The One Thing Episode 301 – How do I help people come to church regularly? (Part 1)

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.

How regularly should you come to church?


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

Antony’s Doctoral thesis

Homegrown Faith can be heard here


The One Thing is brought to you by Reach Australia.

For ideas or questions please email [email protected]


Hi, I’m Scott Sanders. When we recorded this episode, we thought we would cut it down to just one episode. But there were so many important things in here we didn’t want you to miss. So we’ve broken this episode into two. So this is part one. Keep an eye out for part two. Lifeway Leadership Podcast Network. 

G’Day. I’m Scott Sanders.  Welcome to the One Thing a podcast is on to give you one solid practical tips Gospel, cinema, history. Every week. Now the one thing is brought to you by Reach Australia. We want to see thousands of healthy evangelistic multiplying churches, and this podcast is part of that. The podcast is designed to help you and your team start thinking about good, solid ministry habits where we can actually see growth and change in the local church.

Now, today special, it’s a special podcast. I’ve got two guests. I’ve got Richard Sweetman “Sweaters” and Anthony Baraclough’s “Baz”. So if you hear me talking to them colloquially, that’s just how we talk in Australia. And so “Sweaters and Baz”, it’s really good to have you here. Let me introduce Richard Richardson, maturity pastor at Hunter Bible Church, which is located a couple of hours north of Sydney.

Richard is also one of the hosts of our partner podcast, Home Grown Faith. Anthony Barraclough, or Baz  is a senior minister at North White Anglican Church in the beautiful, leafy northern suburbs of Sydney. Welcome to you both. 

Thanks to Scott. It’s great to be here with you.

Yeah, g’day Scott, thanks for having us there. 

I’ve known both these guys for a long period of time, so Baz was actually a student minister in my local church a very, very long time ago. The Dark ages. So, we did ministry together on the ground.  And Sweaters, Hunter Bible church has been a partner with Reach Australia for many years. 

Yeah, we’ve been running across each other for years 

…Iin different things, but for now you’ve been on another episode of The One Thing Unmissable Church.

Yeah, this is a book about why people shouldn’t miss church. The thing that you notice very early on in the book is that COVID really isn’t mentioned. You know, it’s like you forgot about this massive big pandemic that we had. 

Why did you write the book? Baz, you can kick off. 

Yeah. Thanks. It’s all started well before COVID. So COVID kind of like interrupted and it’s in an appendix, so it’s there. But we think that this is an issue that was going on for many decades well beforehand. And as two pastors, you know, we’re put together and interested in serving the church to address this issue. 

Yeah, well, before COVID, what actually happened to our staff team was gathering around.  We’re noticing people were being absent from church not coming heaps and somebody said, Oh, Richard, could you write down something about why people should come to church? And I thought, Oh yeah, I can give that a go. And then I just realized, this is not going to be easy. I can’t just say come to church because that’s what the pastors want you to do.  I had to sort of try and think about how to persuade people to come to church. And so it turned into from a from a, you know, a couple of pages into an attempt at a book. And then, yeah, getting in touch with Baz  as we were working on the same project and sort of it evolved from there.

So, so Baz you’ve, you’ve come at the book though from a sort of a quite a theological, meaty investigative approach as well. 

Yeah, I did some doctoral studies anyway, and this ended up being the project within that. So I did some research on the attendance patterns of committed Christians because we all know that the story of the world is leaving the church that’s many decades established now.

So the nominals have left the church and you’ll hear that in the press. But what’s also what’s happening in the church to people who love Jesus and their church attendance. And that was the kernel of my studies. And because it came out of my pastoral experience and yeah, really concerned to address 

And it was interesting is that the self, the self perception of attenders and the and the reality again, I’m assuming that pastors are very good at taking the roll for the most part, but that was one of the fascinating things as I read through the sort of data and as you spoke about the reality of what was going on in that church, 

Yeah, that was for me a significant conclusion. And that is we think we attend church more often than we actually do. So in my studies portion of the work, I ask people to report how often they attended in the last month and in the last three months just to see whether there was a perception difference there. And there is.  But then I asked the pastors to do the same, and there is, you know, 17 percentage points difference between what we report, what we think we had gone to church and what the pastors who are asked record the role are saying. 

So just to put that in practical terms, a person might say, I come eight out of every ten times the church.  That’s their perception. The reality is that probably coming five or six times, yeah, 

It’s 67% of all opportunities is what we’re actually coming, but we think we’re around the 84 or something. 

