By Eddie Pipkin
After attending a recent mid-summer worship service, I was asked by the pastor-in-charge if I thought the energy in the room felt a little low. He had been challenged by the obviously substandard turnout and the way it altered the dynamics of the worship setting. It’s a common challenge for most congregations during the summer: People are off having adventures or taking a break from their regular routines, and it shows in our attendance spreadsheets. If you are part of the upfront leadership, it can mess with your head. The way you interact with the people in the room just feels different. This can become a real-time feedback loop, draining the life from the shared space. But there are ways to counteract this negative spiral. There are even ways to take advantage of the opportunities the summer worship slump presents.
There are some standard approaches to dealing with the summer slowdown, which not only must take into account a reduction in weekly worship attendance, but also the vacations of staff members and a general off-season approach that means staff members and volunteers are taking a well-deserved break. Churches routinely try some of these strategies:
- Combining worship services (if they have multiple worship services). There is some risk in changing normal times and making people give up their accustomed worship setting, but many churches have success in taking the combined approach. As always, it is very important to over-communicate what’s going on and clearly articulate the vision of why it’s happening.
- Going casual. This is not the game-changer it once was, because worship is such a comfortable and casual affair across already in most places — that is, going casual doesn’t mean the choir taking a summer break from wearing their robes like it used to — but still it can mean a more laid-back vibe that feels like a salute to the season.
- Having lots of guest speakers. This can be exhilarating, or it can be an inducement for folks to take Sunday off. It all depends on the caliber of the guest speakers and the way in which they are scheduled (whether there is a cohesive approach to the sequence of speakers or just a “new face of the week”or “here’s a warm body we found to fill in” approach).
- Scheduling stunts. Many of us have memories of revival weeks, and some of you are still making good use of those. Others have major VBS tie-ins or “Christmas in July” or “Youth Sunday” or any number of special-themed weekends that are geared to generate enthusiasm and bring people in. These can work very well when they give an authentic opportunity for leadership to groups that can shine in that spotlight.
- Shrugging their shoulders. Lots of churches just take the “it is what it is” approach, and many clergy and staff shift to a slower gear themselves.
Some of these strategies are designed to try to boost attendance and fight the slump. Some of them embrace the slump and “take her easy” through summer, assuming everybody will be back to normal with the resumption of the school schedule.
There is a third way, in which we don’t necessarily generate a lot of extra work with special events but go deeper by embracing the more intimate nature of smaller crowds. A room with fewer people tends to default to low energy, but this is not necessarily because there is no interest or enthusiasm on the part of people in the room. It’s because we don’t change our up-front leadership approach: we’re still leading the worship service as if the room was full of folks, and the dynamics are decidedly different.
First of all and most importantly, we need an attitude adjustment.
During worship, our focus should be completely on the people in the room with us — not the people who aren’t in the room.
If we are standing on the stage at the front of the worship space, under the glare of bright lights, consumed by disappointment because of a small crowd, our faces telegraph that disappointment. Our words and gestures reflect that disappointment. That is, we become the focal point of low energy, communicating that vibe to everyone else in the room.
(By the way, the solution to this issue is not a manic, comically high-energy leadership. And we absolutely, positively do not want to lead off by saying things like, “Wow, there’s sure not much energy in this room today.” The energy level you project should be normal. That’s because a normal, engaged but comfortable energy level clearly communicates your appreciation and respect for the people who have joined you in the room.)
We need to — prayerfully — get our heads straight before we enter the worship space — and this is a conversation that everybody on the worship leadership team should be sharing. Our attitude should be the same whether there are 10 people in the room or 1,000 people in the room [see Jesus in the Gospels for practical examples — Jesus extended the same compassion, interest, and excellence when preaching to hillsides full of followers or engaging in small group teaching]. Of course, the technical aspects of your presentation will change according to crowd size, but your attitude should not. Every person there has made the effort to make it to worship; they each are expectant for what you’ve come to share together — in fact, because there are fewer of them, they are more like precious gems to be treasured.
That’s the starting place for thinking about the advantages offered by smaller crowd sizes — the advantages of intimacy. What are the ways that you can leverage fewer people as an opportunity to be embraced?
- Can you have more direct interaction with people? Is this a chance to break down the leader/led barrier? Can you move around the room more easily, making eye contact with people, addressing them directly?
- Are there opportunities for people to share prayer requests or praise reports (where this would normally be logistically impossible because of the crowd size)? Can you pray directly for people or have them pray for each other?
- Are there opportunities for people to share their own stories?
- Are there opportunities for study, exercises, learning games, or discussion that would not be possible with a larger crowd?
- Flip the script: Think about the ways that your worship leadership is set apart up on elevated stage. How might we give leaders a chance to come down and get closer to folks, changing their perspective and giving them a more intimate experience with those they are leading?
Think of the normal routine of your worship structure and what parts of it are dependent on large crowd participation. Some songs you normally sing might work much better with boisterous participation. Give those a break. Instead, focus on songs that are perhaps more conducive to an intimate gathering. Are your lights designed for a big crowd? If you have theater lighting and a small crowd shows up, that creates the effect of an empty theater. What if you adjusted your lighting to non-theater mode?
And a note on the low-energy physics of a limited number of people scattered around a room designed to hold far more.
- It’s hard to get people to move closer together. You can try it, and success will depend greatly on your approach. Scolding doesn’t work, and sarcasm is not much better. Humor can be helpful. But the best approach is a polite request as you are explaining your goal in bringing people closer together. Be persistent if this is important to you — people will blow off the first request.
- If you know, based on past experience, that you are going to have consistently fewer people in the room for a few months, reconfigure your space accordingly — for many of us that means moving chairs out of the room. If you have pews, it can mean more creative solutions to subtly suggest to sit closer to the front.
What are some of your experiences for dealing with the summer slump? What have you seen work really well or change your attitude as a leader in a positive direction? What have you see fail spectacularly? Share your own stories in the comments section.