Five ways to encourage members to participate in the church

Getting people to do stuff in church is hard, isn’t it? Hardly a church or leader I know doesn’t, on some level, worry about the involvement of their church members at some time or other. Everybody wants to know how we can increase take up for services, get people serving in different ministries and generally involve people more fully in the life of the church.

Obviously, if I had a silver bullet for that, my church would be the biggest in the world! Clearly, my church is not that. But we have, by God’s grace, taken the church from a position in which many were not particularly concerned about service to one where a high percentage of the membership are actively involved in the ministry and present at the meetings we’d expect them to be present. As one of our members commented when he was fairly new, the biggest encouragement to him bar none when he first joined was that the prayer meeting was attended by the vast majority of the members.

But how do you increase participation in the church? Whilst not silver bullets (because silver bullets don’t tend to exist) here are some things that might help.

Make membership meaningful

It feels counter-intuitive but the harder you make it to join the church, the more likely people are to want to join the church. If your membership has no value, we can’t be that surprised when people treat it as though it is valueless. If you want to increase participation in the church, imbue your membership with real value. Ensure that there are things that only members can do and receive that non-members clearly can’t.

In our church, non-members cannot receive communion, serve in the ministries of the church nor attend members’ meetings. This means we talk about membership every week when we take communion. It means there is a clear distinction between members and non-members. It makes membership meaningful and people want to be part of it. Just as you imbue your membership with real value, limiting the ministry to those in active membership simultaneously imbues the service itself with value. And that value makes it something that people want to do.

Create a culture of expectation

I remember when I was at university, there was no shame like realising you were delivering a paper to fellow students and you either hadn’t done it or, potentially worse, had done a really half-baked job. You were soon found out in front of a room full of your peers. There was an expectation that you would have done the work and that you would do a credible job.

In the same way, people are more likely to engage in the ministry of the church if we create a culture of expectation that they will. If you are frequently asking people which unbelievers they have shared the gospel with this week, it conveys a clear expectation that they might have done exactly that. When we ask which ministries they have been involved in, it sends the message that we expect them to be involved. When we ask them who they’ve been praying for this week, it makes it apparent we expect them to be praying for people. You get the idea. Whilst the aim isn’t to shame people – we are (or, should be, at any rate) all about grace – if people do not sense we expect anything from them, we can’t be surprised when we get nothing from them.

To that end, it pays to have a clearly defined membership class that spells out the expectations on members before they join the church. Beyond this, asking people frequently about how their ministry is going creates that expectation. And, though it hardly needs saying let’s say it anyway, actually asking people directly to do specific things conveys that expectation too.

Create opportunities to share encouragements

The best advertisement for any ministry in the church is the enthusiasm of those involved in it. We live in a culture that has huge FOMO. Missing out on experiences is a big deal, particularly to millennials. Creating opportunities for people to share about exciting things that happened in any given ministry will lead those who weren’t there to feel they were missing out and will encourage them to go next time.

At our church, we have a weekly time of testimony in the middle of our service. Whilst people often share about specific answers to prayer or personal ways the Lord has been working in them, often these times are full of people sharing about what the Lord has been doing in specific ministries of the church. They are means of pointing to gospel opportunities and exciting things that the Lord is doing through specific ministries that you will only see and experience if you go. But we build in these same opportunities into our weekly home groups as well as encouraging people to share about these things in their one-to-one meetups too.

Create ministry opportunities

This may seem obvious but it bears saying, if there aren’t many opportunities to serve in ministry then you aren’t going to get many people serving in ministry. If you only run a once-per-year flagship week of ministry, or you run a single, weekly flagship ministry thing (whatever that thing is), you are inevitably limiting the opportunities for people to serve. It also (often) seems to follow that if your church isn’t doing much to pray about, you aren’t likely to find all that many people turning up to the church prayer meeting. Why bother turning up to a meeting in which there is nothing to pray about?

The more opportunities you have to serve, the more means of involving ministry you have for people. That’s not necessarily to say you have to fill your church calendar with ‘programmes’ but – however you structure your church and by whatever means you want to encourage your people into ministry – you need to create opportunities for them to do just that. The fewer the opportunities, the fewer the people serving.

Model the importance of participation

Whilst it is absolutely true that the pastor should not have to be at everything, if the church see that the pastor (or elders) aren’t at anything, that will convey a message of its own. Whilst the pastor shouldn’t be involved in every evangelistic activity, if the pastor isn’t involved in any evangelism it conveys something of his priorities to the church. Again, the pastor needn’t be everywhere for it to have value, but he must be seen to make a priority of the things he wants others to make a priority.

It is vital, then, that if we want people to serve in the ministries of the church the pastor is also seen to serve in ministries of the church. If we want our people to turn up and listen to sermons, the pastor must be seen to turn up and listen to (yes, listen to, not just deliver) sermons. We don’t have to push that to every ministry, just the clear principle of being involved in ministries. If I want my people to do evangelism (in whatever form they do it), I should be seen to make a priority of evangelism and do it myself. If I want my people to value the Word, I should be seen to value the Word. We must model to our people what we expect to see in them and, as we model it to them, we may call them to do it just as we are.