I was browsing through a five-year-old pictorial directory of my ministry (Unity Temple on the Plaza, Kansas City, Mo.) when it dawned on me that in most cases, on a 12-picture page, there were more people who no longer came to the ministry than there were those who were still attending. Based on the pictorial directory, about 70% of the people featured who were once regular attendees were no longer a part of the ministry. Church Management, a consulting firm, determined from an extensive survey that on average, for all spiritual communities nationally, the congregation turns over 80% every three years. That is to say, on an average, 80% of the people attending your ministry today won’t be there three years from now.
The most common reasons for leaving are divorce, marriage, moving away, or becoming homebound or deceased. But the majority of people just disappeared. There was no fond farewell, been nice knowing you, or I’ll be back. They just vanished. Yet over this same three-year period, for most spiritual communities in the survey, Sunday morning attendance grew by 21%. The only obvious conclusion is, while a great number of people stopped coming to the ministry, an even greater number of new people started coming to the ministry.
The problem wasn’t trying to get new people to visit the ministry. They were coming in at a faster rate than people were leaving. The problem was, as Malcolm Gladwell puts it, getting people to “stick,” whether it was new people or those who had been coming for a long period of time.
If I go to a restaurant for the first time and receive good food, good service and feel appreciated, I most likely will return. Why? Because my needs were met. If any degree of good food, good service and customer appreciation is lacking, I probably won’t return. The same theory holds true for spiritual communities. If people’s needs are met and they feel appreciated, they will return.
In the past, spiritual inspiration was the primary reason people went to church. They could get insights on how to best manage their lives, listen to talks on renewed faith, and develop a deeper relationship with God. Where at one time the ministry was the exclusive resource for this type of spiritual support, it can now be received from hundreds of different sources, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The ministry lost its number-one position for providing spiritual nourishment as the Internet whizzed by with an anywhere, anytime, don’t have to leave your home convenience.
Ministry Now Fills Other Needs
Today people turn to a spiritual community for other needs rather than primarily for spiritual inspiration. They are still seeking to be inspired, but they have two other needs that must be met for a complete sense of well-being. Those two needs are social interaction and being of service to the greater community.
A friend of mine recently revealed to me that he enjoyed watching our Sunday service at home on his laptop, but holding onto the corner of his computer screen while swaying back and forth all alone singing the Peace Song (“Let There Be Peace on Earth”) left a void in his worship experience.
Humans are social beings. We need each other, we need to interact, we need to connect. We thrive when we are a part of a larger group of people in an uplifting environment. We also have a deep intrinsic need to serve others where we can. This gives our lives meaning. We want to make some sort of positive difference that gives purpose to our existence. Doing good makes us feel good.
Spiritual inspiration, social interaction and being of service are three of the primary reasons people attend a spiritual community today. These are deep humanistic needs. If people’s needs are met, they will “stick.”
Every ministry should have a system in place that identifies new people with a plan to meet their needs. First and foremost they need to be introduced to others and become a part of a small group that fills their socialization needs. Second, they need to be encouraged to attend a class, discussion group, workshop or seminar where they can ask questions, voice their opinion and expand their spiritual awareness. Third, they need to engage in some sort of service that benefits the higher good.
When these three things are present in people’s spiritual lives, their needs will be met, they will stay, the ministry will grow and the coffers will overflow.