I Fought The Law (of Diminishing Astonishment), and the Law Won


Struggling with dwindling church involvement? Learn how to break the cycle of Diminishing Astonishment and build a deeply connected and engaged community.

Have you heard of the “Law of Diminishing Returns?”

When I was in business school, I learned this law. 

The Law of Diminishing Returns suggests that, over time, adding more and more effort results in smaller gains. At least that my summarized version. 

This law is a principle that plays out just about everywhere in life. And in church experiences. 

In our churches, I call it the Law of Diminishing Astonishment

My First Experience With This Law

I spent several years volunteering in middle school ministry before becoming a professional Christian (AKA: church staff member). Middle school ministry is a combination of insanity and truth. 

My first middle school ministry volunteer role was at a church that offered a Wednesday night experience for students. The student pastor and I decided to reach the unreached students by creating irresistible (insane) experiences on Wednesday nights. 

It was a ton of fun. At first. We had spam launchers and played frozen turkey bowling. We did outdoor laser tag and even built an entire skate park beside the student building. We recreated popular television shows with our students during the week, recording and showing them (and teaching about Jesus) on Wednesday nights. 

And it worked. We grew our student ministry from about 25 to 150 in two or so years. 

One Wednesday night, while leaving, a student yelled out the car window, “What are we going to do next week?

Uh oh. It was a harmless question. But we’d set an expectation. 

Each week, we felt the pressure to one-up the previous week. 

That’s exhausting. And unrealistic. 

At some point along the way, our students who’d been around a while stopped inviting their friends and even attended less frequently. Why? Well, to say it bluntly, they weren’t “astonished” any longer. What was once amazing was now expected. Or even boring. 

Adult Astonishment Decreases, Too

There’s a reason people begin attending church less frequently. Lots of reasons. I’m reading a research-based book on the topic right now (and I’ll write about it a lot coming soon). 

One reason is they don’t feel what they once felt at your church. 

That’s not really your fault. It’s a human law. No matter how great something is, over time, we stop seeing it as excellent. 

I’ve taken our family to Universal Studios in Orlando nearly every fall for a decade. I don’t know that our first trip was our best trip, but it was undoubtedly the most exhilarating. We just got back a few weeks ago from our annual trek, and we all felt the same way. It was fun, but I’m not sure we should return next year. 

Unless they have a new ride!

Why did we feel that? 

It’s the law of diminishing astonishment. 

Fighting Against Diminishing Astonishment

In my middle school ministry volunteer years, I eventually gave in to this reality. I learned through plenty of effort and exhaustion that a law is a law. We couldn’t one-up ourselves every week. 

Our solution? 

Well, after learning the hard way, we decided to refocus our ministry model on something less diminishing: Connection and relationships. 

We still did wild, crazy things, but the insanity wasn’t the only draw. The real attraction was the people. The draw was an opportunity to see friends, connect with people, and experience a better life. 

How Can You Astonish People without Diminishing Returns?

One thing I know for sure: You can’t offer turkey bowling or spam launching. 

And I can say this with great certainty: after serving as a lead pastor for some 13 years, you can’t create a church service that tops last week every single week. I tried that for a while, too, and the law won. 

We must stop asking ourselves how to “wow” people and ask a better question: How can our church engage people? All people. People far from God and those close to God. The unchurched, de-churched, and too churched. Those who desire to grow as a disciple and those who have no desire. 

Rather than rely only on an “experience,” perhaps we broaden our definition of church experience to include: 

1. Something Hopeful and Helpful Each Week. 

Life is difficult. And the challenges are increasing, not decreasing. 

A church that offers hope and help each week doesn’t diminish. You can do this via your sermon, worship time, and the spaces in between. 

2. A Relationship, Not a Religious Experience. 

I won’t name denominational names, but we’ve all experienced services that bent more religious than relational. Eventually, the “relgious” experience proves insufficient — because it is. 

A church that helps people pursue a growing relationship with Jesus and others is a church immune to the law. 

3. Connection In and Around the Church Service. 

If your church service primarily consists of people sitting in a row, in the dark, listening for an hour or more, your influence will diminish. These churches’ methodologies focus on sharing information over creating connections. Twenty years ago, this worked. Before the internet, content was the connection. Today, content is a commodity, available anywhere and everywhere. I’m on a plane right now, and virtually everyone around me is on a mobile device, listening or watching something. Not necessarily sermons, but they could. 

If you hope to attract and retain people at your church through content alone, you’re living in the 1900s. 

We must find ways of creating connections in and around our church service. The time before the service begins is a great opportunity, but rarely are people early to church. This means we need to find ways IN the service and after the service for people to connect. 

Where Are People Already Connecting?

The answer? In the places and spaces they already inhabit. Adults sit on recreation ballfields every weekend, connecting with other parents. Adults connect at work and in the neighborhood. On tennis teams and over dinner at a friend’s house. 

Connection creates attraction and retention. 

Connection is how people feel missed when they miss. 

And nobody should ever out-connection a local church. 

How can you create more connections in and around your church? 

This will be challenging if you hope to reach the unchurched and de-churched while engaging those believers in your church. Connecting a homogenous group is significantly easier than a diverse crowd. But we can find all sorts of connections within the diversity. Like the need for hope and help. For authentic relationships. And for connection. 

Too many people are walking away from local churches because they don’t feel the need to remain. If we rely on content, we’re only feeding into their perception. Times have changed, so we should, as well. 

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