iPhone 6 and why churches should stop trying to get more people to come.  

Last week, as throngs of people stood in line at the Apple store, Courtenay and I walked up to our cell phone provider’s mall kiosk just a little further down and asked if they had any iPhone 6s left. A short while later, we had traded our old iPhones for the shiny new ones of our choice.

applecrowdWhen we had tried the apple store earlier, it was so busy that we could hardly get close enough to a display model to see one. At the cellphone kiosk, we were given demo models to hold and play with. While you had to make appointments to receive service at Apple, walk-ins were welcome at the cellphone kiosk. Shipping problems meant pre-orders were delayed and backlogged at the Apple store. The cellphone kiosk? We were the first customers to buy the new iPhones from our sales associate, and it was the middle of the afternoon already. And my wife and I loved buying our phones from the friendly guy at the mall kiosk.

It was somewhat of a surreal experience to be quietly buying new phones just down the way from the clamour of the Apple store.

As we experienced the release day chaos first hand, it dawned on me that churches could learn something from all of this. We wish we could all be Apple stores, with the throngs of people, not unlike the mega-church, but most of us are more like the small cell phone kiosks. We offer the same thing as the mega-churches, but most people don’t know we have it.

As a pastor of mainline denomination in Canada, my 5 years of ministry experience has been serving in a denomination in decline. There are a zillion factors for this, of course: changing social norms, less and less societal evangelization on behalf of the church, new census categories that actually allowed people to choose “none” or “other” in the religion category, less immigration from countries with people that are mainline adherents, a failure to evangelize our own children over the past 5 decades, judgemental and condemning attitudes by church leaders towards pretty much everything new in the world and so on.

I often remind my people that while we are partly to blame for our own decline, a lot of it is simply out of our control. 

Yet, in the midst of this decline, many Christian mainliners are concerned about getting people back to church, about returning to a time of full pews and overflowing offering plates (I am not sure this ever existed).

People often point to the other choices that people seem to be making instead of church on Sunday mornings as the thing to blame for shrinking membership roles. Sports, dance, music, shopping. Mega-churches, Evangelicals, praise bands.

These are the things that people want, or so I am told.

We need to be flashier, more engaging, more interesting, less old, less traditional, less churchy.

And yet, my own anecdotal experience tells me that my current high church liturgical predilections are “attracting” or “not attracting” just as many people as the young adult praise and worship band that I played in for years. Lutherans are coming in fewer numbers to Lutheran churches. Other mainliners, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and new converts are also coming in fewer numbers to Lutheran churches. Apparently fewer people are attending church across the board.

I am not the first to say these things, you have probably heard them before.

But back to iPhone 6 release day… with the pandemonium of people lined up for hours, days even, to get their new Apple products, I wondered why all these people are here for this stuff.

And it dawned on me.

They are buying something. Apple is selling something.

grandarcade_heroApple is great at selling things. My cell phone provider, while strong in most of Canada, has yet to get a foothold in this province. Mainline decline is a loss of a foothold. Whatever we were selling, people aren’t buying anymore.

More importantly, people are attracted by things to buy, consume, attain, acquire. They want something new, flashy, entertaining.

Lutherans, with other mainline Christians, are just not selling what the people want.

This is a good thing. 

As I realized that my church isn’t selling what people want, unlike Apple or sports or movie theatres or shopping malls, I also realized that we don’t want to sell something.

The churches that do sell what people want, are peddling things that I would never offer my people.

http://www.flcsf.org/history
http://www.flcsf.org/history

Years ago, when mainline churches were on the top of the heap they weren’t more holy or gospel filled places. What we did was sold the only show in town on Sunday mornings, we sold social networking the old-fashioned way, we sold black and white morality, we sold plenty of judgement and we sold cheap access to heaven (for only 1 hour of time a week on Sunday mornings).

https://deanlbailey.wordpress.com/tag/megachurch/
https://deanlbailey.wordpress.com/tag/megachurch/

Today, lots of churches are selling the same kind of stuff: A privileged place in God’s kingdom, the promise of wealth and success, black and white answers, us vs. them morality, security in a dangerous world, entertaining worship, vanilla lattes in the narthex, music like you hear on top 40 radio, and cheap access to heaven (for only a sincerely held, unquestioning faith).

