Nearly every church has one thing in common.
No matter the denomination, geographic location, or size.
What’s the commonality? Nearly every church is struggling to define a new and effective ministry model.
The struggle is real, but it’s not necessarily new. It’s not like every church was crushing it before 2020 and are now declining. But I digress.
Part of the problem is the natural rhythm of church. Here’s what I mean:
Every Sunday, churches gather for services. Online or in-person (or both). It doesn’t matter. The point is every seven days, at a specific time, there is a gathering. At these gatherings, the experience is relatively predictable. The church service may look different from church to church or denomination to denomination. Still, for a church attendee going to their church on Sunday, the experience this Sunday is probably like last Sunday. And this Sunday will probably be very similar next Sunday, too.
In the churches I’ve attended and led, the one-hour programming became painfully predictable. Outside of slight, occasional deviations, the service consisted of:
- A short welcome,
- two or three worship songs,
- a brief’ish vision moment where we would celebrate baptism and talk about generosity,
- a sermon, and
- end with some a dismissal.
That’s the service. That was the service last week. It was the service this week. And it’ll probably be the service next week. And the next. And the next.
As a church attendee, this creates a problem.
It wasn’t always a problem. When church attendance was expected and normalized (I.E., when cultural Christianity was the norm), the predictable nature of church didn’t matter. In some ways, it was positive. People knew what to expect. Nobody was surprised.
Cultural Christianity is dead, though. Very few people feel obligated to attend church. People who miss a week (or a year) don’t feel guilty or ashamed any longer.
This leads us to a significant problem birthed from a fundamental principle that is wreaking havoc in our churches today:
PRINCIPLE: When something is missable, people will miss it.
PROBLEM: When church is too predictable, it becomes missable.
It’s missable because I can just go next week and not really miss anything. Or I can go next month. Or wait until Easter or Christmas.
Easter and Christmas actually prove an essential point. Think about it. When is your church most crowded? Easter? Christmas? Why? Well, you may be tempted to answer, “It’s Easter! That’s why!” But let’s go a bit deeper. Easter Sunday means last week wasn’t Easter, and next week won’t be Easter, either. Easter is Easter, making it NOT as missable.
The same is true for Christmas services.
Let me give you one more example. Several years ago at Woodstock City Church, we took on a Sunday sermon topic that was quite controversial. As such, we shut down our online service stream. We told people the week before that next week’s church service would only be available in person. And we most likely would not post the service or the sermon online later.
Any guesses what happed this in-person only Sunday?
The church was PACKED. Like 150% capacity packed. We brought in chairs and set up rows in every hallway and empty room we could find. That Sunday, our in-person attendance FAR surpassed the in-person and online combined count for a typical Sunday!
Our attendance the week before controversy-Sunday was average. And – this is important – the attendance the week after this must-see Sunday was back to average. The interest we created that one week didn’t spill over into the following week.
Two Secret Words to Generate Momentum
Companies have leveraged these two words for centuries. Businesses, restaurants, and retail establishments understand their power.
What are the secret words?
The Power of Scarcity
Scarcity is a powerful motivator. A scarce resource or experience is in short supply. Meaning it’s only available until it’s not any longer. When companies offer a limited-time-only product, like Chick-fil-A’s peppermint chocolate chip milkshakes every December, they leverage the power of scarcity. I know this from experience.
There are times products, resources, or opportunities are literally scarce. There are other times when the strategy generates scarcity. This is Chick-fil-A’s approach. Last year, the Broadway show “Hamilton” came through Atlanta. The tickets were insanely expensive and nearly impossible to get. Why? They were scarce. Hamilton was only in Atlanta for two months, and most likely, it would not be back for several years.
My wife and I spent the money and went to see Hamilton. It was spectacular. It wasn’t a missable show for us, because if we missed it, there wasn’t another opportunity next Sunday at 11:00 a.m.
Chick-fil-A’s peppermint chocolate chip milkshake is scarce. Hamilton was scarce. And Hamilton was equally exclusive.
The Importance of Exclusivity
Exclusivity restricts opportunities or events to a specific group of people. Companies that offer advanced sales to insiders understand the importance of exclusivity. Again, see Hamilton. As a Fox Theatre insider, my wife was able to purchase Hamilton tickets before the general public. Not only did that make her feel special, it increased the likelihood of our purchase. An exclusive opportunity to buy tickets means something.
Companies utilize exclusivity to attract new customers. Cell phone providers will often give new customers exclusive deals (which make long-time customers feel like becoming new customers with other providers!).
