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Why do people come to your church?
Last week, when listening to a lecture on how the church is and is not adapting to cultural and technological changes in the 21st century, the speaker, who is a pastor, mentioned that many of his congregants are watching his sermons from the comforts of their homes and not coming to the physical church building. He acknowledged the problematic effects of this, with which I agree, and lamented the lack of connection many have with their local churches today.
That’s when a thought hit me. If you follow me on Twitter or are friends with me on Facebook, you may have seen me post a short thought along these lines:
The most valuable resource of the 21st century church is not the preaching; it’s the community. Preaching has been commoditized by podcasts.
The posts generated a lot of interaction and good discussion. So, I decided to write a bit more on it.
There was a time in American evangelicalism that a good preacher could attract people from miles around to his church. This is still the case, to be sure, but it is less common than it used to be, especially among young people. It should be noted that I’m writing anecdotally, meaning I don’t have any statistics to back up this observation. However, I have heard many pastors lament the lower attendance numbers in their churches—lower attendance numbers that are not due to a mass deconversion of Christians, but a mass disconnection of Christians from the activity of the physical, local church.
The late 20th century saw a select number local megachurch pastors begin broadcasting their Sunday morning church services on network news channels. This phenomenon was almost exclusively limited to pastors of the largest churches in the regions in which they were being broadcast, with few pastors—like Joel Osteen—being broadcast nation- and worldwide. However, the 21st century has seen pastors start streaming their Sunday morning services on the internet.
The internet-streaming phenomenon, unlike the television broadcast phenomenon, is not exclusive to megachurches. Everyone from church plants of 200 to megachurches of 2000 are streaming church services online, often with a sermon podcast made available an hour or a day after the sermon is preached.
This isn’t all bad. Homebound members can enjoy the worship experience in a way they’ve never been able to before, if they have the means to watch the internet stream, and people like me can listen to great preaching from pastors across the country and the world. Podcasts, and other such forms of technological advancement, however, have commoditized the pastor’s sermon. What do I mean?
“Commoditization” is the process of “rendering (a good or service) widely available and interchangeable with one provided by another,” says Merriam-Webster.
Whether we like it or not, the Word of God preached has been commoditized. The Christian does not need to go to his or her local church in order to hear the Bible preached anymore. This is a blessing in one sense because we have the opportunity to listen to the preaching of pastors around the world or listen to our pastor’s preaching when we’re away from home. However, the commoditization comes with many negative effects, namely, that many Christians feel they can skip the worship service and listen to a podcast later on the way to work the next day.
This is the reality, however much we love it or resent it. The question is this: “How do we adapt to it?”
The commoditization of sermons isn’t going away any time soon. So, as pastors struggle to convince Christians of the value of the preaching in the local church, it must be recognized that the most valuable resource of the local church is no longer the preached Word—it’s the community.
When I say “valuable,” I don’t mean “important”—I mean “in high demand.” The Bible preached may have once been the “most valuable resource” in the local church, meaning it was the main reason people gathered together. Today, as I demonstrated above, this is not the case.
Of the entire church experience, there is only one aspect which cannot be commoditized: the sacrificial love of biblical community.
You can listen to a sermon podcast on your Monday morning commute.
You can download the latest Hillsong album and worship while you do the laundry.
You cannot stream, download, or otherwise replicate the sacrificial love expressed in the community in the local church. This is why community is now, and will likely remain for some time, the most valuable resource in the local church.
Pastors: you must recognize this. If you’re honest with yourself, in your weaker moments, you secretly hope a lot of your church attenders come because they love your preaching so much. The reality is, they probably aren’t, no matter how well you explain or communicate God’s Word.
This is especially true among Millennials, who value the community of the local church greatly.
Pastors, instead of bemoaning the lower number of people in your churches, look forward. Look for ways to turn the unfortunate commoditization of the sermon into an opportunity to improve the community of your congregation.
If people are no longer attending your church because they can get sermons elsewhere, give them a different reason to come to the church.
Provide them with a resource they can’t play at 1.5x speed on the way to work.
Provide them with the sacrificial love of biblical community.