Now, I am not saying that churches who achieve attendance and budgetary “success” aren’t preaching the gospel, creating disciples or doing good ministry. Yet, I do question attendance as a metric of good ministry, or as a way to determine if the gospel is preached. If numbers really do measure good ministry, than movie theatres and pro sports are doing the best ministry there is. Apple is an evangelistic super star.

Now I have to admit, in my weaker moments I do fret about numbers. I am secretly prideful when my church is packed at Christmas or Easter. I am inwardly disappointed when there is a sparse crowd on cold day in January or a lazy dog day of summer.

Increasingly, however, I am asking more and more “what brings people to church anyways?” While I have been mostly unsure about the answer these days, my experience with the Apple store taught me something about what does draw the crowds.

As individuals, we may be some of the most pious seekers of Christ and spiritual enlightenment there are. But as people, as a mob… we are attracted by a good sales pitch.

And as a Lutheran pastor, I am not selling – not even offering for free – what people want at their basest levels. 

People want new, I offer old.

People want flashy, I have steadfast.

People want to be entertained, I point to the One who transforms.

People want easy answers, I have only more questions.

People want security, I can only tear walls down.

People want assurances, I talk about uncertainty/faith.

People want something immediate, I am interested in the eternal.

People want power and control over their world…

I can only talk about how we don’t have it…

And how God does.

And yes, I realize I am may sound like I am rationalizing decline. Maybe I am. But Jesus only had 12 followers, which makes me a ragging success comparatively. I still can’t help but notice that the churches that are drawing the crowds tend to look a lot like Apple product launches. They are selling something to the masses.

And Jesus, my friends, is not for sale. Maybe it is time we stop worrying about numbers, decline, fewer resources and smaller budgets. Maybe the spirit is telling us that God’s church is not for sale.

Maybe Jesus is a little less Steve Jobs, and a little more like that faithful stalwart whose butt imprint has been etched in the pew because church is not about getting something new…

…but about becoming someone new.

Many pastors and congregations just might feel like that small kiosk in the mall, that we all pass by because they look like they are selling cheap crap. We might look longingly at the mega-churches and Apple stores with their throngs.

But good ministry is not selling something. The Gospel is not a sales pitch.

Jesus didn’t command us to fill pews and offering plates. Jesus commanded us to baptize, to eat and drink, to forgive sins.

And those things don’t fill pews or offering plates…

… but they do transform us and the world.

So maybe it is time to stop trying to get more people to church, and just give the gospel to the people we have. 


Are we trying to sell God? Are “successful” churches really selling something? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor, or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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58 thoughts on “iPhone 6 and why churches should stop trying to get more people to come.  ”

  1. But you are selling a product. It’s called religion and is more appropriately compared to a recreational drug than an electronic gizmo. Some people prefer to be mildly sedated while others crave an intense rush that leaves them exhausted. The common denominator is the addiction. All pushers of religion share that same objective. Illicit drugs vary in effect and risk of death. Religions, including all denominations of Christianity vary in methodology but are perfectly equal in presenting a risk of death. Religion alters ones state of mind just as drugs do to create an alternate reality … a lie.

    God’s message of truth was exchanged for lies a very long time ago. The lies have been handed down for generations as addicts begat addicts. Your religion of choice may be no less intoxicating than any other, but many enjoy experimenting with how high this or that experience can get them.

    Very few ever recognize the condition and seek rehabilitation. In as much as religious lies form the foundation you stand on, there is virtually no chance you will even acknowledge any possibility of deception. The first step to recovery is always the most difficult and for most, impossible. When you witness the world changing around you and wonder, “How can this be happening?”, remember that you could have changed your thinking (repented) a dozen years ago. Or perhaps you can’t now. So then, if you do remember, repent in that moment. Identify those things that are important to God and allign your values with his. Otherwise, the risk you’ve taken with religion will prove futile.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. This may sound brash. I apologize for that.

        Of course you disagree. You are high on religion and believe you have a relationship with someone you a) know little about, b) whose teaching you do not adhere to and c) whose name you refuse to acknowledge (most likely because you don’t know it … or him, and d) he doesn’t know you either). a) God promised to raise up a prophet who would deliver the very same message the people refused to hear then and still refuse to hear now; b) he did just that, so why do you ignore him?; c) “Jesus” was fabricated no earlier than the 17th century and is meaningless whereas the man’s actual name, Yahowsha’ (יהושע) means “Yahowah (יהוה) is salvation”; d) “I never knew you (religious people) who disregard Yah’s torah.”

