20 ideas on how to make gatherings more engaging and less like a spectator sport

Leaders, like us, are a funny bunch. We set-up our gatherings like a spectator sport, then we complain that people act like consumers. Well, if you want to change the results, you have got to change the equation.

Whether you are thinking of your Sunday morning gatherings, youth group gatherings, young adult gatherings or children’s ministry gatherings – change it up, my friends.

Why is this so important?
People come, not just to hear from you, but to truly engage with God and with community. Seriously. Otherwise, they really can stream a better version of you.

Here’s the top reasons people gather:
• To experience God for themselves.
• For community, to be connected to others on the journey.
• To be equipped for the journey, so that they can be a part of something bigger than themselves and be a part of making a difference in the world.

Too often I’ve led gatherings where:
• People have heard about God, but not experienced God.
• People have skimmed community, but not experienced authentic connection.
• People have heard about the difference someone has made, but are not invited into change or making a difference themselves.

I’ve got to change the equation.
We’ve got to change the equation.

Here are 20 things you can add into your existing gatherings to become less a spectator sport and start turning people towards fuller engagement.

1. Give homework – seriously, give people something they’re expected to do during the week and talk about it when you gather again.

2. Invite responses from people – ask a question, throw out a poll question (raise your hands), invite people to repeat a phrase, invite people to say “Oh ya” every time you say a certain phrase…

3. Change up the delivery to interview style or panel style – change the delivery style and do a panel or interview or skype call or… Our teens still haven’t forgotten the relationship panel we did.

4. Invite tweets – invite people to tweet responses, thoughts or ideas during or after a sermon/devotion/story. Invite people to tweet (or write down for non-tweeters) one take-way form today or one action step they will take.

5. Stories / Testimonies – get different voices and background sharing. Get other people to tell their story (of coming to faith, of what God is doing in their life today, of a point you are illustrating, of how they are showing and telling the Gospel to neighbours etc.) Get them to share their story live or on video.

6. Engage all the senses – how can you invite people to see, taste, hear, smell and touch that the Lord is good? Illustrations don’t just have to be spoken stories. Use drama, including costumes and props, to engage people in a fresh way in a Biblical story. I still remember the Sunday, when I lived in Scotland, and a preacher brought in manure to illustrate a point.

7. Introduce different styles of praying in your gatherings – allow pauses in the prayer for people to pray silently, try some liturgical prayers or responsive prayers, pray in small groups…

8. Change up the seating now and then – gather around round tables instead of in rows, put the seats in a circle, block-off sections, invite people closer…

9. Expect people to see God in their lives – Regularly ask “Where did you see God at work this week?” or “How did you join God this week?” When you start asking it regularly people will ask it of themselves, their small groups and their families/friends regularly.

10. Give pause at the end of your gathering for a response – Try something like, “Just take a moment before we close our time together to sit in silence and capture your thoughts on what you heard from God today.” “Take a moment and tell God what you’re thinking at this moment.” “Pause now and decide what you’ll do this week as a result of what you’ve experience in our gathering.”

11. Invite creative response – There are so many ways to invite people to engage in responding – post-it notes, adding to a communal painting, getting something from under their chair, molding a piece of clay, taking a candle, giving 5 people a “high five” and learning their name, posting on social media…

12. Read – inviting people to read off the screen in their native tongue. Yes, that means you have different languages up there. Give clear tools and challenges for people to read their Bibles on their own during the week.

13. “Turn to a person beside you” – Invite engagement in partner discussions. “Turn to someone sitting next to you and tell them one way you’ve…”

14. Eat together – Have a “Who’s coming to dinner?” day, where you have people lined up to welcome new people to their home after your gathering for a meal. Another option is to bring back the potlucks!

15. Follow-up questions – Give people questions to engage the days topic around the lunch table or in their small group that week.

16. Invite discussion – Interrupt the sermon/devotion with a discussion question after every point.

17. Change the regular gathering time to a serving time – Serving = worship. Invite people to gather to serve together, have an arranged list of serving opportunities.

18. Mingle the generations – Invite different ages to mingle, by saying something like “Find someone that is two decades older or two decades younger than you. Then ask them ‘What was their favourite toy when they were a kid?’ or if they are a kid, ‘What is their favourite toy?’”

19. Expect the gathered to scatter – Make it clear that your expectation is that everyone who is gathering is also participating with God’s work throughout the week. For example – Do you expect people to also be in a small group? Serving somewhere? Talking about faith at the dinner table? Serving others at their work/school? Make one or two expectations clear so people know the gathering isn’t the be all and end all.

20. Give people a question for the hand shaking time – change it up, instead of always saying “turn around and say ‘hi’ to someone this morning” say something slightly related to your topic for the day or for your “hook” for the day. For example – “Later we’ll be chatting about courage, so, take a moment and tell 2 different people the most courageous person you know and what makes them so courageous.”


I’ve got to change the equation.
We’ve got to change the equation.

Let’s create gatherings that invite engagement. There are no spectators, only followers with Christ.

I invite your ideas! I need your ideas!




  1. Ian Milligan · March 4, 2016

    Hi Renee, I like your aspirations, and certainly many of your 20 ideas would make church more interactive, and I think engaging for open-minded congregants. However I think the most critical thing is how the Christian community engage the ‘other 23 hours’ of the day/week when not in a gathering. Your blog is based in the idea that people will ‘come’ to such a gathering. All the evidence is that fewer and fewer people are doing that. Atlantic Baptists will not be exempt from the long-term trend of ageing and declining membership, and ‘paid leaders’ will likely be tasked with working out how to engage with people who are not coming. Sorry to be so negative, I actually do like your ideas. I would be interested to know how many of them are used regularly in your own congregations. Best wishes


    • Renée Embree · March 4, 2016

      Thanks Ian! I greatly appreciate your comments and engagement. I agree – living for Jesus is 24/7 and the key is helping people live with Christ and for Christ the other “23 hours”, as you say. The audience I’m primarily writing to in this particular blog are those that already have people coming to their church and how they can help those people not just gather, but begin to scatter – that is scatter the rest of the week and show and tell the Gospel through their lives and words wherever they study, work, live and play. I agree that attractional models don’t work and are working less and less – but people are still looking for (and need) community and engagement. I agree that we need to engage people who are not coming, but this is not only the work of the ‘paid leaders’. We need to train and equip everyone who is coming now, all Christian, to engage the people in their neighbourhoods. I do think gatherings will change and need to change, but I do not think they will disappear completely. I agree that change is needed. The tribe I’m a part of is the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches. We’re a group of about 455 churches spread across Atlantic Canada. We most definitely know we are not immune from the trends and we do not pretend to be – that is part of the urgency of the call to invite churches and Christians to join God in changing their neighbourhoods – in getting out of their churches, getting out of holy huddles, and show and telling the Good News 24/7 where they live, study, work & play.
      As to your question of how many of these kind of ideas are being used in our congregations – I really don’t know. We are such a variety of churches – some fresh church plants, growing congregations, congregations involved in their communities, dying congregations, inter-generational congregations, those who are not changing and will die, those who are changing and trying new things, fresh expressions of gathering and sharing faith, serving communities, older congregations etc…
      I do know we have a number of leaders and churches that are trying, they know they need to equip and lead their people to be God’s salt and light in the world. They know they need to equip the church to connect with those who are ‘not coming’ (to use your language.) It’d be great to hear more of your ideas of what you think is needed Ian. Thanks again!


  2. Joe MacVicar · March 3, 2016

    Getting people to engage or participate is a good thing. Reminds me of the Not a Fan series we did! Joe


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