Reduction in Attendance

Written by: Chris Galanos

Part 1 – Identity Crisis
Part 2 – Reduction in Giving

Pastors, chances are, if you lead an American church, DMM is going to be moving in the opposite direction of how you’ve led the church to this point. A focus on disciple-making is going to make an impact in every area of your church. I think it’s a very positive impact & so do many others. But you’ll find that many will disagree.

Anytime something changes from what it used to be, some people are going to be unhappy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Different people have different tolerances for change. Some people love change. They’re the early adopters. Anytime change is announced, they’re the first to jump on board. Other people despise change. It doesn’t matter how well you do at casting vision, these people are not going to catch the vision & they’re going to do their best to undermine it. Then you have people at all points in between.

In our case, I led our American church in one way for the first 10 years & then I announced at the 10 Year Anniversary that our Leadership Team felt God was giving us a different vision for the next 10 years! This wasn’t as sudden as it sounds. We had slowly “dripped” the vision to our church over the year leading up to that service. The 10 Year Anniversary was just the event where we made the formal announcement of the vision change.

We knew that some people who had signed on for the first 10 year vision wouldn’t like the second 10 year vision & would choose to move on. We knew that others would be so excited for this new vision to reach even more people.

Pastors, what I think you’ll find is that the American church has “done” church the same way for so long that any kind of major change is going to be costly. Definitely worth it, but costly.

When you start changing what people grew up with, it makes people feel uncomfortable. If their life was impacted doing church a certain way, it’s only natural to think that they’d prefer every church do it the way their church did it growing up.

Also, people tend to think that their preferred way of doing church is the “biblical” way. That gets dangerous because if you’ve found the “biblical” aka “right” way of doing something, there’s no way you’d be open to change. The problem here is that if you read through the New Testament with a fresh lens & without a background with a certain type of church, I can almost guarantee you won’t come up with the way Americans do church. Buildings. Budgets. Staff. It’s not in there. That doesn’t make the way we do church wrong. God has blessed a lot of different types of churches throughout church history. It just makes claiming that you’ve found the “biblical” way a little shortsighted. Again, the danger of thinking you know the “right” or “biblical” way to do church is that you’d never be open to a better strategy for fulfilling the Great Commission if one was to come along.

Like I mentioned in the last article, in addition to sending out 500+ people from our church to form church planting teams, we also assumed that there’d be a certain number of people who would leave the church because they didn’t like the new vision. After all, they came for the first vision. They’re not sure about this one. You’re changing things on them & they’re not sure they like it.

We knew a reduction in attendance would come from casting this new vision. We tried to approach the implementation of the vision as slowly as we could. The overall vision casting process took several years before we even made the announcement. Then after making the announcement, we’ve spent the last year gradually making changes to bring people along.

But, we expected that many people would say, “Nope. This isn’t for me. I liked the first 10. I’m moving on.”

And you know what? That’s totally ok! You know why? The places they are “moving on” to are great churches! We’re not the only great church in our town. There are many. I’m sure the same is true in your town. If people leave your church to go to another church, that’s not a loss, that’s a win! That’s how we chose to see it. For all of the people that didn’t want to take this journey with us & wanted to choose another church to go to, we were totally supportive. In fact, I think people were surprised by how supportive we were.

Sometimes you expect that if you tell your pastor or their staff that you’re moving on, they’ll say, “Wait a minute. What can we do to keep you? Is there something we can change? Is there something we can do to keep you happy?” We didn’t take this approach. We believed that if God spoke to people to leave & they approached us to tell us, we’d bless them, support them, pray for them, tell them we totally understood, and send them off to the next assignment God had for them.

Our church is much bigger than the average church so we knew our reduction in attendance could be much greater. We ended up having thousands of people walk out the doors in the year following the announcement of the new vision. Now, while thousands sounds like a lot, and it is, we are a church of many thousands. We still have “in the thousands” left. But, still, there’s going to be an attendance reduction if you choose to pursue DMM. Not everyone is going to catch the vision. And that’s ok! Not everyone has to catch the vision to see a great movement of God! You don’t need everyone to catch it. A few is plenty because movements are built on multiplication!

While you’ll find that some people may not catch the vision initially, it could be that they catch it eventually & come back & want to join you. When I first started eLife, people thought I was crazy. They thought our model of ministry was crazy. I’m sure most people thought, “There’s no way that’s going to work.” But a few years later, when we were one of the fastest growing churches in the nation, people’s opinions changed!

Isn’t that how it works with any new idea? Initially the new idea is met with skepticism & criticism, and then over time if the idea becomes successful, it’s met with admiration & emulation. The key is perseverance!

Pastors, while a reduction in attendance can be painful to watch and experience, here’s the good news. God is pruning you. The purpose of pruning, even though it can be painful, is so that you can bear more fruit.

Think about Jesus. He spoke to crowds much larger than what you & I are probably speaking to. But when things got tough, the crowds all went running. Guess how many he had at the end? About 120 gathered in an upper room in Acts 1.

Was Jesus a failure? Of course not! Then why didn’t he still have large crowds following him in Acts 1? Because he told the crowds that if they wanted to follow him & be his disciple, they’d have to give up everything they had (Luke 14). That message will empty out a building in a hurry – haha! Not everyone wanted to give up everything they had. Not everyone was willing to put aside their traditions & preferences. If the key to a movement was keeping the crowds happy, Jesus wouldn’t have said some of the things he said.

He wouldn’t have told them to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him (Matthew 16). And he certainly wouldn’t have told them to eat his flesh & drink his blood (John 6). In fact, after saying this, it says, “At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him (John 6:66).” Typically, in the American church, we don’t consider it “successful” if people turn away & desert us – haha! But this was a part of Jesus’ strategy. He was going to speak the truth & see who was left that really wanted to give up everything & follow him. He would hand those people the Great Commission & as you know, our world hasn’t been the same since. It doesn’t take everyone catching the vision. In DMM, a few people is just fine.

One often repeated DMM principle is, “Focus on a few to win many.”

Jerry Trousdale, in Miraculous Movements, describes it this way:

Westerners are in love with well-packaged mass marketing of the gospel. In church, as in advertising, growth is a numbers game about getting as many impressions as possible out to the masses. Mass communication and evangelism may have their place, but they show no signs of dramatically transforming the world. But Jesus gave almost all of His attention to intentionally discipling just twelve men, especially focusing on four of them. The results speak for themselves. Can we do better, investing in Christian mass messaging and once-a-week preaching services?

Crowds are fickle. Jesus’ ministry proved that. One day they’re admiring you & the next day they’re calling for your crucifixion. That’s why Jesus spent most of his time with his disciples. He knew that these 11 men were the key to seeing the world reached, not the crowds. Jesus spent a vast majority of his time (as detailed in the Gospels) with the disciples, not the crowds. Jesus knew the key to getting the good news out into all the world was to focus on the most serious & committed people who were willing to give up everything they had & follow him. Like Matthew, Peter, John, Andrew, etc.

Change is hard, but if God is leading, it’s always worth it.

Jared Wilson, Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted this recently.

Pastors, are you willing to be courageous? Are you willing to count this cost? Are you willing to give up everything you have, including your attendance count, to Jesus? Are you willing for half your church to leave, if that’s what it takes, for you to pursue this disciple-making vision? When you call people to give up everything they have, the crowds will often desert you. The disciple-makers are the ones that will stick with you. And the disciple-makers are the ones you need to see a movement of God in your city.

Be courageous!

Part 4 – Doubts & Discouragement