The Convenient Church
Dr. James Emery WhiteJames Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
- 2016 Aug 25
I once heard someone make the accusation that churches today are making attending all about convenience.
I thought to myself, “And the problem with that is?”
What is the alternative? Purposefully making it inconvenient?
A new study from the Pew Research Center has revealed just how much convenience actually matters.
Digging into how people choose a new church, they discovered the obvious reasons: high quality messages, feeling welcomed/friendliness, style of worship.
But, in addition, what stood out was the importance of raw convenience. Seven out of every ten people said that location was critical. This ranked as more important than children’s ministry, whether they had friends/family attending, or the appeal of volunteer opportunities.
And what made finding the new church easy?
The majority of those who found the task of finding a new church trouble-free “indicated that their new congregation was conveniently located and easy to get to.” This was cited more frequently than being invited by a friend or finding information easily gained through a website.
Digging further, Pew found that among those whose church attendance had waned, the number one reason was…yep, convenience. The most commonly offered reasons had to do with “practical concerns, including many who say they are too busy to attend or cite other practical difficulties with getting to a church.”
There’s much in such studies to remember. In a large survey of this kind, it’s important to isolate the growing number of “nones” who are much less likely to look for a new church at all. And as a result, convenience will not be the primary factor; personal invitations will. It’s also important to note varying demographics, such as the increase in online investigation among younger generations.
But let’s not quibble. The headline is too important to ignore. We know that the quality of a church’s teaching matters; we know that friendliness is key. But have we spent enough time thinking through raw convenience through the eyes of those not already signed on to attending?
I doubt it.
So let’s think about it. Specifically, let’s look at four areas directly related to convenience for every church:
The physical location of a church is critical. Is it easy to find? Is it easy to drive to, even for those within a 15-minute drive?
Many years ago, in our church planting phase, Meck moved from an elementary school to a high school. It was a great facility, and only 10 minutes or so from where we had been meeting.
It was a disaster.
We didn’t just plateau, we declined. We moved after just nine months and instantly began to grow again. What happened? The high school was buried back in a research park far from the flow of traffic. But even more decisive was the vast number of traffic lights you had to go through from major residential areas to get to the school. It was just a pain to drive there.
The 80-acre campus we eventually bought was intentionally in the heart of our area’s residential growth and within one mile of an interstate loop around the city.
If your location is a disaster, you have options. You can sell and relocate. You can also go multi-site, bringing the church to within 15 minutes of varying pockets of your mission field. Along with our original campus, we’ve added additional campuses to make attending Meck even easier (and we hope to launch two more in 2017).
2. Service Days/Times
If you are still holding down the fort on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m., and Sunday mornings at 11 alone, you have one hook in the water. If you add services at other times and on other days, you are putting lots of hooks in the water. More hooks = more fish.
At Meck, we have Saturday and Sunday services at multiple times. We also offer an internet campus with a slate of service days and times.
3. Coming, Parking, Leaving
I don’t care how good your location is or how many service times/days you offer, you can still lose the convenience war if it’s hard to enter the parking lot, to park, and then to leave.
Just think of the good will and feeling that is lost if, at the end of a service, it takes 15 minutes just to exit the parking lot. Or if, when guests arrive, they have to circle around forever to find a place to park.
At Meck, we hire police officers to speed up entering our campuses and to expedite the exit process. An entire parking team is devoted to quickly and efficiently guiding cars into parking spaces. We’ve studied – extensively – the best routes to enter and exit, which lots to fill first, and how best to navigate the flow of people walking from their cars so as not to disrupt those still in transit.
Recently, we implemented an additional strategy because of (ouch!) complaints. Our North Charlotte Campus had grown so large that while we were handling our campus lot well, a nearby intersection was getting jammed, delaying people on their way to church. So we received permission to hire an additional police officer to manage that intersection to ease congestion and make coming to Meck as convenient as possible.
4. Logistics of Attendance
Finally, there are the raw logistics of attendance. Meaning, things like: registering your child and dropping them off for their class; finding a seat in the auditorium; being able to easily find information about the church; knowing where to go once inside the building.
Here are five essentials to address the logistics of attendance:
- Have a centralized area for information (we call ours the “Connection Center”).
- Have ample signage, high enough to be seen in the midst of a crowd, for EVERYTHING.
- Put up directional signs in a two-mile radius around your campus every weekend that will guide a first-time guest to your location.
- Use computers and wireless technology for children’s ministry check-in to expedite the process, along with multiple lines and stations around the building (and consider having escorts for first-time guests to take them to their child’s class).
- Once your auditorium reaches 80% capacity, it’s time to build or add a service or a new site. (It’s been quipped that the only people who like overcrowded auditoriums are speakers and worship leaders.)
Sound like a lot of work? It is. But then again, you are welcome to the alternative.
James Emery White
“Choosing a New Church or House of Worship,” Pew Research Center, August 23, 2016, read online.
Emma Green, “It’s Hard to Go to Church,” The Atlantic, August 23, 2016, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.