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When Attendance Is Low and Participation Disappearing, What Should Pastors Do?

At Buck Run, we designate June as a special month of Wednesday night events, most of them of the picnic/swim party/outreach activity variety, what we call a Level 1 event. We use these both as outreach, encouraging our members to invite and bring unchurched friends with them, and as opportunities for our regular attenders to get to know one another, which is always a challenge in a church with multiple services.

This year we planned for one Wednesday night event to be a completely different kind of experience, a service of praise and prayer, alternating musical worship and times of testimony and intercession. So last night, Wednesday June 18, we enjoyed a brief time of fellowship outside by the South Elkhorn Creek, eating ice cream sandwiches, and then we went into the sanctuary where Pastor Adam Bishop, our choir, praise band and soloists led us in one of the greatest times of praise and petition I have ever known.

I cannot, in this space, convey in any adequate or meaningful way the glory that came down in that room. It seemed that the Lord just delighted to say, “You didn’t come here expecting much, but I am going to fill this summer evening with a glimpse of my splendor and beauty, with Myself.” Whether in the testimony of a deacon whom God healed from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the tears of a teenager singing in the choir, or the sharing of burdens and prayer, God was evident, and He was magnificent. I was dazed and overwhelmed with a palpable sense of God’s presence.

If you weren’t there—and you probably weren’t—the mental image in your mind is perhaps of a church filled with people praising the Lord. Think again. Most seats remained empty as about 70 people (I’m estimating) sat scattered across the cavernous sanctuary. Our choir sang, our praise band played, our soloists used their phenomenal talents to a largely empty room.

As a younger pastor, I would have been angry, bothered, hurt, disappointed or embarrassed that more people didn’t come. I would have spent much of the night thinking of all the other things, surely less spiritual or significant, that our church members must be doing instead of getting with the program. I would have lamented that people come to a swim party more readily than to a program of praise and prayer.

And my disappointment would have been palpable and would have poisoned and contaminated those dear souls who did come in anticipation of an encounter with the living God. As justifiable as some of those thoughts might be, they aren’t helpful, certainly not at that particular time. It might prove worthwhile in a staff meeting or a time of introspection to ask how we could have promoted it better or how to lead our people more effectively to love worship and prayer, but that time is not when the event is happening.

            How can a leader respond in the face of poor turnout and disappointingly low participation?

1. Be in the moment. Save the recriminations and questions for later. For the present, fulfill the purpose of the event you’ve planned. As Jim Elliot wrote, “Wherever you are, be all there.”

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Dr. Hershael W. York is the Senior Pastor of the Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky and the Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Dr. York is co-author with Bert Decker of Speaking with Bold Assurance (2001), a book that guides Christians in effective communication, and Preaching with Bold Assurance (2003), named one of Preaching magazine’s best books of 2003. Preaching Today has included him among North America’s most effective preachers. His articles have appeared in many journals and magazines, and he is a popular conference speaker in the US, Europe, and South America. He holds a B.A. in English and Classical Civilizations from the University of Kentucky, where he also earned a Master of Arts in Classical Languages. He received a Master of Divinity and also a Doctor of Philosophy in Greek and New Testament from the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee.