The One Thing 302 – How do I help people come to church regularly? (Part 2)

People think they come to church 17% more than they actually do!  Scott chats with Richard Sweatman and Antony Barraclough about their new book Unmissable church with advice for pastors and members of churches to encourage people to come to church more regularly.

In this episode they look at whether going to a small group is enough, what excuses people make for not going to church and how do you build community with multiple congregations


Part 1 is here

Unmissable Church can be bought from Matthias Media or our friends at the Wandering Bookseller

Antony’s Doctoral thesis

Richard has also written two books on small groups: Being a Small Group Leader and Writing a Small Group Study


The One Thing is brought to you by Reach Australia.

For ideas or questions please email [email protected]


Ep 302 How do help people come to church more regularly

Hi, I’m Scott Sanders. When we recorded this episode, we thought that we cut it down to just one episode. But there were so many important things in here we didn’t want you to miss out. So we’ve broken it down into two parts. And this is part two. If you haven’t listened to part one, make sure you listen to that first.

Today, I’m going to talk with Anthony Barraclough and Richard Sweatman about a new book they’ve just written called Unmissable Church. In it, they work with Baz’s research and provide practical advice and pastoral warmth, exploring the whole reason as to why Christians struggle to come to church on a regular basis. 

But for now, you press play on another episode of The one Thing unmissable Church 

You’ve included a number of personal stories in the book as well. 

Yeah, I think I mean, people are persuaded by stories. I can write a lot of theology and Baz can present a lot of statistics, but people love stories. I love stories. And even reading this book again and looking over those, I found myself moved by those stories because people are individuals.  Every person in our church is different. And so, yeah, I want the readers of this book, and I think I want leaders at church, too, to see church members as individuals and be interested to know why it is they’re finding church hard. And that could vary from everything from mental illness to family to circumstances to finance. There’s no one answer for each person.

So yeah, find out more. And so the personal stories. Yeah, I love those. 

And you address in the book as well what you think is the biggest excuse or obstacle for people attending church. What is it Baz? 

Oh, well, read the book. Look, you’ve I’ve talked about before, about holidays being a big factor and you understand that and all this and you understand that.  And so even in Richard’s last answer there, you can you flip your pastoral approach depending upon what’s going on in people’s lives. And that’s love, right? Love in action. But when when the heart is warm or on the cooling trajectory, that’s when it’s a big pastoral problem. And that’s what I think what we want to try and address is say to people, You’ve got to work hard on your faith.  There’s so many things that make being a Christian hard these days. And God has given the church to his people to encourage us in faith. So Hebrews 10 is perhaps the only verse to explicitly talk about it. So way back in the first century, there were some who were in the habit of not getting together, and so that’s still the case today.  And so we need each other. We need to minister the gospel to one another. And so I want to, through this book, speak to people’s hearts to say and that’s my answer, the heart to say it’s so hard to be a church now. You’ve got to put your heart in the right place so that yours are being ministered to by somebody text or being ministered to by your pastors or your growth group or your small group or whatever it’s called, so that you’re on the right trajectory in your faith.

So some pastors might be listening to this and thinking, you know, 50% is probably good enough. Your research is not coming more readily to church, will mean greater spiritual growth, but it’s just a lot of work to get, you know, someone to move from coming sort of six out of ten times to eight out of ten.  So is it is it worth it? 

You can’t solve the problem by lowering the bar. You know, the great John Chapman. I remember him saying back in my day, you know, people used to go to church twice a Sunday. That was the regular. Nowadays, if you go twice a month, that’s a regular. And we can, you know, in ten years time, drop the bar down to once a month, which is where a lot of the surveys that mention no one else go, you know, census and things like that.  So we don’t want to drop the bar. We want to say you need to be a church and you need to fight the forces that stop you from being there. Whether you’re tired. You stayed up late the night before that. That’s not loving your neighbor. You need to fight the forces of me-ism, individualism and work hard to be there because it’s good for you and your faith.  And actually, when you’re not at church, it’s not good for Bob or Jane. Who is? They need to see you there, even if you don’t get to chat. It’s such an encouragement when you say, Oh, Bob’s over here, that’s great. So that passive ministry is actually a great ministry, yet alone, the active ministry we do. And when I go, I won’t be at church tomorrow because, you know, I had a late night last night.  It’s unloving. The wider body of Church of Christians. 

So it’s this me-ism culture. How are you addressing that at Hunter? 

Yeah, well, we right from the time people join church, we are looking to help them see that our agenda for church should be the same as God’s agenda. God’s agenda sets our agenda for church. And so if God values His people, gathering, worshiping him, praising him, encouraging each other, then that’s what we’re going to value.  And so we invite people as they join church to be that kind of church community with us and to take it even two further steps. For example, when people join a small group in our church, we ask them to commit to regular church attendance as a condition of joining a small group. So it’s right there from the start.

So you’ve got you’ve got quite a high bar with a whole bunch of things, particularly at Hunter.

We have a biblical principle driven church ministry. Scott 

But you haven’t gone to that low, you know, the lowest bar you’ve actually said. Now here’s what it means to be a member of Hunter. Here’s what it means If you want to serve, here’s what it means if you want to become a part of this community.

Yeah, because we love people. We feel responsible people of people. We want to disciple them. We see the joy that’s there captured in some of the testimonies from this book of how people love coming to church and love seeing their Christian family and feel encouraged, even though it can be hard at times. So that’s what we want for people. We want want their joy in the faith 

What would you say to someone who says, My small group is my church and that’s my family? That’s that’s that’s the group that I’m committed to loving and being a part of regularly. 

Yeah. Well, as you know, I’m a big small groups guy. I’m a big fan of small groups and do a lot of ministry in that area.

If you haven’t read any of Richard’s books on being a small group leader and training small group, the excellent books by Matthias Media, 

So big fan of small groups, but it’s a small group is not an adequate replacement for a church. So we go into this in a little section on the book, but thinking of your small group as church is not biblical, really. It’s the small group is less like God’s eschatological vision of the heavenly church. The small group is less like some of those analogies or metaphors of the church, such as building or body or flock. And, you know, I think of pastorally there’s a real risk of selfishness being expressed if we replace our church with small group, that small group becomes something as a consumer where I get what I want to get and I’m not challenged in the same way that I might be by regular church involvement.  So I would say, yeah, small groups make excellent small groups, but unhealthy churches. 

I add to that it’s true that when two or three are gathered together, there I am with them. And I think that is a wonderful thing and it certainly will help, you know, the persons in prison or, you know, can’t get to church. But that passage, when two or three Matthew and I gathered together, it’s not written to say that’s a replacement for church, but that was actually about when you come together and make decisions on discipline.  Actually, that’s the context of that thing. The other thing to remember is that small groups are invented, I don’t know, 60, 70, something like that. So the church didn’t need this ministry, which is a great ministry, but it’s a life without it. It survived with church. And so I take it the reason why we run the small groups is for extra discipleship, not as a replacement.  And you run a danger. I think, as Richard’s been saying, when it’s your replacement for all those reasons that he just said. 

So one of the other things that I’m that I’m saying when you have a church that has multiple gatherings over the course of a day, when you’re trying to chuck, you know, chuck five gatherings maybe into a sort, that means that the the time for actually gathering and then the time for sort of post gathering is often limited.  Our buildings often don’t actually help us with that either. You know, we don’t have great communal spaces, you know, pre and post church service. Again, you can see where architecture back in the past was just all about the, you know, the gathering in the preached, the preached word and that was kind of it. And then we just leave, you know, we didn’t obviously do hospitality in morning teas as we do, you know, today in our churches.  So what would you say to pastors who are, you know, really wrestling with? But we want to reach as many people and that means we’ve got four gatherings over the course of the Sunday. And that limits, makes it hard to do, you know, good fellowship where we are having that, you know, robust gospel conversation before and after church life.

I think you’ve got two competing good goals in that question. You know, the fellowship, particularly post formal service, but as well as the desire to reach more by maximizing facilities. So every church will have to play that out. But in your question of the two good assumptions, how you handle it, well, you want to try and maximize both.  It would be the way to do it. You know, can you hire another hall somewhere down the, you know, round the corner or something like that or when you do your extension, consider these sorts of factors, whatever it may be. But there’s two good goals in the in the question. The more services, the better. Make use of your buildings, which cost a fortune.  And yet, on the other hand, it’s not just about show up. Listen, sing go. 