        The bible doesn’t “say” anything, people do, and God does. God says, “Listen to me, guard my instructions and meet with me at my appointed times to celebrate my commemorative and prophetic events.” People say, “Join my church, believe what I tell you, and pay me.” God also never remotely described any institution resembling a church. The term that is suppressed from your attention is “ekklesia”. Ekklesia means “called out for an appointed meeting” and correlates exactly with Yah’s mow’ed miqra’ey (appointed times to meet). “Church” has no etymological affiliation with “ekklesia”, traces back to “kyriakos” and derives specifically from “Circe” who was the daughter of sun-god, Helios. Neither “kyriakos” nor “Circe” appear anywhere in the NT.

        The fellowship and support you participate in bears no relation whatsoever to anything described anywhere by God or any legitimate prophet. You adhere to Paul’s intoxicating religion without bothering to ask, “Is this guy for real?” or “Who exactly is responsible for the selected words that comprise the NT and especially the English translation?” Do you care at all to know what is important to God, what he loves and what he hates? Typically, addicts of mind altering stimuli that create an alternate reality are primarily concerned with their next high. Please forgive my condescending tone, but where most find ignorance blissful, relative to God’s teaching, I find ignorance repugnant. God has repeatedly declared that those who seek him diligently will find him, not those who fellowship and support a religion he has no part of. If God’s values were important to you (and you demonstrated such), then you would be important to him and a relationship would develop. If you choose to go on being a “believer” without bothering to know and understand anything of God’s teaching, why would he bother with you at all?

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          1. I don’t have to believe anything. I know and understand God’s message (partially, as I have a long way to go). I ask questions like, “Who testified to Paul’s “conversion” besides his own contradictory stories?” and, “Why does he attribute a line from Dionysus in Euripides’ pagan play The Bacchae to “Jesus” (line 795) before a pagan audience?” and, “Wasn’t a stern warning given not to believe anyone claiming to see ‘Jesus’ in the wilderness?” and of course, “What does God have to say about this or that?”

            Relationships are not built on faith, but rather intimacy that comes from knowing and sharing values. Familiarity tends to trump rational observation within religious thought. I’m not beating you up with rhetoric, just trying to shine a light on the lies that you prefer to cherish in the darkness of your religion. Jer. 16:19 O Yahweh, my strength, and my stronghold, and my refuge in the day of distress,
            to you the nations will come from the ends of the earth, and they will say, “Our ancestors have inherited only lies, vanity, and there is no profit in them.” Christians = “nations” ≠ remnant of Israel. “Day of distress” = Day of Yahowah = game over.

            Heed Yah’s instructions or believe lies; your choice. Choose wisely.

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    1. What you describe is not what I am part of as a believer. I participate in a living relationship with the Living God, with other believers who meet and share faith together. It’s not a product or a drug and it’s not for sale…..

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      1. My comment was to 1Pilgrim here. I could not edit after making the comment, sorry. I like the challenge of your statements about church, especially religion, but what you describe and speak out against is not what I experience personally.

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        1. Hello Ann, I suspect that you are a delightful person, but you are sadly deceived just as Christianliving2014 above. Please refer to my responses there that aptly apply here. Religion is as much a product as any membership to any organization that collects dues/fees, markets its wares and records a leger. The loving relationship you profess (as a Christian) is mythical as demonstrated by Christianity’s refusal to identify and adhere to anything that is repeatedly stated as fundamental to a relationship with the living God … by that very God. “I love those who love me.” and “I never knew you who disregard the torah.” and “Nothing of Torah will be diminished while the earth and sky remain.” relate core values that must be shared by anyone interested in approaching God … on his terms, not their own. Nothing of Christianity is even remotely described by YHWH at any time by any means. You may choose to identify God’s values and align yours accordingly or go on pretending that he favors yours. In the end, those survivors of God’s “day of distress” will acknowledge that they have “inherited only lies and vanity”.

