How to Get Families to Watch Church Online Less and Start Attending in Person More

Families are attending church less frequently.  "Consistent attendance" used to be 3 to 4 times a month.  Now it's 1 to 2 times a month.  As I talk with churches across the country, I have found that this is the new norm.  This makes it challenging to disciple kids and parents.  It's hard to provide solid discipleship when a family is missing 50 to 75% of the teaching. 

One factor that is contributing to this is churches providing their services online.  I can't tell you how many times I have heard families say, "we just stayed home and watched online last week."  While online church is a great tool and can be used to reach and teach people who otherwise might never walk in the doors of a church or to provide a way for families to watch when they are out-of-town or sick, it's no substitute for attending in person. 

As we think about this, we have to pull back and realize that it is a reflection of how life in general is changing in an increasingly online world.  Let's look at a prime example.  Physically going to a store versus shopping online.  Shopping online has doubled since 2009.  A recent survey shows that online shopping makes up more than half of shopper's purchases.  Amazon's sales are up 28% over last year.  Why go to a store when you can have anything from socks to laundry detergent to a new television delivered right to your doorstep?

This has caused the number of people walking into a physical store to decrease dramatically.  In the same time period, department store sales have plunged 17%.  Just a few months ago, Macy's said it would be closing 100 of their stores.  Nordstroms, Kohl's and J.C. Penny's recently posted disappointing quarterly results.  According to experts, half of the U.S. regional malls will close over the next decade.  Amazon and Ebay are singing the funeral song for going to the mall. 

But...there are some malls that are beating this trend and doing well.  Here's a case study.  The Pueblo Mall in Pueblo, Colorado, is booming.  On weekends, it's 3,000 parking spots are full and attendance is up 5% over last year.  Let's see what they are doing and what the church can learn from it.

A Social Center
The mall in Pueblo is a place where people can meet up with friends and family.  It has become the social hub for the city.  It's the town's "town square."  Here's what Steve Francis, a regular at the mall, said about this.

“Any time I go to the mall, I guarantee that within an hour or so, I’m going to run into someone I know.  You take your family, your neighbors, and you make a day of it."

Yes, families can chat and interact in an online church experience, but it doesn't adequately fill the longing that people have for personal, face-to-face connection with other believers.  We must provide families with opportunities to connect and build relationships while they are at church.  This can be a challenge when you have multiple services with a quick turnaround time between services.  If we are not careful, families will begin to feel like cattle being quickly hurried in and out.  When kids and families don't make deep relational connections at church, they begin thinking, "why not just watch the service at home?" 

If we are going to see families attend church in person more often, we must create a place where they are known, have friends they look forward to seeing and are missed when they are absent.  I remember when a young family left a church I was serving at and started attending another church in the area.  I was surprised.  We had the best facilities, the most exciting services and the best programming.  When I asked why they left, he said, "At this other church, when we miss a Sunday, they know it and call and check on us." 

Take a look at your church schedule, programming and strategy?  Do families have the opportunity to be known and develop deep relationships?  If we want them to show up in person, the church must become the center of their social life.

Host Community Family Events
The Pueblo mall regularly hosts events that draws families in.  A few examples are Halloween trick or treating, health fairs, school concerts, family exercise walking programs, Easter eggs, Christmas events and more.  Think about ways your church can tie in family events to your weekend services.  I know one church that ties it's Fall Festival into the weekend service and draws in hundreds of new families.  It's one of their biggest church weekends of the year.  Father's Day - what could you tie to that?  Mother's Day?  4th of July?  Memorial Day?  Labor Day?  Christmas?  Easter? 

Another type of family event you can host on a weekend is a serving event.  An example would be giving families the opportunity after service to assemble food kits that will be delivered to a needy country.  Families love to serve together and will show up for this.  When we did this, our attendance always went up.

Creating events tied to weekend services can be a catalyst for seeing families show up in person rather than staying home.

One big factor in families attending church less frequently is Millennial parents.  They are the young parents you are trying to get in the doors.  But Millennials are attending church less frequently than any previous generation.  This reflects their bent toward not showing up in person.  In the retail world, they make 54% of their purchases online.  They are digital natives and see smartphones, tablets, social media and physical stores as one big ecosystem.  This bleeds over into their church attendance as well.  They see online church and showing up physically at a building as the same thing.

But there is something that will get them to show up in person with their kids in tow.  A playground.  They will get out and drive to take their children to a playground.  The Pueblo Mall knows this and built an indoor playground.  A young father interviewed at the mall said this.

“When I went to the mall as a kid, it was like ‘Yes!’ and sort of a big deal.  But when I was a kid, there was no playground.  My son really loves it."

I have personally seen this be effective.  When we build a new children's building, we installed an indoor playground.  It became a place for kids and families to hang out before and after the service.  Many parents told me, "I wanted to stay home today, but my child drug me to church so they could play on the playground."  

Think about how you could create a playground area at your church if you don't have one already.  Even if you can't do an indoor playground, perhaps you could build one outdoors?  Or purchase some smaller, more affordable, portable playground pieces for indoors?
Several people mentioned they come to the Pueblo mall because of the places to eat there.  Families like to eat out together.  Especially at places that offer kids' meals.  Would families attend more frequently if you offered food for purchase before or after the service?  More than likely.  What if you offered very affordable kids' meals on top of that?  Families are going to go out to eat together.   Let it be at your church. 

Many malls have started putting in movie theaters.  They know it will get families in the doors.  Families love to attend movies together.  This will work at church as well.  I know several churches that offer free family movies after their Saturday night service and see more families attend.  And even during the summer, a time when families usually don't attend church as frequently, we did an "At the Movies" series and saw attendance skyrocket.   

Civic pride and tradition also plays a role at the Pueblo mall.  One person who goes there said, "It reinforces ‘this is our mall, this is our city, let’s shop there'."  When people have a pride of ownership, you will have better buy-in and thus more consistency in attendance.  Churches that create a culture of "this is my church" and "I love my church" and "this is my church home," will see families attend more frequently. 

The Pueblo mall also draws in lots of kids and families on weekends after sporting events.  One lady said, "It's not unusual to see teams walking around the mall together after soccer or basketball games."

We often lament the negative impact sports has on church attendance.  Many Sunday mornings you will find kids and families at the ball field rather than at church.  And traveling teams can cause kids and parents to miss church for weeks on end.  This is simply not going to change.  But think with me, how could you bring the two together?  Upward Sports has seen some success in doing this.  But is there more that we can do to bridge the gap? 

Think with me.  Professional sports teams often have chaplains and offer services before the game.  Could churches do the same thing for kids and families?  Could churches host the games on their ball fields and offer a service before the game on the field?  Could churches do this at some of the public ball fields where games are played? 

Stuff You Just Can't Get Online
Malls that are thriving are bringing in things you simply can't get online.  Barber shops, hair salons, gyms, etc.  Think about it.  What are some things that you can offer at church that families simply can't get by watching online?  What are some things that will cause families to go to the trouble of getting the kids up and ready and driving to a building?  Make your list and focus on these things.  

Kids and families attending consistently will continue to be a challenge for churches.  But churches that are willing to rethink their approaches and strategies can still effectively engage families and see them walk through the church doors on a more regular basis.