So. So the data piece for me was really exciting actually. See, see that and be able to put words or put numbers to what people are actually seeing in church life.  So, so that’s what you’re coming from. But they’re very practical. But research based, the why question, you know, and actually just putting on a bit of paper, obviously you need more than just a paper that you hand out in home groups, Bible study groups on why you should come to church. 

Yeah, exactly. Well, that’s when I realized we we’re in a project of persuasion.  We’re trying to persuade people to come to church. And as Ben said, people don’t necessarily see it. There’s a problem. They, they think our attendance is fine. But whereas as pastors and leaders at church, we we can see this as an issue. So how do you persuade someone to come to church? And so we looked at the we tried to identify the problem.  We looked at the theology of the church, trying to turn that theology into something persuasive and convicting us to come to church. And we also looked at the obstacles, trying to pastorally really get to understand people who are struggling to come to church and address some of those pastoral issues. 

Yeah. So I want to I want to push into the sort of who are the people. You’ve got to give us a free pass to? But also ask some of those reasons why people aren’t actually coming to church actually valid. But before we do that, I want to ask Christian, whose book actually written for?

Well, the book is written for people who are finding it hard to come to church. Now. There will be people who have no interest in coming to church, very closed.  And, you know, books probably not going to, you know, find their way into their their hands. But there are people who do love church. They find it hard. They wish they could go more often or they have a sense of guilt that they know they’re not going as much as they could in the reasons they’re not going integrate.

 So anyone on the on that edge who is open to being encouraged about church attendance or being challenged about church can attendance, this book is for them. In addition, it is for pastors and leaders who would love to be able to encourage the people in their small group, in their church about why they think church attendance is great and to help them, you know, pastorally gospel driven to find their way into church more regularly.

So you give some you give some practical tips. And so I want people to buy the book. So but the two sections that I kind of highlighted, you know, in a lot of detail where they were the practical tips for pastors and then also the practical tips for members, you know, in terms of sort of come to church. So, I mean, I don’t give away at all. 

You can give away as much as you like, right Basin I our passion here is for results for people coming to church more regularly. Whether we sell copies or not not have a priority but for pastors particularly here listening you get you have some really helpful tips around this topic.

I mean, the half the reason or most of the reason we do it was to speak to myself because, you know, if you had a church of 100, my figures say 67 people are there. And so there’s a lot who want there each week.

And you go, Is this me? Is it my preaching, Is it that bad or is is it them or is it something else? 

Which which a good questions is like a good question to ask. You know, like so. So is there something about what we’re doing. Yeah, that is, that is causing people not. Well it’s probably a real mix of all of that.

Right. And so you know, you don’t want to go slack as a preacher or as a teacher or as a pastor, but it’s more than that. It’s the kind of things that are happening to the nominals who have already left the church. The book is not for them, but they left the church because of this age of individualism, of being true to yourself.  And they they realized, hey, church is not for me. I don’t really believe this stuff. Okay, that’s that story. But these forces of individualism have had an impact on believers, genuine believers. And that is I, I’m tired or I don’t want to be there or I’ve got a problem with that pastor or that preacher or, you know, I’m divorced and I’m scared of the stigma. And all these things surfaced in my research and other reasons that actually impact people. So four weeks holiday. Yep. Okay. That’s the biggest contributor to people being away. So it’s for Sundays in a year. I’d say you’re sick for two Sundays. Now we’re up to six and then. Okay, you understand that? That’s fine. Pastors get that and we want to know when people are sick so we can care for them.  But then there are other things like, you know, I don’t like so and so or other factors we’ve had I’ve got a car club outing and I want to go to that and you just add two, three, four of those in a year and you’re gone from church for two or more or more months in a year. That’s a lot.  And that impacts your faith. And then, you know, I don’t know about Richard, but in my ministry experience, we say we have seen that people have been out for the whole of winter because they’ve enrolled their kids in a sport and nowadays there are not enough playing field. So they gone for the whole winter or summer or whatever it is that is not good for their faith.

Tips for pastors is where this question came from. I want to disentangle myself for esteem and numbers, which is an important thing to do as ministers anyway. From what I’d been observing in my congregations and I want to say, yeah, you’ve got to work on your preaching, you’ve got to work on your leadership and following up people who are sick, etc. but it’s not a score on your performance.  And so that’s my first big tip. There are huge, huge forces out there in the world that led the nominals away and it’s impacting believers and you cannot put your self-esteem 

And your primary focus is actually on caring for the flock came for people who who aren’t coming to church regularly, knowing the importance of regularly meeting with.

