This just isn’t working: When people don’t show up

June 4, 2012

Recently our church did something I never thought we would do. We canceled all of our adult education opportunities and midweek services. They just weren’t working.

We’ve tried Bible studies, Gospel Based Discipleship and Education for Ministry. We’ve done things in the morning and the evening, onetime deals and series of various lengths. We’ve included adult ed as part of regularly scheduled meetings. We’ve gone general (“The Gospels”) and specific (“Sex in the Bible”).

We’ve focused on attracting longtime Episcopalians, brand-new Christians, wounded-by-other-traditions Christians and people filled with spiritual questions. Our leaders have included younger and older people, seminary-trained and nonseminary-trained; they’ve team taught and they’ve been on their own. We’ve tried book studies, multimedia projections and videos on famous people. We’ve met at church, in homes, in coffee shops, in bars. We’ve used catchy titles, posters, social media, newspaper ads and lawn signs. We’ve shared potlucks and catered dinners and yummy snacks.

As for the midweek services, it’s the same story. We’ve lit candles and sat silently; we’ve read poetry. Musicians have played organ, piano, drums and cello; we’ve sung hymns and Taizé songs and chants. We’ve tried liturgical stations and specific liturgies (e.g., one about reproductive loss). We’ve experimented with different days of the week, times of day and service lengths. We’ve held retreats. We’ve done all this in Advent and Lent and summertime.

But folks simply have not been coming.

Over the years I’ve found myself seduced by whatever the latest idea is for getting people to flock to church. And every single time I’ve been disappointed. What’s more, in the last few years I’ve developed some inner snarkiness toward the people who don’t show up, even though I otherwise adore them. I worry that I inadvertently pass this resentment along to them. Great—as if what people really need is more shame about the status of their spiritual lives.

I feel like I’m selling something that people don’t want—and then getting mad at them for not wanting it.

When I ask why people don’t come, the answer almost always is time. They have good intentions, but their lives are so full. So they tend to use their precious free time only for things that they really care about, which tend to be things that offer immediate good feelings. They flock to tutor at the local elementary school, to work for civil rights for LGBT people, to serve free meals for the hungry. And they love to eat with friends—the church’s social calendar is filled with dinners, dances and parties. The congregation is also growing, and quickly.

But the idea of having leisurely conversations about Jesus is just, well, too slow. The only adult formation things that have been in any way successful are sermon podcasts and daily e-mailed bits of wisdom, prayer or scripture.

A mentor once gave me some good advice: stop doing things that aren’t working. This makes all the sense in the world, but it’s hard to do. It is hard to give up the picture I have in my head about what a church is supposed to look like: people sitting around on couches in the parish hall, Bibles open.

But at least in my ministry context, that just isn’t working anymore. And personally, I’m done with the roller coaster of getting seduced by the latest thing that’s supposed to work, putting mountains of energy into making it really good and then getting cranky with people because they don’t come. So we stopped it all.

The world changes so quickly, and often it feels like we as a church are trying to sell pagers to people who want smartphones. Or, as Kwok Pui Lan writes in the Fall 2011 issue of Reflections, we still have a cathedral mind-set, while the world has a bazaar mind-set. The cathedral mind “takes patience, learning, concentration, and years of training.” The bazaar mind is

a marketplace where you shop from place to place. You have no obligation to stay long and no commitment to buy. . . . It’s not just the volume of information we face but the way it affects brain function—the clicking from page to page, the new habit of linking information so quickly.

How to share the gospel in a bazaar world? Lately I’m seeing the need to reverse what I learned as the linear process from inner conversation to service in the world. What if instead the Spirit is leading us to begin with acts of mercy and justice? How can we use our connective technology to host conversations about real-life experiences, to ask thoughtful questions and then see where our stories intersect the gospel? And then how can we take things deeper, challenging one another to live a life of integrity and purpose, using God’s gifts for the healing of the world?

I’ve also been intrigued by communication models such as the TED talks, the Episcopal Story Project and the Khan Academy. Where I’m serving, the question is this: how do we move the discussion from the (mostly empty) couches in the parish hall to the online world that people can access from where they are, when they have the time? It’s about going where people are, rather than continuing to try to make them come to us.

After finally letting go of some old wineskins, my church is finding creative energy to go after new ones. I don’t know what exactly this will look like, but it is a thrill and a privilege to be a gospel-bearer during this reformation. There is much for us to receive, but we won’t have the hands to do it unless we set down whatever things are no longer working.


I had a similar situation

I had a similar situation with bible study, and the next time most all had come again, I mentioned that if I were to offer fifty dollars to come, then how would the turnout be?  This I said for conscience sake, because there is much out in the world that seeks to distract us from having God in our thoughts, which He should in be all the day long.  Even we believers can get caught up in this world's distractions, and begin to say "Let me first do this" or "Let me first do that"; thereby making ourselves half-hearted.  And though we may have our hands to the plow, the distractions behind us cause curiosity to set in, and we look back.  Again, as I mentioned to the class that if I would pay them, would they come; then I said that Christ warns us clearly when we are not fit for the kingdom of God. 