You know, it’s not that yeah we do want to be prescriptive to pastors and leaders about how they run church particularly. But I think we don’t… you can encourage someone so easily by turning up to church. You don’t need to be best friends with them and know them forever like I was.  I’ve been on holidays. I visited a church last week and I was encouraged by the person next to me, even though we only spoke a few words and we had the opportunity to say, Great to see you. Welcome to this church, or they welcomed me. What did you learn from the sermon? That’s Christian encouragement right there without like a lifetime friendship.  So, yeah, I mean, we pastors, you know, whatever you can do with the space you’ve got is great. But coming to church regardless is going to be really important for the spiritual health of your people. 

What what do you say the person says, I just don’t want to come to church because it’s it’s boring. The music’s not great and I don’t get a lot out of it.

Yeah. I think a lot of the time with pastoral conversations you guys will be familiar with this. There’s always there’s surface layers things here. So as a pastor, I listen, I listen, I listen, and then I try to talk about Jesus, whereas this person’s heart with Jesus. And, you know, one of the points we make in the book is for some people who are lukewarm about church, they may need to examine themselves and consider are they actually Christian?

Have they had a conversion experience of repentance and faith and that now Jesus is their Lord or as is their history with church, something to do with their family, their tradition, their love of music or something like that. So yeah, I think in pastoral conversations with this issue and many issues, we’re looking to go to the heart. Where is this person at with Jesus?

 I’m with Richard there it’s a heart question.  Do you want to minister to the heart that says those kinds of things? And yet, like we said a little earlier, you also want to take on board the critique. I don’t want to run a boring church. I want people to be engaged. I want the music to be outstanding. But you don’t need to have outstanding music for church to be of value when when it’s just acappella kind of, you know, and I can’t sing in tune.  I’m encouraged hearing the off tune person saying I love you Jesus, through their song. So that’s not boring that ministers to my heart. It’s not going to make it on a TV music show or something. So again, we’re back into the heart that says the things in your question and you want to go, Well, what is church and why do you come?  And, you know, are we here to entertain you or, you know, you want to be entertained, go to a concert or something, but or a motivational speech by, you know, those guru guys. But what is church is where you also want to tackle. Great. 

Well, I want to ask you both, what’s the one thing you want people to know about coming to church?

I want people to realize that church attendance and spiritual health go hand in hand. And I want pastors to and leaders to contend for increased church attendance among the people. 

And I’d add to that you need to be a church. It’s good for your soul. You need to be there. You need to fight to be there. And your church needs you to be there because they need,  I need your ministry.  It’s funny, you know, as a minister, I need to be ministered to and anyone in my church can do that for me by turning up and then by all the chats, you need, church, we the church need to. 

Well, I’m asking about the toolbox very quickly. As we’ve mentioned, Unmissable Church. The book is now available from all good bookshops.  So get it. Read it. It should be something you can read with your staff team, but also, as Richard said, something to give to someone who’s who is struggling with church and getting along the church regularly as well. So put a link in the show notes you can buy it off Matthias Media or also Wandering Bookseller as well.

If you want to dive deep into into Baz’s research the appendices are excellent on that but if you want to get into his in his actual doctoral thesis we’ll put a link in the show notes to that as well. And as we mentioned, Homegrown Faith. That’s one of our podcast network partners. Great, great podcast, which started, I think through COVID to encourage Hunter Bible Church people.  But it’s just a great, fun podcast to listen to, to get into your own sort of Bible reading on a regular basis and to hear yet what Richard and Jo are reading and thinking about. 

Well, if you have a topic that you’d like us to cover, we’d love you to email us at Resources at Reach Australia. We’d love to again have a podcast that you’re listening to, but also is also helping you practically with ministry.

The anyone who sends in a question over the next couple of months we will have a copy of Unmissable Church for them. So send your, send your question in and we’ll get a book the unmissable church. Richard, it has been really good having you on this and really thankful that you’ve written this book and he’s going to be really useful for local church.

Thanks, Scott.  I’ve enjoyed this conversation with you. 

Such a joy. Thanks. 

I’m Scott Sanders chats soon.

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