          Religion is a mind-altering influence more powerful even than any drug. As a drug addict is incapable of perceiving the addiction while so affected, Christians remain virtually incapable of separating fact from fiction, fantasy from reality while allured by the euphoria of religion that suppresses truth. God’s plea remains, “Come out of her. Come out of Babel.” Very few even hear, much less listen to what God says. Soon however, his teaching will be instinct for a remnant of his people and desperately sought by survivors from all other nations. Don’t be left out, Ann; don’t be deceived.

          What would it hurt you to simply listen to what God has to say regarding his own instructions with an open mind unaffected by man’s theological ideologies? “But they preferred darkness instead of light.” Choose to know and understand rather than simply believe. Then again, until the grip of religion is loosed from your mind, you are unlikely even to know the difference. The familiarity of a religious routine trumps evidence and reason almost always. If you should have any interest in examining what you believe against what God wants you to know and understand, evidence is abundantly but not exhaustively presented at 1pilgrimhere … actually, it’s a miniscule drop in an ocean of available resources. In this day of information overload, there is little excuse for ignoring God’s call to seek him diligently.

          I truly hope God’s message, the words he spoke via his prophets, is worth your time. But can you read it without filtering God’s words through Paul’s and injecting Christian pre-conclusions? Will you read God’s torah, prophets and writings simply to discover what God has to say? Perhaps then you might discern the influence religion has on your paradigm. If I have made assumptions inaccurately regarding what you experience personally, please accept my apology. I wish you well.

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  2. “church is not about getting something new……but about becoming someone new.” Amen! i am slowly falling in love with the liturgy at the Episcopal church i attend.. a format I didn’t grow up with and which I am finding to be a lovely way to be continually reminded and brought back to what following Jesus’ way is all about.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. @..”So maybe it is time to stop trying to get more people to church, and just give the gospel to the people we have. ..”

    I couldn’t agree more! I’d say more but time doesn’t permit..Wish I could get our Pastor(Priest) at Mass to get the gist of this message

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank You for your article. I really liked you point of view.
    Maybe a weird angle here, but it seems to me as a Pastor that the realities of that little kiosk are what creeps into our concerns with numbers. If no one comes how are we going to pay the rent? When we look at the small congregation growing smaller we are concerned that people are not coming to know Christ. But I think that some part of us worries that the rent won’t be paid, the lights won’t be kept on, and the smaller crowd will continue to shrink because of people thinking there is a problem with our service.

    If we are Pastor’s who are fully funded by the Church we can begin to worry about our family having a home, food, medicine. It is easy for someone outside to say that this means they have no faith that God will carry them through, but when you look at your kids it can be pretty scary.

    The solution really is in what we are providing. If we aren’t providing what Jesus asked us to (Love for God and Love for our fellow man) then we simply are not relevant to Him. If we do provide what the world has to offer well enough then it will love us and feed us. But that is not the Church. I believe that as the Church of Jesus Christ progresses the Church will either return to being about relationships with God and the Body of Christ or it will disappear. Jesus Body will not disappear, but it will not be what we call Church today.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. “Becoming someone new” – exactly. For years I was a regular churchgoer and my favorites were the small, family-like places where everyone knew each other. There was so much passion! A genuine love for God and the desire to live for Him. It literally saved my life, if not my marriage.

    The few mega churches I visited couldn’t hold a candle to that feeling. The megas are one of the reasons I no longer attend services. The “Church” became controlling and lost the passion which drew people to it.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Good post. Every time I become discouraged I remember how the wheat and tares will grow together and will be separated at the time of harvest. Those who name the name of Christ will depart from iniquity and those who don’t, Christ will tell them, “I never knew you. Depart from me you workers if iniquity. “

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m glad you did get your iPhone. I think we should all stay steadfast in the ways we were taught. I think you should remain who you are. There are a lot of people in this world and there are churches that satisfy everyone of us just be who you are. You do God’s assignment for you the others assignment are between God and then. I do love and believe in your outlook. Blessing