Transformational Communities of Faith

For any of you who would be interested, I would appreciate an opportunity to dialogue about transformational ministries and how to navigate toward a more creative approach to being church. If you are interested please contact me: I appreciate this article, the honesty, and creative possibilities of trying something new.

Dr. Kathy Pickett


So very helpful

Thanks for this candid and honest assessment.  I'm a professional educator (college professor -- and I've organized large adult ed programs).  But the atmosphere is indeed changing.  You've put your finger on it.


You should be so fortunate! :-)

The paragraph in which you outline the various activities of the church spounds pretty good: community involvement, civil rights, social action, a desire to be in community ... and growth. I can't help feeling that this is a bit like the Mastercard ad - Bible study is important, but what you have is priceless.

I do identify with your feelings of resentment when people don't come - counter-productive of course, but clearly you are doing a lot of things right, as a lot of stuff is working.

You should be so fortunate! :-)

The paragraph in which you outline the various activities of the church spounds pretty good: community involvement, civil rights, social action, a desire to be in community ... and growth. I can't help feeling that this is a bit like the Mastercard ad - Bible study is important, but what you have is priceless.

I do identify with your feelings of resentment when people don't come - counter-productive of course, but clearly you are doing a lot of things right, as a lot of stuff is working.

Let me get this straight:

Let me get this straight: Your parishioners are educating children, mobilizing for justice issues, and feeding the hungry, and you're disappointed they're not at Bible study? One thing the Gospels point out is that a certain group of people who had leisure to study the Scripture were not necessarily the ones who understood Jesus' message.

I think we forget what a historical anomaly this notion of Adult Bible Study is. People have been formed in faith for centuries before they could ever get their hand on a Bible, if they could even read. It is a great privilege to be able to do that, and a wonderful part of our Protestant heritage that we have access to the Word of God. But I think we worry too much that adults cannot be formed in faith without the inductive Bible study method.

I think we also mistakenly believe that what we ourselves find formative and important in our spiritual lives should be normative for everyone.  I see us attributing a hierarchy to spiritual formation that strangely matches what we ourselves find enlightening. I don't think it's just our members who are looking for immediate good feelings. What feels better to a pastor than an amazing insight into Scripture?

What would it be like if the church hierarchy decided that what was most important to the spiritual life was a vital social calendar. How many of us introverted pastors would find ourselves on the receiving end of spiritual concern as we slunk away from the latest social event to read?

Kudos to you for dumping the programs. I hope you will worry less about what's wrong here; I'm not sure anything is. It sounds to me like you've got a vital and loving community that has grasped the Gospel. What could be better than that? 

Nah--It's the message

While there's much to value in the article, much about meeting parishioners on their own terms, what's glaring for me is the complete absence in the discussion I've been able to read so far, the complete absence of a questioning of what we're saying to people. This runs counter to what I know of the Church historically; the Church is nothing if not an unending series of dramatic reformations of what we have to say, not so much how and where we say it.

For me, the message I hear in all of the churches I tried and stopped going to, which includes most of the avowedly progressive churches in the San Francisco Bay Area, is that we all should love each other, and if we aren't quite there yet, there's plenty of venues for getting us to that point, venues to which we would probably be the only one in attendance, as the authoress repeatedly demonstrates.  This widely-deployed message is replete with hugs and, at the very least, talking with our neighbors in the pews for at least a few minutes, hopefully in caring tones. My wife an I long ago decided that we'd much rather spend our Sunday mornings at the Alameny Flea Market, partly because we enjoy seeing people we've GRADUALLY gotten to know, and we appreciate the spirituality that often flows in those interactions as these people engage us in discussions of our health and family and social life, to name a few. 

I'm not advocating the flea market as my preferred alternative to what's happening now. I wish for a much more fulfilling Sunday morning--or any other time of the week--experience. To me, what would fill the bill is if we stopped talking about how much we should and can come to love each other and spend more time appreciating the extent to which we don't and have an amazingly difficult time getting there. What so interests me and would get me to church practically any time of the week is that we're overwhelmed by shame and guilt and are mostly ignorant of it. The point? The point is that if we deeply appreciated how little we are unconditionally even conditionally loved and how much we're starving and going crazy because of that, we'd feel empathic/loving for ourselves and each other. As things stand, any mention of how bad we feel evokes only more of the same--often just implied shame/guilt for the wide gulf between what the church expects of us and how we actually are. If I don't turn and talk to my neighbor, for instance, the implicit sense of inadequacy is palpable.

