6 Ways to Fix It | By Carey Nieuwhof
Despite an increasingly post-Christian culture, pastors can grow churches through a renewed commitment to biblical teaching, loving community outreach, and dynamic discipleship ministry.
It’s no secret that local churches are struggling to get people into the building.
There’s a growing realization among many church leaders that getting people to attend church is not just a post-COVID challenge. At this point, it has almost nothing to do with COVID.
As almost every church leader realizes, people have been drifting out of local churches for years. The decades-long attendance trends have been almost all down and to the left. And even the growing churches of a decade ago are finding it harder than ever to fill the room.
While the reasons are varied, part of the reason for the struggle to get people to engage in church (whether that’s existing members or new people) is that the church has an image problem.
The image problem isn’t without foundation.
Before we dive in, let me be the first to say there are many good reasons the wider Church (particularly the Western Church) has an image problem.
The scandals, the abuse, the self-righteousness, and other un-Christian behaviors of prominent and everyday Christians have created a huge chasm for the church. And the repentance, humility, and sorrow that ought to be there often aren’t there, creating a big challenge.
But here’s what’s also true. The essence of Christianity isn’t the same as the current angry, abusive, self-righteous expression of Christianity that’s causing so many to walk away. Many local church leaders faithfully embrace the essence of Christianity but get painted with the same brush as Christians who don’t.
As a result, though, good-hearted, honest, and faithful church leaders are facing an uphill battle they didn’t necessarily create.
We live in a day where — thanks to the unfaithfulness of some church leaders — every church leader and congregation has an image problem.
Here are some reasons the problem exists and some suggested ways to move through it.
Many leaders use their pulpit not just to speak into politics or justice issues, but to speak in support of partisan talking points.
The moment you wade into partisan politics (or political conversations that take a very narrow point of view) is the moment you alienate at least 50% of the people you’re trying to reach.
As this The Atlantic points out, taking strong stands can be a way to temporarily grow your church in this environment. But the author makes a strong point that, ultimately, partisan politics is poisoning the evangelical church.
While it’s easy to say that pastors are being “courageous” for taking a stand on a partisan issue or in favor of a political party, is that really being courageous?
What if it’s actually NOT courageous to take a partisan position and say something partisan from the pulpit?
What if being courageous these days means becoming an alternative to the culture, not an echo of it.
Last time I checked that is exactly what the Gospel is. Churches that realize this now will have a much more effective long-term outreach than churches that don’t.
The church should be a very safe place — free from abuse, corruption, and the misuse of power. The fact that it’s NOT is troubling on about 1,000 levels.
Here’s what’s true, though. There are tens of thousands of churches and church leaders who faithfully live out their mission — no abuse, no misuse of power, no corruption.
Even though your church may not have breached ethics or Christian values, the fact that so many churches have still taints the public perception of your church.
So, what can you do?
To start with, lead with love. Let the community know you’re for them, and back that up with support for other local charities and community initiatives and even for other churches. Love goes a long way.
Second, let people who visit your church know the precautions you take to ensure everyone’s safety. This is especially important in vetting and training the volunteers who work with children and teens.
Finally, practice financial accountability and transparency. Although it was never required by law, when I was a lead pastor, every year we had a professional accounting firm review our finances and report to the board and our community. Doing right is one thing. In the case of a charity, letting people know things are being done right is even better.
My guess is that as you read this, you might say to yourself, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as those hateful, hypocritical church leaders who make the headlines.”
I get it. I feel that, too. And that phenomenon is also called self-righteousness.
It disappoints me to realize that decades into my adult Christian journey, I am still much like the man who met Jesus and wanted to justify himself.
I did a one-year daily Bible study on Proverbs with a friend recently, and as we wrapped up, we asked each other what our biggest takeaway was.
I am still so stubbornly self-righteous.
You can see that in leaders who refuse to apologize or repent (or simply read carefully crafted statements that shift blame elsewhere).
What’s missing in the self-righteous is humility.
Humility is a much more effective evangelism strategy than self-righteousness.
