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The Great Attention Shift

Not too long ago I sat down with a pastor of a megachurch on the West coast. He had flown me out to pick my brain about some marketing-related projects for his church and ministry. We were having dinner at a small restaurant in the downtown of the quaint California town where he had been a pastor for some time now.

We had a great time getting to know each other while enjoying some incredible food. Halfway through our conversation, he made a statement followed by a question that I have become very familiar with while working with many great leaders over the years: “Even the most committed families in my church only show up 1.8 times every month.”

“Wow, that must really be frustrating for you when you preach your 6-week sermon series,” I remember responding. “How are people going to be fully benefiting from your series if they only hear the first and the fourth while missing out on the rest?”

I knew that making him feel the pain of his reality would cause him to think a little deeper about the real issue and its possible solution.

The truth is, most (if not all) churches these days are dealing with the same dynamic. Ministries all over the country are struggling to get people back in the pews week after week. It’s a trend that ministries big and small experience.

My pastor friend then asked me the following question: “How can you help me to get my people to show up every single week?”

I quickly told him that I could not help him solve his problem. Sure, there are tons of gimmicky and manipulative marketing tricks that can be deployed to shame and guilt people back in their seats every Sunday. But is this really what we want to do? 

The tragedy is not so much that this is an overall trend among churches, but more so that we don’t seem to understand what’s behind this trend: a great attention shift.

This is not something new. Attention shifts happen all the time. Not just in church, but in every industry and market, we experience waves of change as the attention of the people we’re trying to reach shifts.

Shifts in attention make previous distribution models obsolete. We used to buy toys in stores, now we buy them online. We used to go to restaurants for the convenience of not having to cook. Now, we’re ordering food on an app from restaurants that specialize in delivery only. We used to shop at K-Mart, call a taxi for transport and go to Blockbuster to rent a movie.

But guess what? The attention has shifted!

The church is not exempt from attention shifts. And the stats shared by my pastor friend are proving it.

Instead of blaming our congregations for not showing up, we should ask ourselves what value we are offering to the people we’re trying to reach. Are we giving people a reason to come back every week?

It’s all about supply and demand. We’re living in a free-market enterprise. You see, the market is always right. According to our target audience, the value we’re offering is only worth 1.8 Sundays of their precious time.

Yet we continue to build systems and structures around the assumption that the model we used for the last 50 years is the model we’re going to have until Jesus comes back. We continue to invest our time, energy and money based on the assumption that our distribution model will remain the same. 

Don’t be fooled. We need to understand the shifts in attention we’re going through as a society and as the church.

We need to have the courage to challenge the very thing that has been such a blessing to us for so many years. Just because something worked yesterday doesn’t mean it’s going to continue to work the same way. In fact, it never will. The world around us is always progressing. It’s always advancing. And we had better make sure we advance with it.

In marketing we’re always ask three questions:

  • What is the value that I bring as an organization?
  • Who can benefit most from that value?
  • Where do I have the attention of those people?

 

As long as I can simply distribute value in the places and on platforms where I have the attention of the people who I am trying to reach, keeping them engaged with me as a ministry or organization will be easy.

 

It’s simple, but it’s not easy!

We all like the idea of change, yet few of us like the manifestation of change. Yes, change is the only constant we can expect as we move into the future.

As leaders, we need to,

  • Recognize change: We need to be able to discern and recognize when the attention of our people is shifting. Statistics like the one discussed in this article should be an indicator that we need to shift as the attention shifts.
  • Embrace change: We can’t just watch the world change around us and merely be a bystander who observes others go through it. We need to fully embrace the new thing that is unfolding right in front of us.
  • Anticipate change: Just because things changed once, doesn’t mean they won’t change again. God will lead us into change all the time to keep moving us forward. We need to get to a point at which we start to anticipate change and expect it to come to us.
  • Become a change agent: The Bible teaches us that we’re the head and not the tail. As Christian leaders, we need to be those who lead the pack—those who lead the frontlines of innovation and progress.

 

Attention is shifting. Change is happening. And as church and marketplace leaders we’re not exempt from its repercussion.

Let me give you a biblical illustration to shed some spiritual light on the matter, as well as some practical suggestions on how to navigate shifts in attention. 