This is an extremely difficult message to convey, precisely because our culture sees it as a soul-darkening heresy much less a terrifying prospect that dooms us to an abyss of "negative thinking," a focused problem our insurance companies and treatment centers across the land certify as the bugaboo they are committed to eradicating. Their vote is in, folks, and the devil take anyone who doesn't benefit from it. But if we could think negative more rather than less and, at the same time, comprehend that we truly are caught, trapped in it, we would have at least the possibility of feeling for ourselves and each other as helpless VICTIMS--OMG, that's an ultimate, correlative taboo as well.

I apologize for my sarcasm to a point, but it is a guilty pleasure. I enjoy it, because it's an incredible relief from the pressure to be loving, a pressure I cannot possibly adequately accommodate. 

I have no closing, because it's impossible to think of one without expecting of myself that I end on a positive note. Uggghhh!!! How complete and comprehensive is the trap I'm in!

Nah-It's the message

While I must confess I need to reread your comment, because there is obvious great depth, to fully get what you are saying, I must also say, I appreciate what you are saying, and a certain reality to your reality.


Church is about more than working

I note that we often ground our discussions about church in metaphors of "work."  Can it be that when the author's church "stopped it all," it made room for rest and play, two spiritual practices that may be equally or more important in nurturing abundant life for individuals as well as community?  The church, with all its well-intentioned programs, models, curricula, and drivenness toward purpose, does poorly at Sabbath-keeping, God's commandment. This is a gift we would do well to receive, for ourselves and for the world.

Heather Entrekin 

Congregation's personality

I was recently part of something called the leadershipo institute.  In there we were told that different congregations have different personalities, and that they can be typed according to Myers Briggs.  An "SJ" congregation will want lots of programs that are well organized.  An SP church will want spiritual/psychological growth, with no accountability.  An NF church is characterized by hands-on ministries to others, and is loose organizationally.  An NT church is strong on world missions, and intellectual stimulation, and requires organization.  In the US, 38% of people are SJ, 38% are SP, 12% are NF and 12% are NT.  Do not try to remake a congregation in your image.

Tell Their Stories

At a recent White House Summit on Protecting Social Security and with my work with the Maine People's Alliance, I have found that the single most important thing in getting people involved is in some way telling the people's stories. Find out from your socially active people just what they are doing and why. Use these stories as tie-ins to your Sunday sermons with Biblical references that back up those actions. This will allow you the opportunity to teach and, when people see themselves as special yet the same, they tend to become more and more active in an organization. Praise everyone for doing God's and Jesus' work. They deserve it!

Not Willing to join this train of thought

I'm not so willing to 'join the train' that is creeping away from Bible study. I feel strongly that Bible is and must continue to be a part of ANY christian church community. I wouldn't want to live in a world where I don't have the opportunity to openly question and discuss my faith and how my faith is formed. When the ground work (or foundation) is laid, Bible study offers exactly that environment. Yes, I volunteer in our church's food bank, I attend talks about social justice, and attend the social gatherings as well. Participating in Bible study is a must, in my life, to round out the whole experience.

I live in an area of the country that is often referred to as the None Zone. Author Patricia O'Connell Killen, in 2004, has gone so far as to write a book about it: Religion and the Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone  [When asked their religious identification, more people answer 'none' in the Pacific Northwest than in any other region of the United States. But this does not mean that the region's religious institutions are without power or that Northwesterners who do attend no place of worship are without spiritual commitments.]

Okay, I guess I must count my self extremely fortunate and blessed. I belong to a church community that has laid the foundation and has people flocking to our Bible Studies. This past spring the Lead pastor, Pastor Paul Hoffman, introduced a summer long program titled: Bible Basics: A shared summer study of the Scriptures at Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church. The 'familiar' title is 'Bible Boot Camp'. ALL are welcome to come for one week, or to attend all 14 sessions. The sessions are led by the lead pastor, the associate pastor, the vicar, the outreach minister and others from within the congregation.  We're about half way through the summer and I've been able to attend 5 of the 50 minute sessions, 8 yet to go. Also in attendance are anywhere from 40-50 others. No kidding!! They are young couples, single young adults, middle age persons, couples married 60+ years, and people from many ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. For some, English is a second language, others have just become citizens, and still others are repeat visitors to our Sunday church services. The mix is about half-n-half men and women. Everyone is welcomed and no question goes unanswered. Even if the answer is 'I don't know, but I'll get back to you on that.'

The discussions are lively and the material presented is -- in one word - Fantastic! The back of the program flyer says  this "The idea is to hear a solid lecture in a casual Questions/Answer format. Then, after class you might choose, to team up with some folks in a small group to allow the learning to continue. The conversation could take place for another half hour or so in the church library, the Ale House, a nearby coffee shop, or over ice cream down the street. These are going to be great, life-giving classes and wonderful opportunities to get to know one another, the Scriptures we love, and the other people with whom we worship each week."

Personally, I look forward to Wednesday evenings when I continue my christian education.