It’s a tough time to be in the church business.
Both regular attendance and membership rolls have been declining for decades – and every time somebody seems to conduct a poll, the results show even fewer Americans identifying themselves as Christians.
The late Rachel Held Evans, who was largely known for writing about her disenchantments with organized religion, became the voice of a generation that seems to have left church in America.
“Rather than wearing out my voice in calling for an end to evangelicalism’s culture wars, I think it’s time to focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees …” Evans was quoted posthumously in Newsweek on May 6.
Modern church leaders are creating new ways to worship through the use of technology, Christian rock and auditorium-style churches and are helping a reluctant generation find church.
“Rather than trying to fight culture, we’re trying to meet people where they are,” said Dion Garrett, lead pastor at Pathfinder Church [formerly St. John] in Ellisville.
Garrett said it was a few years ago when his church began to really embrace technology. One key addition was the livestreaming of services on Sunday. But what started out as a way to make church services accessible to members who were traveling or otherwise couldn’t physically attend, quickly started to take on a life of its own.
Now on any given Sunday, Pathfinder has 400 or so devices logging in to watch online services. That’s in addition to another 1,500 or 1,600 who attend in-person. As Garrett points out, the way they count online participants only tells part of the story since they can only count the number of logged-in devices not the total number of people watching.
“On some weekends, we probably have more people streaming than here,” Garrett said.
Other churches not only use livestreaming to reach people in their homes but also to reach worshipers at satellite locations.
The Crossing, led by Pastor Greg Holder, is a multi-site church, with four St. Louis-area campuses, including one in Chesterfield Valley and another in St. Peters, near I-70 and Hwy. 79. On its website, The Crossing describes its locations as places “where a whole bunch of us gather each weekend to study this ancient story found in Scripture that is still transforming lives today. We believe church should be a place where believers of Jesus and skeptics can stand side-by-side to study truth and ask tough questions.”
When those people gather, often filling the church, they’re likely listening to the same pastor – live at one location and livestreamed on jumbo video screens to the other three. And The Crossing isn’t the only multi-site church drawing huge crowds each weekend. Faith Church, led by pastors David and Nicole Crank, describes itself as “one church with multiple locations [it has six, including two in Florida] and a thriving online community.”
Online, visitors to faithchurch.com and thecrossing.church can watch sermons and videos, and connect through social media.
Some may ask, “Why go to the church?”
The answer is community. On-site experiences include cafés where church members can gather before and after services, book shops and worship programs specifically for children and sometimes teens.
Finding church online
Using technology to spread the message and grow the congregation isn’t limited to livestreaming services. Some local churches are working to build vibrant online communities.
Tommy Prater is the online and IT director at Church on the Rock [COTR] in St. Peters. In the more than 12 years he has been on staff, his role has expanded from traditional IT to managing a growing online church.
“We’ve been livestreaming in the traditional sense for at least the last six or seven years,” Prater said. “Now, in the last six to nine months, we’ve been a little bit more intentional with what we’re doing online.”
Among the enhancements COTR has added online is a chat room where participants can ask questions or get spiritual assistance and a response card where participants can begin the process of spiritual conversion. All response cards are followed up by contact from a COTR pastor.
Prater said creating an online community is vital to “plugging people in” rather than just having them watch church on their televisions or mobile devices. The same opportunities to learn about faith and become a member exist for online participants just as they do for those who are physically at COTR on Sundays.
“Even though you’re not physically here, we’re not going to say you can’t be a part of our church,” Prater said, adding that number includes COTR members who live outside of the greater St. Louis area.
Hope in a season of decline
Data from Gallup polls shows a long tail on the declining trend of Americans going to church. In a study published in April, Gallup reports that church attendance is down 20 percentage points over the past 20 years. From 70% in 1999, the latest surveys show approximately 50% of Americans report attending church services with some frequency today.
“The decline in church membership mostly reflects the fact that fewer Americans than in the past now have any religious affiliation,” the Gallup report states. “However, even those who do identify with a particular religion are less likely to belong to a church or other place of worship than in the past.”