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Anyone can pick a bible up without entering a church in fact many people walk into a church and never even read the bible. Try reading the 2nd of Peter for a start, as it will help anyone understand the world as it stands today.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Jesus had thousands of followers but chose to directly disciple only 12. He even withdrew when they tried to forcibly give him earthly power. In addition, he didn’t establish any physical buildings and tie his livelihood to ministry. He simply trusted Father day by day to provide. Likewise, when he brought the truth to the religious establishments of his day, they attempted to kill him, even in his own hometown. The church he built was one of spiritual connection to those nearest and not a physical building or location. Perhaps, Jesus showed us everything we needed to know about the church in the gospels yet we’ve attempted to build it physically by replicating worldly power structures. These have always historically collapsed as power struggles inevitably ensue and profits become paramount. Many “churches” do okay in the onset, but once a control structure is put in place, no matter how well intentioned, it eventually makes way for corruption and power struggles.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I was also going to point out that Jesus had many more followers than 12, but also that many of his followers abandoned him in his hour of greatest need, including the 12. However, some women followed to the cross and watched. It’s so easy to get lost in a mega church. We have attended our church for 14 years, and others before that. Always a conservative, fundamental church. Always a church on the smaller side. Though we don’t agree with everything they preach, we agree with the majority of their stances. One of the problems with the mega churches is often, but not always, the health and wealth message. Jesus told his disciples that for his names sake, the world would hate them. That is not the message we are hearing in our churches.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Churches now exist in a time poor community. Church services are too drawn out and I’m sorry to say boring. If a church offers a service that was say 30 minutes total and just got to the point, I for one would start attending church services again. Just give the gospel to people and don’t draw it out. Don’t let boring members of the congregation do boring drawn out prayers when they could have got to the point in a few sentences.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. If everyone who is rushing to churches big and small, banging his or her chest calling out “look at me, I am a good Christian” sat down quietly anywhere in a corner every day and run a little check list in their heads, if they are living A) by the Ten Commandments, B) by 1 Corinthians 13, then we would not suffer the terrible consequences of nations breeding hatred for generations by humiliating other nations, as it is happening repeatedly in the last 100 years more than ever.
    How so many people think, that it is possible to be a good Christian just by going to church, but without being a good man/woman, is beyond me. Even more of a riddle is to me how the churches are happy to assist to living this lie.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Love it! I will say, I have been to a Lutheran church and man are they hard to sit through! Maybe its because I was raised in a contemporary church. I just can’t sit through scripted services. So, I think there is worth in attracting people and keep their attention through technology and upbeat music. As long as you are singing to God and using the technology to further his Kingdom, of course you should change with the times then!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Jesus looked at the crowds and had compassion. He said they were “like sheep without a shepherd.” He taught them. He feed the. He loved them. Lots of them. When he left he gave a mission to reach them. When the gospel is presented, received, obeyed, and applied… the natural result is a movement. Movements involves crowds. Big crowds. Have you lost you passion for the individuals in the crowd? Crowds are attracted to iPhones and others things… but they are also attracted to the Source of all Life when He is presented is a relevant, authentic way.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, the offer is salvation. A new life in Christ. You could call it preaching or selling. If presented in a compelling way the crowds will come. I don’t think Jesus would frown upon a well delivered presentation of His death and resurrection. Of coarse the crowds have questionable intentions… they are people. Every seat should be filled on the weekend by people who are lost, confused, misinformed, lustful, greedy, angry and fearful. He came for them.

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  14. I really appreciate your style as a pastor. Somebody has to believe something in their heart, or it’s not worth pursuing. Not everyone’s faith is the same, nor does it have to be. What turned me away from the church was not the teachings but the monotony in the establishment and the lack of outside-the box thinking. I’d rather read widely then just one book. To each their own, live and let live. Your post was refreshing to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. There was a short story I read (forgot the title) years back about this woman who gets pressured into baptizing and then pretends that she feels the Holy Spirit and all of this and that, when deep inside she is just confused by all the pressure from other people (even if it is “good pressure” from family or friends). Wish I remembered the name, I think it’s a great metaphor for what you are talking about.

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  16. MP- You are a breath of fresh air. My diocese is obsessed with youth, numbers, and funky ministry. Your wisdom is refreshing and energizng and, dare I say, eternal and Gospel.

    You expertly articulate what I know in my bones but desire to hear out of the mouths of more clergy. Thank you. May you be blessed with the certainty that you are doing important, high quality work that is rippling in all directions.

    ps- I am surprised at the wide expression of viewpoints among those who reply to you. My guess is this is because you are young and a liturgy geek (you did use that phrase, didn’t you?), a rare but delightful combination.

    Liked by 1 person

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