A major assumption behind this “giving up church for Lent” thought experiment is my conviction that attractional church models no longer work in post-Christendom. Church growth strategies designed to attract members with better worship services and programs have a limited return on investment because churches are essentially all competing with each other for a shrinking segment of the population—namely, people who like church.
Churches that grow are typically larger, well resourced churches that offer the best worship services and programs. They grow at the expense of other churches who struggle to survive. Most new members come from other churches, not from unchurched populations. Most existing churches only attract people who like church, and there are fewer and fewer of those people in the United States each year.
This visual represents the membership of a typical mainline Protestant church. The red center are the core members who “come to church” on a regular basis—these days that means about twice a month. The blue ring are people who come less frequently but enough that we know them—let’s say, 8-10 times per year. The green ring are members who come once or twice a year or not at all. (This visual also works for any program within a church. I started using it to to analyze my youth ministry.)
Almost every church I know devotes almost all of it’s (non-mission) resources on meeting the religious needs of the people in the center. If they do anything with the people in the blue or green rings it essentially consists of trying to woo them into the center. Most churches do nothing with these people on the margins, much less people outside of the church altogether (except, of course, for mission programs).
I believe that if churches started to experiment with being in meaningful relational ministry with these liminal church members, they would discover a variety of new ways of being church—many of which may not involve “coming to church.” Not only that, I believe that investing in ministry with these members will help us understand how to be in meaningful relational ministry with the “spiritual but not religious” people who aren’t interested in traditional church membership at all.