Self-righteousness is like pride — it only looks good to the self-righteous. Everyone else is revulsed by it.
A lot of Christians end up speaking Christianese. If you’re not a Christian, Christianese is weird. Actually, if you are a Christian, it’s still weird
I started to fall into this trap early in my ministry and realized I had to correct it quickly.
If you speak in code, you’ll have difficulty connecting with unchurched people.
If you find yourself saying brother, sister, amen, fellowship, tribulation, and the like, it tends to bring less credibility to what you do.
Sure, that might work in your church circles, but if you’re trying to reach your community, it’s a barrier.
I also think the more titles you have, the weirder it gets. When I was a pastor, people asked me all the time what to call me. I told them, “Just call me Carey.” Not Pastor Carey, not Reverend Carey. Just Carey. Why? Because my access to God or spiritual condition isn’t different from theirs.
I don’t even list my academic degrees anywhere. I realize traditions differ, but I’m trying to connect with people who don’t attend church.
Here’s my rule. If you can’t talk to someone on the street the way you talk in church, you have a problem with how you talk.
So don’t speak weirdly.
The people behind the “He Gets Us” initiative raise an important question: “How did the world’s greatest Love Story become known as a hate group?”
The culture perceives many evangelicals as hate-filled, known largely for what they stand against. That is a problem for every Christian. While so many Christians have taken stances that they believe are vital — separating good from evil — the lines aren’t always so clear to others.
I love what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has to say:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
And that’s true.
When hate becomes a primary characteristic associated with a Christian, then that Christian no longer resembles Jesus.
Because many non-Christians see Christians as spiteful, hypocritical, and judgmental (characteristics that non-Christians used to describe Christians even back in 2007), every church leader has to work a little harder to overcome those perceptions.
The way to do that?
One positive encounter with a loving Christian can begin to offset years of stereotypes about what Christians are really like.
6. Don’t go it alone. (And by the way, have you checked out He Gets Us?)
It’s too easy to go it alone as a church leader. To think you need to reinvent the wheel. To think you can right the ship by yourself.
The problem with going it alone is that not only will you fail to be as effective as you could be, but you’ll spend far more time having far less impact than you would if you partnered with other people.
To top it all off, most churches are understaffed and underfunded. So, what do you do to truly make an impact in your community?
If you’re looking for more (and better) resources, the He Gets Us initiative is an incredibly innovative approach designed to spark a national conversation about the greatest Love Story ever told.
You have probably already seen their ads, which are intentionally thought-provoking, but, more importantly, are created for people who don’t currently attend church. These ads, which have garnered 300+MM YouTube views, are designed to invite spiritually open people to reconsider Jesus — and maybe even the Church with fresh eyes.
This initiative helps churches of every shape and size know they don’t have to go it alone as they guide people to understand who Jesus really was.
As a local church, when you sign up to use the He Gets Us campaign, it does two things:
⦁ It gives you access to world-class resources to teach, train, and get more connected to your people. There are sermon outlines, discussion guides, and a free assessment from Barna. You also get free, unlimited texting tools to help you improve engagement in every conversation. Yes, you read that correctly – He Gets Us brings you free, unlimited SMS you can use throughout your whole church… thanks to generous donors and the official tech platform for the campaign, Gloo.
⦁ Second, it helps prepare your people to have more natural, authentic conversations with friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Why? Because people in your community are seeing the ads, and that will spark conversations.
The hard work has been done for you. The ads are designed by some of the top marketing professionals in the industry.
The national-reaching campaigns are already funded. Unchurched people are already initiating conversations about Jesus. He Gets Us has created a top-notch library of resources and tools you can use to prepare your people to engage well.
Best part? It’s free for churches, thanks to the generous donors who fund the initiative.
You can sign up and learn more here.
One Church at a Time
It’s easy to be a cynic these days. It’s just as easy to be discouraged.
But I believe as one leader after another decides they still want to make a difference, they can and will. Good can win. Good will win. And when that change happens, the church’s image will also change.