Many church members are caught in the gap between attending church and being part of it. They’re spectators, born into a consumer-driven culture, unwittingly pressuring churches to be consumer-driven, too. They listen to the worship music they prefer. They hear the teaching they like. Then they go home. And their lack of involvement has huge ramifications for the churches they attend.
But that doesn’t have to be your church. The key to creating meaningful change is increasing church engagement, and there are real, tangible things you can do to help your congregation break the mould.
Why church engagement is the key to growing your church
Churches today are plagued by the pareto principle: The infamous 80/20 rule suggests 80 percent of the church’s work comes from 20 percent of the congregation. We’ve become so saturated with consumerism that it’s easy to assume this rule is a law churches need to accept—but it shouldn’t be. When Jesus called the Apostles to spread the gospel, every person had a role—80/20 participation is not how the New Testament presents the church, and we can’t expand, grow, and create disciples that way.
Engagement is about the church calling, equipping, and charging its members to do the work of the ministry. It can be the difference between exponential growth and incremental growth. And it turns every person in your church into a resource you can count on instead of a body you count.
The future of your church depends on your ability to engage the people in it. Building a better, cooler, and more attractive church isn’t the best way to grow your congregation and keep younger generations invested. MIllennials don’t want to be catered to: they want to be absorbed into a mission they believe in.
Focusing on engagement changes the church from a consumer-oriented event to an interdependent community.
Quick definition of church engagement
Church engagement is about getting people involved. A churchgoer becomes engaged when they move beyond spectator mode and begin playing a part in your mission. It doesn’t necessarily mean they volunteer. What qualifies as engaging your congregation depends on where the mission of your church converges with discipleship.
This can take many forms:
- Participating in small groups
- Giving to the church
- Following a church devotional
- Going on mission trips
- Running a ministry for the homeless in your area
- Making sure there are dry towels for baptisms in the second service
- Other efforts that align with your mission and help your ministry function
Principles of Church Engagement
In order to grow engagement at your church, you’ll need to understand how it works. Here are 10 foundational ideas at the heart of church engagement.
1. The 80/20 rule shouldn’t apply to churches
The Pareto principle suggests that 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the factors, so addressing those factors has a greater impact. In the church, those factors are people. But God’s economy works differently, and your church can’t afford to allow a small group to bear the burden of ministry. The 80/20 rule has consequences for several crucial church areas:
Your biggest donors don’t all invest more in your church because they’re so wealthy. The gap often occurs because a small percentage of people are “all-in” and giving regularly, and the majority aren’t giving at all, or they give far less than they can afford. This stifles growth, makes the church’s books overly dependant on a few members, and fails to emulate the biblical model of the church where all members gave what they could.
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”
Right now, there may only be a handful of people doing the bulk of the work in your ministry. Whether that happens because they enjoy it or because no one else steps up is beside the point. Without support, these people are going to burn out. And when they do, the whole ministry could collapse. Your ministry’s growth and success depends on the whole body of Christ working together.
“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
Healthy churches should combat the Pareto principle, not perpetuate it. And to do that, you’ll need goals.
2. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”
Peter Drucker’s management advice holds true for church leaders. You can’t expect your church to “get more engaged” if you don’t know how engaged they are now. Likewise, if you’re not measuring engagement, you won’t know how effective your efforts are (and you won’t know which efforts aren’t working).
While “engagement” may feel intangible, there are plenty of real metrics you can use to monitor how involved your congregation is—you just need to choose which ones make sense for your church’s mission.
Whatever you decide to measure, you’ll want to use multiple metrics. Only measuring one or two restricts what “counts” as being involved in the church and may exclude people who are actually highly engaged. People can be called to different roles in the body of Christ, and that changes how they engage with you. Your metrics should present a holistic picture of how your church lives out your mission. It should apply to all church members.
Since this is about determining how actively involved your congregation is, percentages tell you more about engagement than raw numbers.
Here are some possible engagement metrics to track:
- Percentage of the congregation participating in small groups
- Percentage of the congregation that regularly give
- Percentage of the congregation that actively serves in outreach ministry
- Percentage of the congregation following your devotional plan
- Percentage of the congregation volunteering at the church in some capacity
- Percentage of the congregation going on mission trips
Measuring engagement alone doesn’t automatically translate to growth. You need to have goals. As you prayerfully explore what metrics make sense for your congregation, set realistic goals for a set period of time, and measure again at the end of that period.