Local churches that are growing despite national trends credit the use of technology.
Nikomas Perez, the teaching pastor at Harvester Christian Church, which has campuses in both St. Charles and Troy, explained that technology use was an important strategic shift the church made several years ago.
“[The internet] used to be a place where you’d just get information out to your congregation,” Perez said. “That’s what the website was for. Recently, over the past few years, we’ve tried to gear our website and social media not for the congregation but for people looking for a congregation.”
What Harvester found was that changing their approach got more members involved in spreading its message and brand.
“Whenever we shifted that philosophy and that strategy, our stuff became more sharable, especially in the social media realm,” Perez added. “So we’re seeing people say, ‘OK, this is information that my network of friends who don’t go to church might be interested in, so I can share it because there’s no insider language. There’s nothing in here that’s going to confuse them.’ That’s the benefit of it. It’s easier to share. It’s easier to get out to people.”
It’s the same story for churches across the region.
On Pathfinder’s Facebook page, on May 19, Garrett wrote: “In this world, where we are valued by what we do, our identity comes from what we accomplish. This hellish belief causes us to strive endlessly to live up to some external standard, or to gauge our self-worth by how well we compare to those around us. How can we escape this despairing and beaten-down way to live?”
In Perez’s words, Garrett’s post is devoid of “insider language,” not a single mention of religion just a link to Pathfinder’s website and an unspoken promise of acceptance and assistance.
Perez points out that Harvester also has been willing to embrace social media including Facebook and Instagram to keep their message moving forward.
“The Facebook page is more for the Gen Xers and the older millennials,” Perez said. “Then the younger ones will follow along on Instagram.
“How do you grow a church? You don’t increase its seating capacity. You increase its LOVING capacity. ‘If you build it they will come.’ Nah. If you love them they will come,” Perez wrote on his personal Twitter account on May 2.
Reaching younger generations
The youthful demographic makes a disproportionate percentage of the current decline in church membership. The Gallup report measured a drop of 22% in church membership among Americans 18-29 years old.
“On Mondays I’ll hop on and do a livestream of ‘here’s some other information that we didn’t get to cover’ [during Sunday’s service] so we can take that conversation offline,” Perez said. “And that’s where we’re seeing the millennials be able to have some conversation. They hear this stuff but they want to be able to talk about it as well.”
Perez said a lot of younger Christians are tuning in even when they don’t come to church. “They’ll ask questions and be a part of it,” Perez said. “I don’t know if it’s reaching more but it’s definitely engaging more.”
While the technology is a useful tool in reaching younger people, Garrett points out that millennials are big on relativity and authenticity. What a church is talking about must be relative to a younger person’s life and equally important, the church has to be authentic in its approach.
“We support a church vision where we’ve got a bigger vision for life, the world, for you [and] I think millennials … I think they sense that our vision is bigger.”
Garrett said proof that the message is resonating with people under 30 can be found in both Sunday attendance and those volunteering inside the church. Pathfinder has a large tech room and designated studio space that is staffed by young volunteers.
“These young men and women keep all this stuff going,” Garrett said, noting that some of their tech volunteers are as young as high school.
Light and sound boards, video screens and interactive technology that allows church attendees to comment and collaborate with the pastor even in the midst of the service are other examples of the intersection of technology and faith.
Many “old school” Christians who attend one of these more progressive churches may find themselves thinking that “I attended a church and a rock concert broke out.” That’s not too far from the truth. Modern worship bands, complete with guitars, keyboards and drum kits, take center stage in auditoriums that are more theater than sanctuary. Seated in comfortable chairs rather than on hard pews, church attendees are immersed in an experience that is part concert, part call to action and all community – where message meets media and church is found.
Will this increased dependence on technology continue to define what church membership looks like in the future? These church leaders don’t seem too concerned if that does turn out to be the case. For each of them, it’s not about promoting a local church or brand but about doing God’s work with the community you are in. Even if that’s an online community.
“Our emphasis has always been to look at whatever is all around you and wherever you are, you can be on this journey,” Garrett said.