This past weekend (Memorial Day weekend) I enjoyed a rarity as a preacher: I had a Sunday off. I took the opportunity to travel with my boys up to Memphis for a baseball tournament my oldest son was playing in. As much as I enjoyed the weekend, the most disheartening thing was to be surrounded by thousands and thousands of people, and none of us were in church. Worse, none of us seemed to care.
The stats have undeniably proven that church is becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s society. We’re self-sufficient, so we don’t feel the need for help from others or God as much. We’re distracted by so many fun and good things to do on the weekends. And churches themselves aren’t helping as they fail to adapt and translate the gospel into the 21st century. (Now, I know that the default mode for some churches is to simply judge those not in church and condemn them as unfit for the Kingdom. As much as that might make you feel justified, it’s a wasted exercise. When a sheep pen has one sheep left and ninety-nine missing, you don’t get points for how clean and organized the sheep pen is. Go get those lost sheep!!)
The gospel is always relevant. The message of salvation remains unchanged. But the way we communicate it and the way we do church should reflect the culture we’re trying to reach. In the same way, the need for personal communication and personal transportation are eternal, but how we express those needs change over time (which is why we write text messages rather than sending snail mail and why we drive cars rather than horse and buggies). The essence of church remains unchanged, but how we express it locally should reflect the culture we’re trying to reach. Here are seven ways the church can stay relevant in a world where it’s becoming increasingly irrelevant:
1). Get on mobile or go home. If you want to start finding lost sheep, I’ll tell you where to find them: they’re on their phones. The average person touches their smartphone 2,617 times a day (which is about 2,617 more times than we touch our Bibles in a given day). It’s not enough to have a church website. You need to develop an online presence that is customized for the cell phone, which is becoming a new front door to the church.
2). Preach better sermons. There’s never been a greater need for good preaching than today. The way most seminaries train preachers to preach is perfectly designed to reach a culture that no longer exists. The greatest advice my wife got as a schoolteacher was, “Don’t focus on what you’re teaching. Focus on what they’re learning.” If people are leaving our churches in droves, we need to change our approach. The reason megachurches continue to grow isn’t just because Christians are selling out, it’s because the teaching is better. We can learn from that. (here’s a blog I wrote on how to preach in a way that makes a difference).
4). Offer multiple small group times. All would agree that meaningful small group interaction is key for a church’s health and growth. But like the last point, if you only offer small groups on Sunday mornings, you eliminate a sizable portion of people for whom Sunday mornings aren’t optimal for them. Offer small groups that meet at night, throughout the week, in the community and not just at the church campus. Bring the sheep pen as close to the lost sheep as you can, and you’ll find it a lot easier to bring those sheep home.
5). Create meaningful places to serve in the church. I think one of the reasons so many people (including Christians) drift away from church is because they don’t feel needed. If all we expect of our church members is to sit in a pew and watch for an hour a week, then we’re expecting far too little of them. If you have 150 people in your church, then you need to create 150 meaningful opportunities to serve within your church. It takes extra work, but that’s why we pay church staff members, to equip the saints for works of service (Eph. 4:11-12). Right now at our church, we’ve got around 750 adults that actively call our church home. Right now we’ve got 667 volunteer positions, so we’re close to where we need to be. People stick around a place when they feel like they’re actually contributing, not just consuming.
6). Plan seasonally. There are going to be times in the year when people just ditch. It’s going to happen. You’re going to get your highest attendance in August-September, January-February, and around Easter. The summer months are going to be lean months. Plan seasonally to capitalize on your high capacity months and slow things down a little in your lean months. Don’t expect every Sunday and every month to look the same, because it’s never going to be that way.
7). Get the Ghost. I don’t know what your view is on the Holy Spirit and his involvement in your church, but if you want to create something in your church that people can’t get anywhere else, create an environment where the Holy Spirit shows up in power on a regular basis. I’ll let you fill in the blanks to what that actually looks like. People can listen to music outside of church. People can listed to TED talks if they want teaching. But if they want the supernatural, they should know that your church is where they can encounter the person and power of God.