One of the things that brings the most anxiety in any church is Sunday and Wednesday attendance. While still a good indicator in some sense of a church’s health, attendance may not be the most accurate measure for health or even participation. When there is a culture-wide shift in how people view religion and when our models and measures for ministry don’t change, it’s a recipe to depress church leaders, bemoaning how things aren’t as good as they once were.
In the United States, people’s attendance patterns have been changing for years. People who used to come to church on Sundays three to four times a month now may come only two to three times a month. People who used to come two to three times a month may now come only once.
This shift can bring deception concerning Sunday attendance. Most churches are used to measuring weekly attendance as a way of tracking engagement and participation. If a church has 100 people weekly for Sunday morning attendance, odds are (with today’s attendance patterns) that 25 percent (and in some cases, perhaps 50 percent) of the crowd is different from week to week. This means (on the low end) a church reaching 100 people weekly may, in a month, be reaching 150 to 200 people. When the only measure we track is weekly attendance, we lose sight of the larger picture, and don’t acknowledge that we may reach more people than initially assumed.
If we can say patterns for Sunday attendance have shifted course, then it may be fair to say that Wednesday evening patterns (in many communities) have gone off the map. Schools and coaches used to not plan anything on “church night.” The unspoken cultural norm was that deference was given to churches in terms of weekly scheduling.
Now, if your community is like mine, Wednesday nights may include town council meetings, junior varsity sports contests, and promotional events at local restaurants and pubs. When faced with the choice of 1) participating in town and county leadership, 2) of attending a granddaughter’s basketball game, 3) dollar longnecks, or 4) church, many people will readily move midweek church gatherings to the bottom of the priority list.
In our location, over 70 percent of residents commute outside the county for work. The nearest cities are an hour away, and our Wednesday Bible study begins at 6 p.m. If people get off work at 5 p.m., they have little chance of even making the meeting on time, much less eating a meal. On top of the time crunch is the cafeteria of choices listed above.
If Sunday and midweek attendance patterns are not going back to the 1950s, then every church should consider creative ways to engage people in the culture as it exists, not the culture in which our grandparents lived. When culture shifts away from Christian hegemony and influence, we can sit back and bemoan it, or we can trust God’s Spirit to creatively lead, and rely on the missionary impulse of the gospel to open new possibilities.
Recently, I decided to try and live stream our Wednesday night Bible studies. Even with a background in communications, live streaming from my laptop (while teaching Bible study!) was new for me. In 2018, however, you can learn anything if you are willing to Google it and watch a few tutorials. I decided if teenagers can live stream their video gameplay, then surely I can live stream our study group.
I learned quickly that the professional standard for live streaming is a software called OBS (Open Broadcaster Software), and the best part — its free! You can go here and download the program. After a few hours of tutorials, and practicing/tinkering for a week, I was ready to live stream. This past week we began live streaming Wednesday evenings on our church Facebook page and on our website.
Twelve people were physically present for Bible study this week. Upon streaming, before the end of Bible study we had over 155 views. Seven people joined the live stream for the entire hour (all church members) and at least 10 viewed for 20 minutes or more. Seventy-nine viewed for two minutes or more, and there were 10 comments and questions that came in live from the Internet.
Overall, we engaged with 32 individuals (received Facebook likes, shares and comments), and this morning, people continue to watch and engage with the video, because the live stream permanently uploads when you end the stream. I think we’ll try it again next week.