When you look around, you begin to see scarcity and exclusivity everywhere. Why? Because they are motivating!
Scarcity, Exclusivity, and the Gospel
I suspect some of you have quit reading (and you’re not reading this, I guess). If you’re still with me, but feeling some frustration with all this business strategy brought into the church, give me another moment.
In NO WAY am I suggesting we treat the Gospel as scarce or exclusive. Quite the opposite. As the most famous passage in Scripture goes, “For God so loved the WORLD…” There’s nothing scares or exclusive about God’s love for humanity.
Gospel aside, the fact remains true: People will miss it when something is missable.
Meaning, when our church services are missable, people will miss them.
If you expect people to get excited to attend (or watch) a church service that is basically identical to last week’s service and next week’s service, I’ve got bad news. That’s missable with a capital “M.” And we should be immensely bothered by this reality because the Gospel might be missed if our conduit for spreading the Gospel is missable.
Scarcity, Exclusivity, and Your Church
Scarcity and exclusivity are not cure-alls for every church problem, but I fully believe these elements are part of a solution. Incorporating scarcity and exclusivity into the weekly rhythm of your church is essential. When I was the lead pastor at Woodstock City Church, we did this whenever possible.
Take middle school ministry, for example. During a student’s three years in this ministry, we created scarcity and exclusivity wherever possible. Sixth-grade students entered this ministry environment in June. In August, these same new sixth graders had an opportunity to attend “Sixth Grade Camp,” a weekend retreat designed only for them. Nearly every student participated in this weekend experience. Why? It was their first and only opportunity to attend “Sixth Grade Camp.”
For seventh and eighth graders, we offered a fall retreat, too. Every seventh grader wanted to (and did) go. Why? It was their first chance to experience “Frequency Weekend.” And, every eighth-grader wanted to go, too. Any guesses why? It was the LAST chance to experience “Frequency Weekend!” Mission trips were only offered to seventh graders.
Scarcity and exclusivity drive attendance, participation, and engagement.
Compare that to most church ministry offerings, where we offer this Sunday precisely what we offered last Sunday and what we’ll offer next Sunday again, too. Completely missable.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you attempt to one-up yourself every week. That’s impossible. When I was a youth pastor, I learned that lesson the hard way. You can’t always make this Sunday dramatically better than next Sunday, but you can make this Sunday unique. You can make this week different. You may be able to offer something scarce or exclusive. Or both.
Incorporating Scarcity and Exclusivity in Your Church
Not every single thing you do can incorporate scarcity and exclusivity. Your ministry model needs some predictability. But remember: Unmissable experiences beat predictable programming every single time.
Here are 10 ideas for your ministry. Perhaps you could implement one of these immediately, or maybe an idea below will spark an idea of your own:
- Offer church services by age and stage of life. Perhaps not weekly, but monthly. Or quarterly.
- Create a monthly married night out experience. Each event needs to be slightly different, but a monthly offering is scarce enough to drive participation. And exclusively targeted to married couples.
- Host topical small groups on a rotation. I.E., Every Winter, offer groups on finances, in the Spring, target books of the Bible, and in the Fall, focus on parenting. Consider adding exclusivity by limiting the seating and registration.
- Hold church services once a month. I realize this may sound insane but think about it. If you only have one in-person church service a month, you’d hate to miss it because your next opportunity would be four weeks away.
- Give away branded t-shirts or other swag to the first 25, 50, or 100 people to attend, register, etc. FYI: Free stuff motivates people to volunteer or take a similar step in your church.
- Shut down your online stream for a month.
- Invite a special guest preacher and promote them well.
- Rotate preaching methods during a sermon series. For instance, Week 1 could be an interview, Week 2 is a traditional sermon, Week 3 is told through stories, and Week 4 is the dealer’s choice. Unique approaches to the message increase interest.
- Rotate worship styles. Add an organ and choir one week and take it more gospel the following week. Turn down the sound and go purely acoustic or turn it up with lights and electric guitars.
- Offer a full family service designed with children, students, and adults in mind once a month.
The good and bad ideas are endless. Here’s what we can say for sure: If your church offers the same thing to the same group of people every week, the results are inevitable: Interest, attendance, and participation will decline. Again, the goal isn’t to one-up yourself week after week. That’s impossible. You are, however, attempting to incorporate scarcity and exclusivity whenever possible.
The conclusion is painfully clear. People are motivated by scarcity and exclusivity. Why not use these motivators in our ministry models?
How can I help?
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