At our church we designate June as a special month of Wednesday night events, most of them of the picnic/swim party/outreach activity variety—what we call a “Level 1” event. We use these both as outreach, encouraging our members to invite and bring unchurched friends, and also as opportunities for our regular attenders to get to know one another, which is always a challenge in a church with multiple services.

This year we planned for one Wednesday night event to be a completely different kind of experience: a service of praise and prayer, with alternating musical worship and times of testimony and intercession. So last week we enjoyed a brief time of fellowship outside by the South Elkhorn Creek, eating ice cream sandwiches, and then entered the sanctuary where one of our pastors, our choir, praise band, and soloists led us in one of the greatest times of praise and petition I have ever known.

I cannot in this space convey in any adequate or meaningful way the glory that came down in that room. It seemed the Lord just delighted to say, “You didn’t come here expecting much, but I am going to fill this summer evening with a glimpse of my splendor and beauty, with myself.” Whether in the testimony of a deacon whom God healed from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the tears of a teenager singing in the choir, or the sharing of burdens and prayer, God was evident, and he was magnificent. I was dazed and overwhelmed with a palpable sense of his presence.

Mental Image

If you weren’t there—and you probably weren’t—perhaps you’re picturing a church filled with people praising the Lord. Think again. Most seats remained empty as about 70 people (I’m estimating) sat scattered across the cavernous sanctuary. Our choir sang, our praise band played, and our soloists ministered their phenomenal talents to a largely empty room.

As a younger pastor, I would’ve been angry, bothered, hurt, disappointed, or embarrassed that more people didn’t come. I would’ve spent much of the night thinking of all the other things, surely less spiritual or significant, that our church members must be doing instead of getting with the program. I would’ve lamented that people come to a swim party more readily than to a program of praise and prayer.

And my disappointment would’ve been palpable and would’ve poisoned and contaminated those dear souls who did come anticipating an encounter with the living God. As justifiable as some of those thoughts might be, they aren’t helpful, certainly not at that particular time. It might prove worthwhile in a staff meeting or a time of introspection to ask how we could have promoted the event better or how to lead our people more effectively to love worship and prayer, but that time isn’t when the event is happening.

How can a leader respond in the face of poor turnout and disappointingly low participation? Here are five suggestions.

Responding to Disappointment

  1. Be in the moment. Save the recriminations and questions for later. For the present, fulfill the purpose of the event you’ve planned. As Jim Elliot put it, “Wherever you are, be all there.”
  2. Don’t judge the faithfulness or commitment of your people by their participation in any single episode. Look at the big picture. Learn to distinguish between a systemic, perpetual problem and a single poor showing.
  3. Don’t let your disappointment with attendance show or in any way adversely affect the event. In other words, don’t even say anything about it. “Well, not many of us showed up tonight, but the Lord is here, and that’s all that matters.” The minute you say that, you’ve cast a pall over everyone who came—and you’ve probably lied as well. If that were really all that mattered, you wouldn’t even feel the need to say it. The pastor is the de facto leader of everything in the church. The longer you serve in a church, the more easily people sense your emotions and feelings, and the more in tune with them they grow. If you’re uptight, they will be too. If you act disappointed and bitter, so will they. You cannot control the level of participation by your whole church, but you can affect the quality of participation by those who attend. Put aside any disappointment you might feel and immerse yourself in the moment with the same vigor and enthusiasm you’d have if the room were overflowing.
  4. Do what you do with excellence for the Lord, not for the size of the crowd. Every now and then I think the Lord allows disappointments to remind us of this focus.
  5. Make the event encouraging, enlightening, and enjoyable. If those who came had a great time, they’ll tell others, and that builds confidence and involvement.

I’m incredibly blessed that our choir and praise team performed no differently than they would have if a thousand people had come. Their energy and passion couldn’t have been higher, their singing more skillful, their spirits more worshipful. My fellow pastor really set the tone for them and for the entire service, and it showed. Their faithfulness was used of the Holy Spirit to exalt Christ and to bless everyone fortunate enough to be there.

Far from feeling disappointment or irritation at members who were not there, I genuinely regret that they didn’t get to be a part of what God did, and I’m already considering how we can do this again so others can enjoy it too.