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Church attendance is down–way down. For the first time in U.S. history, the majority of Americans rarely (if ever) attend a church. Even “regulars” attend church less frequently.

But you didn’t need me to throw a statistic at you. You already see it week-in and week-out. It feels like the more we put on our calendars, the fewer people engage. We throw new titles on old programs, change our worship styles, and buy new curriculum—still: goose egg.

If you’re like many of the churches we work with, you’re frustrated that no matter how much you adjust your programs, attendance seems to stay the same or decline.

Let me set you free today. The solution isn’t starting new programs and ministries. You’ve already tried that, remember? It doesn’t work.

The solution is to develop a clear pathway for making and maturing disciples in your church that isn’t motivated by program growth but by spiritual growth.

Making the shift from programs to a pathway is a paradigm shift that will require three significant sub-shifts in your church.

Shift 1: From designing programs to designing outcomes.

What does that even mean?

The mission of the church is to make and mature disciples. Therefore, the outcome of everything we do needs to be making and maturing more disciples. The Apostle Paul said it this way: “[We proclaim Jesus], warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ,” (Colossians 1:28 ESV, emphasis added).

Paul makes this same case multiple times throughout his letters. The reason he works and plants churches and teaches and writes letters is for the proclamation of the Gospel (making disciples) and the maturation of believers (maturing disciples). 

Most churches are motivated by the question, “What will people show up for?” 

This question drives small and large churches alike. In declining churches, the “show up” culture looks like the non-stop planning of potlucks, revival meetings, and a thousand Bible study choices. In larger churches, the “show up” culture is centered less on an abundance of programs but on the production-value of programs. They might say things like, “You won’t want to miss our Christmas series! We’re going to make it snow inside our sanctuary!” Because snow in a sanctuary is more interesting than a potluck, larger churches attract a bigger crowd. 

The motivating question must shift to, “Who do we want people to become?” 

When we shift our focus from attendance to transformation, our lens changes. At the Malphurs Group, we help churches define discipleship outcomes when we identify their core values. We ask questions like, “What does a disciple look like?” “What behaviors are they exhibiting?” “What are they becoming?”

Once we start asking the new question, we can begin to build a pathway centered around the outcomes, not what we think people would find interesting. In Strategic Envisioning, we divvy-up the discipleship outcomes into distinct steps. It is this sequence of “next best steps” that we call a discipleship pathway.

For example, if we believe that a mature believer is one who is a worshipper and who loves practical Bible teaching, how will we create an environment that produces that outcome? Then, as we begin to re-evaluate our weekend worship service, we are making changes based on our effectiveness in achieving that outcome. We stop caring if it aligns with people’s preferences, if it’s “cool,” or if it lines up with what we’ve always done. We start doing whatever it takes to achieve the outcome.

The shift might seem simple and even subtle, and it is. But simple doesn’t mean easy. Shifting from designing programs to designing outcomes means that your programs will change. And change is always challenging.

Shift 2: From valuing attendance to valuing engagement.

People have significantly different life rhythms today than thirty (or even ten!) years ago. If the only way a person can achieve the outcomes you’re designing is by spending three evenings a week at your church, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

We have two choices: we can cross our fingers and hope the culture will start to see it our way, or we can shift what we value so we can still achieve our discipleship outcomes. If you want to hold out for a culture shift… best wishes, friend.

For everyone ready to shift, here’s what needs to happen.

When we shift from valuing attendance to valuing engagement, we start finding new ways outside of the four walls of the church to move people towards life transformation.

Start again with the discipleship outcomes. Who do you want people to become? If you believe a mature Christian is one who values prayer, how can we increase that value in people? If your knee-jerk reaction is “Wednesday night prayer meeting,” you probably already know how that’s going! 

What if you started a [Your Church Name Here] Prayer Group on Facebook? There, people can share requests anytime 24/7. Your pastor can “Go Live” in the group every Wednesday morning and pray for the week’s requests, or provide training on how to pray. Or what if you filmed a mini video course and sent it via email? Anytime a person expressed interest in becoming better at prayer, you could send them a sequence of emails that walked them through the mini-course?

When your church shifts to valuing engagement over attendance, the options open up. Instead of only thinking about creating more programs for people to attend, you can start thinking of ways that people can engage and grow outside of your four walls. The technology exists (mostly for free), and it isn’t even that difficult. 

To build this kind of engagement will take creativity and will take time, but you’ll have plenty of margin thanks to the third shift.

Shift 3: From full calendars to full lives

Yes, I know how cheesy that sounds. But Jesus said it first! “I came that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus’ words are more than a sweet sentiment; it’s God’s desire for us.

Your church has to stop thinking that the lives of those in your congregation are most full when their calendar is most full.

Which would you rather see? 

A husband and wife sign up for a 16-week marriage small group. They fight every Wednesday night on their way to the church because the husband is always getting home last-minute from work. They have to drive through to eat something. The kids are exhausted from school, so they’re whining on the way to the church. But by golly, they’re there.

Or, the church launches a 6-week “date night challenge.” The church asks couples to commit to weekly dates for six weeks. The leadership provides at-home Bible reading and reflection questions that each spouse is asked to read on their schedule. Finally, they’re given a weekly focus for their date. The sixth and final date is on-site at the church; the pastor encourages the couples from Scripture, and stories of life-change are shared.

Do you see the difference? We went from 16 weeks to 6 weeks, but we came through with a better outcome. Why? Our focus shifted from “making sure people show up” to “making sure people have a full life.”

Wrapping up

Shifting from programs to a pathway doesn’t mean your church won’t have programs. You will still have programs. Only, your church might have fewer programs, and the programs you have moving forward will have a new focus and are built for our new, cultural reality.

Making this shift can be difficult, and it’s reasonable to wonder if you’re doing it right.

That’s why The Malphurs Group does what we do. Talk to a Guide today to have a no-obligation discussion about how Strategic Envisioning can help your church make the shift from programs to a pathway.


Scott Ball is the Director of Services and a Lead Guide with TMG. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott)