use the correct tactics and make sure that the people of your church are not crossing their fingers and hoping people will come because they saw an ad.
Direct Mail is another methodology. But take it to the bank; very few will come just because we put a glossy-colored postcard in their mailbox. Once again, bear in mind that this approach requires a big spend, and until you know how your target Community responds, don’t assume great results. However, you can start small by printing up a few hundred cards at your local stationary store and giving it a try for a few hundred dollars. You only need some volunteers to drop off the cards if that is allowed in your community. it would be a good experiment, but don’t get your hopes up too high. You would then have good data for future outreach.
Going out to people that you have never met and allowing them to hear from the new or existing church is the key. Over a hundred years ago, the evangelist Billy Sunday said, “There wouldn’t be so many non-church goers if there were not too many non-going churches.” It is still true today. You must find the most receptive people and repeatedly communicate with them. Here is an acronym for you to memorize. O-P-E-N. They start out Oblivious to your work. No, really, they do. They may drive by your building every day and never notice it. You must find a way to efficiently, one at a time, gather information about the people who are willing to Ponder what you have to offer. Then, you must communicate with those who agree to hear from you repeatedly before most of them will take a chance and attend a meeting. Eventually, some will become Engaged by attending. You don’t need to do something unusual. Just hold a regular Sunday meeting and call it “Come and See” Sunday. Do what you normally do, but make it the best you can make it.
In every case, once they come out once, then your job is to get them there twice. They are much less likely to return if you don’t follow up. Churches often make the mistake of putting all their eggs in the front-end basket to get people to attend once. Then, they have no resources left in time or money to do proper follow-up.
Altruism [Back Left Wheel]
The fourth wheel on the bus is important to outsiders. Outsiders want to know you are doing something good for needs in your community and worldwide. They want to know you are working at making a better local community whether or not the people you help come to your church. They also want to know that you send money and perhaps teams to other places in the world that need help. The churches in North America are giving less and less to reach people on the outside. One of the things that outsiders want to know before they get on the bus is that it isn’t some kind of an insider’s club – we four and no more. You don’t want to keep people out. Altruism is the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. This should be true in your neighborhood, other communities around your country, and ultimately, to the last outpost on earth. In fact, some might start to associate with you just because of a cause you support.
Four Wheels Rolling
Let’s summarize. The church is like a team bus church, not a transit bus. It is similar to a team bus because when you get on, everybody welcomes you; you belong. Acquaintance is the front door coming in by invitation to old friends – the people you already know. This is the driver’s side front wheel is Assimilation. This is all about having a welcoming system and a welcoming attitude. On the back, the left wheel has to do with Altruism and reaching out to people without expecting a return on your investment of time and money.
Then, the back right wheel is Announcement. That wheel takes you beyond the people you already know and starts new relationships.
If a church has all four elements, four wheels attached to a loving church, then the church will grow. It doesn’t grow by what you do on the bus. The lighting system in the bus doesn’t count. Having a sound system is nice, but it doesn’t count. The programs on the bus count for very little. They count more for children than others, but they count for very little. So much counts for very little if you don’t invite people – the people you already know and those you don’t already know. You get that happening, and the church will grow.
If you don’t talk to more people more often in more ways, you will not see more results. It’s not more complicated than that.
I mentioned earlier we would get back to what happens inside the bus. Maybe the best work that Wendy and I have ever done is “Bubble UP Church.” Get that book, and it will change the life of your church and your attitude if you let it. If you have a plan to encourage dedicated Christian living the way the Bible describes it, your church will become more and more powerful.