Absolutely. So in my research, I wanted to see if there’s a correlation between church attendance and at least reported spiritual growth. And there is. And is a correlation. So if you attend more often than the average your you report that you are doing better in your faith. If you attend less often you report you’re doing worse. Of course, but I’ve got the stats to show it.

But that’s got to drive people through this book, through the preaching, to attend, to make the effort to attend. 

So you also recognize there are people who are going to struggle to be consistent with it. So divorcees, the elderly. 

Yes, its, obviously then it’s a pastoral thing rather than a slackness thing or a can’t be bothered or whatever.

Yep, yep. I think the other thing that popped out in your research was that those who are serving regularly in church and community life report better attendance. 

Yes, that’s so that’s another bit out of the data. And the reason for that is if you’re serving, then you’re leaning in, you’re giving, and that’s contrary to the spirit of individualism.  So when the gospel impacts me so that I want to serve it, it has that correlated effect of higher attendance. It’s obvious at one level, I think I’ve got the data to show it, but what that says to pastors, therefore, is if you can engage people in service, they’ll attend more. And of course, if they’re attending more, you’ll have more people who will want to serve.  And this is how you go on the spiral up in ministry. 

So there are a lot more practical tips for pastors. But I think as is hard, you know, two or three really key ones, they’re thinking about the member in church. 

Yeah, we’ve really wanted this book to be practical and helpful and we’ve thought about lots of ways for the member at church to, to make it along to church.  And I mean, just to highlight a few, I think communication is really good for the members to be able to share with their small group If there’ll be a way for church, share with this their Christian friends, their small group leader, their pastor, if they’re struggling with something, whether that be transport or fears around an aspect of church or an area of conflict to communicate and not be isolated and alone and secretive.   When it comes to skipping church, missing church regularly, I think that’d be one of the main themes. 

One of the things I often hear is I’ve been at church for two or three weeks and no one’s followed me up. And I said, it’s like no one cares. We’ve got all these database systems now that can put trigger points and send emails to people, but it is important that people actually get followed up.

Yeah, I think what we would love is for the church culture in all our churches to really value church attendance and for people to notice if people aren’t there. I’ve got a friend at church who who makes a habit. There’s a handful of people who haven’t, if they haven’t turned up for church on Sunday, will send them a text right there and then say, church, I started where I are you? And she can do that in a good spirit. And it’s quite encouraging for the people. But we need to get more brave, more confident while still being gentle as we talk to people about coming to church. So I’ve grown in that I think in the last couple of years since writing this book and thinking about it, to be able to say to someone, Hey, I noticed you went to church on Sunday.  Is everything okay? You know, was something up? And that communicates that I’m not I’m not judging them, but I want to know if something’s going on, you know, And there’s a few people who I say, Oh, come on, man, why were you going to board games night until midnight on Saturday night? What were you thinking?  And he knows that I can have that quite stern conversation with him. And there are other people I’ll say I didn’t. You know, that’s. That’s terrible. Your kids are sick. Anything I can do to help. So But just being braver, more regular in those kind of questions, 

How do we measure this? You know, are we are we wanting everyone to come 80% of the time?  90% of the time is 70%. Okay. Given holidays and sickness and stuff, you know, stuff gets in the way. 

Well, you want to be at another church on your holidays, don’t you? Because you need church, right? You need that encouragement each week, the Jerusalem church after Pentecost met every day. They needed it, right? It’s not just that’s what they did.  They needed it. You need to be a church. Your soul needs it. So I want to say aim for 100. But of course, when you’re on holidays, what be your usual fellowship would be somewhere else and you’ll get a different kind of ministry taking on there. So let’s not lower the standard. Let’s raise the standard. Let’s not give up meeting together a summer in the habit of doing let’s spur one another on.  And if you aim at 100, you might get towards it. 

Yeah, I think as pastors, we’re not judges, we’re not arbiters. We want to avoid that kind of attitude. But we do, I think, want to be setting goals and helping our congregation grow. So I’d encourage pastors perhaps to to at least measure or get an idea of their church attendance and to think about where they would like that to be in a year’s time and implement some strategies for that.

Great. Excellent. Well, that was episode one. There’s lots of good things to come, so keep an eye out for episode two. I’m Scott Sanders. Chat soon.

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