There is an interesting passage in the book of Judges that talks about the rise of Deborah, the woman who became the leader of Israel in a time when the attention of the people was shifting. Deborah was the one who ended up guiding God’s people through a major attention shift.

Let’s read about it in Judges 5: 6-8 (NKJV):

“In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath,
In the days of Jael,
The highways were deserted,
And the travelers walked along the byways.
Village life ceased, it ceased in Israel,
Until I, Deborah arose,
Arose a mother in Israel.
They chose new gods;
Then there was war in the gates.

Before we break down this scripture let’s find out who Shamgar was. Shamgar isn’t a popular biblical figure we learn about in kids’ church. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t a good guy. In fact, the Bible gives us the following account of Shamgar in Judges 3:31:

After him was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed six hundred men of the Philistines with an ox goad; and he also delivered Israel.

A Decent Day for God’s People

As you can see, Shamgar was a pretty good fellow. He killed 600 Philistines with an ox goad. Quite impressive, I would say. He was also the one who delivered God’s people.

All of that to say that under Shamgar’s leadership, God’s people experienced a season of prosperity—not much to complain about. Enemies were being killed. Israel was living in freedom.

Things were alright.

Yet, even though things were decent during the days of Shamgar, things began to shift. The days of Shamgar’s success created a false sense of security that everything would be like this forever. An illusion that nothing would ever change.

Yet, in the days of Shamgar three things happened:

The highways were deserted

Highways are places of attention. It’s the most popular way to travel from point A to point B.

Highways represent “efficiency.” They are the fastest way to get somewhere. Highways are created for attention, and when attention shifts, highways get deserted.

What once was the place to be, no longer serves the same purpose it once did. It just sits there being empty cause the people who once showed up are no longer putting the same value on its function. They are no longer willing to trade their time for its benefit.

I used to think that if you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got. That the same action would give us the same result indefinitely. The truth is much more complicated than that. As a matter of fact, if you always do what you always did, you will get less and less from the same efforts. As the world and culture around us are changing our efforts become less and less effective until the places that once were highways become deserted altogether.

Travelers walked along the byways

We need to meet people where they are at. When the highways we once had are no longer serving the community we’re trying to reach, they often end up in places that are not made to get them to their destination fast. As leaders, we are called to develop new highways to accommodate the people we are called to and give them away to get to their destination in the least amount of time.

As leaders, we need to create new opportunities for our target audience to connect with the value we have to offer as a ministry. We need to innovate and turn byways into highways as we add value to those we’re called to serve.

We need to be willing to leave the old behind us, even if “the old” gave us the success that got us to where we are today. 

Village life ceased

Village life talks about community. When we are unwilling to shift with the changes that are happening around us, village life will cease to exist.

Village life is the community of people you do life with. When the people you try to serve in your ministry don’t experience a sense of community it will be the beginning of the end.
How do you facilitate an environment that is conducive to village life in an ever-changing world?

Fifty years ago village life was defined by those living within the same geographical proximity. In other words, your village consisted of those you lived close to. Your neighbors, the people down the street, the baker on the corner. In other words, your village is defined by those you lived close to.

Then village life shifted in the 70s and 80s where you didn’t necessarily have a sense of community with those who lived in your street, but more with those you worked with, you went to school with, you played tennis with, etc. These people didn’t necessarily live close to you, but they did live with you in other places.

Today, my 14-year-old son has friends he never sees in person. He relates to those he will never meet in a digital environment online. Does that make it less real? No, it doesn’t. It’s just different.

Village life ceases to exist if we’re unable to navigate the attention shift.

Be like Deborah

Deborah was able to navigate the attention shift. She rose up as a mother in Israel and as implied by the context of this scripture brought an end to the three negatives above. We need to be like Deborah and shift our efforts from doing what we’ve always done to figure out where our people are at today. Meet them in their needs and offer value where they are at.

Let’s create new highways and reinstate true village life by embracing change and anticipating the changes of the future.

Expect War in the Gates

Verse 8 of Judges 6 talks about “war in the gates.” Even Deborah experienced conflict. Expect resistance when you embrace change. It’s part of the process. But when you do it will be worth it in the end. Innovation will challenge status quo thinking, but will ultimately result in new paradigms and ways to serve those we are called to well.

This article was extracted from Issue 1 (Spring 2020) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

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