How We Addressed Our Empty Church Problem

Kaji Dousa ’06 M.Div.

When I arrived as minister, we worshiped at 8:30 and 10 a.m. Visitors came. Many joined. Each service drew anywhere from 25-75 people in a space that could accommodate maybe four times that. We were a hearty, dedicated bunch.

But to newcomers, the empty seats signaled a broader, scarier story. The space seemed to communicate: We built this for more, but something about us isn’t right. (It also signaled: We loved the 1970s.) We needed something different. This takes time to discover, however.

We cancelled both worship services and created a brand new liturgy. We refreshed the space without spending money: The dusty curtains came off, the windows overlooking the beautiful gardens were cleaned. We took out pews, repositioning some, moving the altar so people would gather around a central table.

We started calling ourselves “The Table” partly because our town, La Mesa, means that in Spanish, but more because we wanted to communicate welcome to Christ’s table, remembrance of a tomb that sits empty, hospitality in the name of the one who bids us to gather.

We instituted most of these changes – with some weeping and gnashing of teeth, granted – this past Lent. Since then, we have seen steady increases in worship attendance. Our pews are full almost every Sunday. Newcomers keep arriving – and coming back.

Addressing worship attendance is not as hard as it might seem. Here are some practical steps:

1. Resist the temptation of mediocrity. Make worship consistently, powerfully transcendent and transformational. We found many ways to address this. We invited a higher level of musicianship from our musical leaders and choir. They were entirely capable of this with some shifts in their approach to singing. I needed to preach inspiring, biblically based sermons week after week. We broadened the scope of the worship planners to ensure that the liturgy coalesces around a central message inspired from the week’s text, giving worshipers a multisensory experience of the theme. Worship should be at the core. Our new service draws in a greater number than our separate services ever did: Our people now feel the joy of hope that we will not just survive but can thrive.

2. Be healthy enough to grow. My church had gone through a lengthy interim period, so when I arrived, there were a number of non-members who had been waiting for me to come. They joined immediately once they sensed I was going to be a decent leader. Truth is, the congregation was not ready for them. The newcomers were turned off by contentiousness at meetings and gossip at coffee hour. Nearly half the earlier joiners – and we grew about 20 percent my first year – are now missing in action or attending other churches. With God’s help, we are trying to resolve the unfinished business of old, festering conflicts.

3. Improve people’s lives. That’s the crux of our work. We are truly living our calling when our community knows us not just as a place for worship or emergency help, but as a place that takes its power seriously and channels it in order to transform people’s lives for the better. This means finding the balance between charity and justice. It means providing meals but also improving overall access to food. It means setting aside fears of wading into political waters and taking a Christcentered stand for the oppressed. Our congregations must earn the trust of people to convey God’s love in their everyday lives and help them take the barrage of bad news they receive and translate it through the lens of Jesus’ Good News.