Sharing these goals and metrics with your congregation could be an eye-opening process for everyone, and it may spur your members toward doing the work of the church.
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds…”
Whatever you measure, use it to inspire and motivate the people in your pews.
Addressing the Bystander Effect
In large groups of people, there’s a psychological process called the Bystander Effect that causes individuals to assume everyone else is doing the right thing. The effect was popularized when a woman was murdered in a busy public area surrounded by witnesses, and no one intervened or called the police—they were aware of the problem and knew what needed to be done, but they were all confident someone else would handle it.
Does that last part sound familiar?
When people sit in your church surrounded by others, it’s easy for them to assume that needs are being met, goals are being reached, and the work of the church is already being fulfilled. You can mitigate the Bystander Effect by showing people where you’re coming up short as a congregation and talking about what needs to happen to reach your goals.
3. You have to know your congregation in order to engage them
Just as your metrics need to be framed around your church’s mission, your engagement opportunities need to be framed around your congregation. The what should align with the who.
For example, if your congregation is largely young families, your engagement opportunities should be things they can participate in together—like family devotionals and kid-friendly serving opportunities. If your congregation is passionate about people, theology, worship, or something else, your options (and metrics) should reflect that.
You certainly want to stretch your congregation and help them grow in the spiritual areas they’re lacking in, but you need to provide ways for them to pursue things they’re passionate about and help them align those passions with your ministry. If people can’t develop their God-given qualities in the roles available to them, they’re not going to be engaged. And your ministries will continue relying on the same handful of people. Your picture of service has to leave room for how God has uniquely equipped people to serve.
Many people don’t inherently know what they’re passionate about. They have to discover it through trial and error. If you want to increase your engagement, you’ll need to increase the opportunities for people to discover and pursue their passions. A spiritual gifts survey is a great way to start, and from there you can help people connect their gifts to functions within your church body.
People need to know how who they are is connected to what you do.
4. Your language affects how people understand engagement
Every time we say “going to church” or “welcome to church,” we reinforce a spectator church model. When we say words like “church” we need to correctly identify personal involvement and responsibility.
The people who worship and serve with you are the church, and they need to think of themselves that way. It may seem subtle, but there’s a big difference between “going to church” and “gathering as a church,” or “welcome to church” and “thanks for being with our church.” Don’t let people’s definition of your church be a building or some abstract organization—it’s people.
But people-centric language doesn’t just mean slight changes in the words you choose. It’s also about connecting the things you want people to do with their impact.
Help them understand how reading and discussing Scripture shapes us into better fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, coworkers, friends, and neighbors—or how memorizing God’s Word gives us the wisdom, peace, courage, and strength we need to face the challenges of each day.
They need to see that serving others helps them experience and express the profound, powerful love of Christ. Financially investing in the church increases the ministry’s impact while giving God new opportunities to work in our lives.
That’s not to say you have to make everything revolve around them. That isn’t biblical, and it’s a continuation of the consumer church model. You should, however, help people in your congregation understand church (and the work of the church) in terms of people and the real relationships they have with God and with others.
When people can clearly see the cause-and-effect relationship between their involvement and the ministry’s influence, it can change everything.
5. Engagement takes innovation
If you’ve decided the status quo isn’t working and something needs to change, your leadership team needs to initiate that change. You need to create a church culture that embraces healthy changes, and that means making changes often.
Innovation is the key to engagement. This means being willing to try new things and make a series of changes until you find the ones that help you reach your goals. Here are some possible ways you could innovate, depending on what you decide engagement looks like for your church:
- Experiment with alternatives to the liturgy
- Move from passing the plate to a mobile giving app
- Partner with local (maybe even secular) organizations that serve your community
- Form new small groups based on interests, geographic location, or other categories
- Invite guest speakers from local ministries
- Share testimonies from people who have served
- Find intersections between the ways people use technology and your church goals
When you start seeing results, that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop innovating. You should always embrace what works and reject what doesn’t, but some innovations may create lasting change and increase growth for years to come, while others may have a short lifespan. To keep growing, your church should be constantly optimizing the ways you connect with people, and that means you have to make innovation part of your DNA.
As you innovate, you’ll find new ways to invite people into discipleship.
6. Discipleship happens as you serve
It’s not enough to know what the Bible says. Being a disciple means you do what it says (James 1:22). We’re transformed by obeying and following Christ, not by filling our brains with theological ideas and abstractions.
The New Testament portrays discipleship as something that’s acquired through service. How can we claim to be Christ’s disciples if we don’t apply his teaching to our lives, caring for the poor, loving others through service, and carrying out the work of evangelism? Jesus framed his promises as things that would happen as we obey him, not gifts for knowing his name:
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
Focusing on engagement creates a culture where people get actively involved in the body of Christ, and therefore, mature as his disciples. We often make discipleship about what someone receives or takes, such as classes or teachings, but if you want to engage your church, you need to emphasize the activity of discipleship: applying the things we know to change how we live. And that starts with telling people what discipleship looks like at your church.
7. People need to know how to get involved
Right now, there are people in your church who aren’t engaged because of one little detail: they don’t know what to do.
Don’t save conversations about serving for a single service—it should be openly discussed and regularly reinforced in small groups, sermons, your website, bulletins, and announcements. Church members shouldn’t have to “know the right people” or have some special connection to get involved in the work your church is doing.
If people have to hunt for serving opportunities, you’re reinforcing the 80/20 rule. By not making this information more accessible, you’re reducing the pool of people that can participate in small groups, serve on your ministry teams, and follow your reading plans. Even the people who already want to get involved won’t know how.
The conversation about serving shouldn’t feel repetitive or monotonous—just like anything else you do regularly during the service, like taking the offering, or even worship as a whole. Find ways to keep the discussion fresh and engaging.
One of the most powerful ways to make this a meaningful part of your service is to share testimonies from people who have done the things you’re asking people to do. Have people share what it was like to give for the first time, or why they decided to get financially involved in your church. Or they could talk about how serving in ministry has affected them personally. Or the relationships they’ve formed in their small group.
Every person’s story is unique, and letting people share their stories is a great way for you to leverage those who are already engaged in order to get others involved.
8. You need to reward engagement
When people get involved and invested, it needs to be celebrated—not only to affirm to them that they’re on the right track, but to encourage others to get involved, too. Every time you lift up people who are fulfilling your mission, it gives your church a platform to talk about what getting involved looks like, why it matters, and who should do it (which is everyone).
Find ways to celebrate involvement. This could be a special service that highlights specific ministries, the work they’re doing, and everyone involved. It could also be a testimony like we shared above. Even if they don’t want the attention, it’s important that people understand that you’re not drawing attention to them to elevate them—you’re making an example of them for others. The recognition is an intentional effort to increase the impact of what God is doing through them.
When people see others growing as a result of getting involved, they’ll be encouraged to get involved, too.
9. Church engagement takes personal investment
Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. This truth has powerful implications for the things we invest in. If you want people to align their hearts with your mission, they have to invest in it. While this can include financial elements, it’s not just about money. The more people give of their time and resources, the more they care about the overall health and goals of your church.
The beauty of church engagement is that as people get involved, they become more invested in the life and mission of your church. This investment naturally translates to a sense of pride and ownership. They want to invite others to experience what they’re helping to build and create. In other words, engagement is contagious.
As they invest the “treasure” of their time, money, interest, and ownership, the community of God becomes a place where their heart is. And that’s a picture every church should desire.
10. Engagement flows from vision
Pastor Rick Warren has said that “people give to vision, not to need.” He isn’t suggesting that people don’t care about the needs of your church, but rather, people respond to needs in the context of a greater vision. Before they give you their time and money, people want to understand the purpose of that investment—what does their sacrifice accomplish?
Your leadership team needs to cast a consistent vision for how your church can grow and make disciples, and the needs of your church should stem from that vision. If you can’t answer “Why do we need this?” or “What is this for?” with a clear connection to your vision, you’ve got a problem. Needs that don’t fit with your vision muddy the waters, making it harder for people to see what they’re getting involved with and why what they do matters. When that happens, people are less likely to identify with your church and care about what you’re doing.
Church engagement is all about getting people involved. Every time you mention an opportunity to get involved, you’re inviting your congregation to participate in the work of your church—so take the time to reinforce your vision.
Learn how to engage your church
These principles should help you get started, but if you really want to engage your congregation, you’ll need a strategy. We’ve put together a list of seven strategies for increasing church engagement. You get them all for free in The Definitive Guide to Successful Church Engagement.