New Worship Services and Church Growth (Charles Arn)

Ever since premier missiologist Donald McGavran observed that some churches reached lost people more effectively than others, researchers have sought to understand more about how God uses different approaches to grow the Kingdom.

Having observed the American church for the past 25 years, I have been fascinated with one particular method that more and more churches are employing to reach new people—multiple worship services.

It was my privilege to participate in a 5-year research study on the effect of adding a new style worship service.  One highlight stood out:

Growing churches are much more likely to offer choices of WHEN people worship, HOW they worship, and WHERE they worship.

Here is a summary of the results:

In the study we monitored churches of many sizes, locations, and denominations. We examined the results of adding a new style worship service, and the steps that churches took to successfully (or, in some cases, unsuccessfully) begin a new service.  Here are a few observations regarding churches that added a new service: *

• 8 of 10 churches experienced a 15+% increase in attendance, giving, and/or conversions within two years…that would not have been projected without the “intervention” of the new service.

• 83% of the new services continued to exist after two years…if the pastor remained at the church for at least two years.  Only 23% of the new services were still going if the pastor left in the early stages of the new service. (In other words, if the pastor bails, the service fails!)

• 7 of 10 Saturday night services had been cancelled within two years after their inception, compared to 2 of 10 on Sunday morning.

• 68% of the services that went from “traditional” to “blended” did not exist as a “blended” service two years later. (That is, they had either reverted back to their traditional format, or changed to entirely “contemporary,” or were discontinued.)  Of the churches that went from “traditional” to “blended” then back to “traditional,” only 11% reported that the overall experience was positive.  (In other words, do it right the first time!)

I am convinced that approximately half of the 325,000 churches in America—including most of those churches of 75 or less—should seriously consider starting a new service in the next 24 months. From my experience and research, 80% will succeed (if it is done right), and the result will be a net increase in worship attendance.

Here is a brief summary of why churches do well to consider starting a new style worship service:

1. New services reach the unchurched better than established services. Long-established services fall into a “liturgical routine” that is comfortable to long-attending members.  Starting a new style service refocuses a church on a target audience that is not presently attending.

2. New services minister to more people. Unfortunately, churches that offer one service…at one time of day…on one day of the week are offering one choice to the people in their community: “take it or leave it.”  The more choices a church offers, the more people will say “yes” to one of them.

3. New services reach new kinds of people. “Blended services” that try to accommodate the variety of interests, needs, and tastes of people usually reduce total attendance rather than increase it.  Clear choices are better than muddled ones.

4. New services help a church break out of its lifecycle. Most churches over 40 years old are on the flat or back-side of their lifecycle.  The secret to new growth in an old church is to start a new lifecycle. A new service is one of the most predictable ways to do so.

5. New services allow for change while retaining the familiar. If you want to start a “worship war” in your church, just change the music style in your present service next Sunday morning!  In contrast, starting a new service, while retaining the old, will be much easier…and successful.

6. New services activate inactive members. A new style service often results in 20% of formerly inactive members coming back to church…assuming you make an intentional effort to invite them.

7. New services help denominations grow. The two most effective ways to grow a denomination are:  1) starting new churches, and  2) existing churches starting new services.  If half of the Wesleyan churches determined to begin a new style worship service in the next 2-5 years, we would see a rejuvenated denomination—guaranteed!

So, which comes first, the chicken or the egg?  Does a new service cause church growth…or does church growth require a new service?  Here’s the answer: Growing churches act like the church they want to become. If you wait for the new people to begin attending, and then start your new service…you will be waiting a long time.  If you begin a new service in order to reach new people… you will be much more successful.  Or, to quote the memorable line from Field of Dreams—”If you build it…they will come.”

 

* For a more detailed discussion of why and how to begin a new style worship, see the book How to Start a New Service (Baker Books).

  • Great stuff!

  • I completely concur with those results. Our church has three Sunday services, and if one was not a modern/ contemporary service, I may not have started attending there myself.

  • Very interesting post. Several questions cropped up for me as I read. Have we reached any greater understanding as to what makes a Saturday night service thrive or die? I started one that we killed at one time in my life and it was heavy slogging. Insights? Also, do we have any studies on what constitutes “doing it right” when we start a new worship service? Thanks for posting this!

    • CharlesArn

      @daveward
      Good question, Dave.  We studied a half dozen or so cases where churches started Saturday night services that failed, and then a year or so later, tried again—and succeeded!  What was the difference?  In every case the original Saturday service was an “orphan” — no supporting educational classes, no children’s activities, no post-service gatherings.  When the Saturday night services were re-launched with a full complement of related activities…they worked!   
       
      Even given this, however, I would still recommend Sunday morning vs. Saturday night.  If there are no more time slots available for another service on Sunday, schedule the additional service ON TOP of an existing service.  The old paradigm of scheduling services in a “linear” pattern said you can’t be doing two things at once.  For the past 10+ years, the multi-site venues has been proving that theory to be wrong; even in smaller churches.
       

    • CharlesArn

       @daveward Re: your question on “doing it right,” see the book HOW TO START A NEW SERVICE.  It’s a how-to guide for doing it right that grew out of our study.

      •  @CharlesArn Great help in the first question, and I look forward to the read on the second. You bless us with this work! The “full complement” concept is one of those that has the ring of truth because of simplicity. I said to myself “Of course!” when I read that reply. Makes sense. Sounds like Saturday night service if it is necessary or desired is an “all in” sort of decision. 

        • CharlesArn

           @daveward You can get the book on Amazon for 44¢… best 44¢ you’ll ever invest!  🙂    Here’s one of the reviews from the Amazon site…
           
           I’m a new church start pastor and our service has grown a lot and I was thinking about adding a second service. Another new church start pastor gave me a copy of this book and I love it. I bought a copy for everyone on the committee to determine if we should start it or not. This book gave wonderful examples of when to start, under what circumstances should we start and where we shouldn’t start. Highly recommended. We are launching our second service before long! Get the book – buy a few extra copies for your worship team!
           
          UPDATE: This book helped so much. We are now a little over a year after starting our second service. If it wasn’t for this book, I don’t think we would have made it! If you haven’t started a 2nd service before, read this book – do what it says, pray to God!

  • tk

    Our question is not whether or not to start a 3rd service but WHEN to have it. It seems that you can find research that says anything you want it to…

    • Charles Arn

      There’s a whole chapter (6) in HOW TO START A NEW SERVICE on when and where to meet. Too many options and implications to cover here, but I’m sure you’ll find that chapter helpful. And, I’d be happy to chat on the phone or e-mail about your particular situation, if you’d like. 🙂 (- Charles Arn)