Because church members don’t attend as consistently as they used to.
That’s not the only reason church attendance is down, of course. It’s not even the main reason. But it’s definitely a trend I have seen as a pastor. And it needs to be addressed. But how?
Thom Rainer wrote about this trend a while ago in his much-debated post, The Number One Reason for the Decline in Church Attendance and Five Ways to Address It. Rainer is a very good blogger who regularly offers very helpful ideas and resources.
He offers five steps from his book that he believes will help turn this trend around:
- Raise the expectations of membership
- Require an entry class for membership
- Encourage ministry involvement
- Offer more options for worship times
- Monitor attendance of each member
Rainer’s ideas made sense to me when I read them. I even considered implementing them in my church. But the more I pondered his list, and similar lists from other church leaders, the more I felt that something was missing.
Take a look back at that list. Do you see what’s missing? It’s OK if you don’t see it. It took me a while, too.
Listening. That’s what’s missing. The #1 item on any list, when things go wrong, should be to gather information by listening to the people involved.
This is a companion post to, The Growing Disconnect Between Spiritual Hunger and Church Attendance
I’m not saying that Rainer hasn’t been listening. He’s always very good at gathering and assessing accurate data – which is a great form of listening. But he doesn’t include listening in this list. That’s a serious oversight. One that I’ve been guilty of far too often.
I’ve noticed the trend of less frequent attendance for almost a decade in my church, so I’ve had a lot of conversations and listened to a lot of my church members about it. It’s one of the advantages of being a Small Church pastor. Since we know each other, listening is a natural part of what we do. So when people start slacking in their church attendance, we chat about it in normal, natural conversations.
Those conversations have led me to believe that we need to open ourselves to other options than making higher demands on church members. Sure, there are and will always be church members who need a greater challenge or a stern “Come to Jesus” lecture. But we should never assume that.
In many situations, Rainer’s list is appropriate. But in many others, increased demands will only push frustrated people even further away.
There’s no one-size-fits-all fix for the problem of lagging church attendance. Or one list. Or one back-to-church Sunday. The reasons for people’s absence are just too varied.
Sure, some people are becoming more apathetic about church. But what about those who aren’t? What about those who desperately need something, but aren’t finding it in the kinds of Sunday services options we’re giving them? What if their frequent absences are their way of voting with their feet to tell us what we refuse hear in any other way?
Instead of fighting the trend of lower church attendance, what if church leaders leaned into it, learned from it and adapted to it?
It wouldn’t be the first time in church history that the people were right and the institutional church needed to pay attention to them.
A Short History of Church Attendance
Christianity is the most culturally adaptable way of life in history. Not only is it at home in every corner of the globe, but it has proven itself to be surprisingly responsive to shifts in culture over the last 2,000 years. The issue of changing church attendance norms is no exception to that.
The church has always adapted to changing attendance behaviors.
The church’s first attendance adaptation was when it adapted to worshiping on Sundays instead of Saturdays. Why? Gentiles were becoming believers and didn’t want or need to attend synagogue on Saturday. If we can make that quick an adaptation regarding Sabbath (not exactly an obscure Old Testament law!), we should be able to find a way to adapt to people taking more weekends off.
For centuries, church was an all-day affair in many places. When the culture was predominantly agricultural and there were no cars, the farmers and their families would travel in from the surrounding countryside. But because that trip took so long, they brought food with them and made a day of it.
All-day church started disappearing with the Industrial Revolution, the advent of the automobile and the growth of cities. People could get to church quickly now, so day-long church meetings became less common. Many believed this showed a lack of commitment at the time, but the church adapted again. Since people wanted to go somewhere on Sunday evening, a lot of churches started holding “evangelistic services” on Sunday nights to attract the curious and bored.
Then came television. People didn’t need or want to leave their homes on Sunday nights, so churches starting dropping their Sunday night services and put more thought and effort into Sunday mornings. Some church leaders are still mourning the loss of Sunday night services, while others hold on to them. They still work in a few places, but are as useless as a vestigial tail in others. Most churches, including mine, now thrive without a Sunday evening service.
Each of these changes had people screaming “this is the end of the church!”, “People aren’t committed any more!” and so on.
But the church survived.
We’ll survive this change, too. If we adapt to it like we’ve adapted before.
Why Are Church Members Attending Church Less Often?
People live their lives differently than they did 20 years ago. Many people whose church attendance has dropped from nine out of ten Sundays to three out of four, have some very valid reasons for it. Here are a few.
- The 9 to 5, Monday to Friday job is all but gone, with people working a lot of weekends, now
- Many people who used to work one full-time job, now work two part-time jobs, with many weekends and nights on the clock
- Children of divorce are only in town for half the weekends they used to be
- When those children are at home, the custodial parent is more likely to make Sunday a day out with their kids than sitting in church
- People use their weekends to get away from the hectic pace by having mini-vacations with family and friends
But there’s one reason I’ve heard more than any other. It’s been expressed to me in a variety of ways, but it often comes down to this.
There’s a large and growing disconnect between people’s spiritual hunger and their church attendance. More and more church members are doubtful that gathering in church on Sunday is necessary for their spiritual growth.
To be very clear, I disagree with that. Gathering together as the body of Christ is an absolutely essential element of any believer’s life. I have never met a single believer who stopped or significantly diminished their church attendance without seeing a corresponding downward slide in the spiritual lives. Not going to church is hazardous to your health.
But that doesn’t mean their reasons aren’t valid. Or that their frustrations aren’t real.
So what do we do about this?
What if, instead of criticizing people for not adding more church attendance to their to-do list, we tried to help them ease their over-burdened lives and schedules?
Let’s do what the church has always done. Adapt. Pivot. Instead of looking into what’s wrong with church attenders, ask what can we learn from their choices.
No, this isn’t compromise. Compromise only occurs if the core message changes. This would be an adjustment of our schedules and our methods, not our message.
Instead of working harder to convince people to sit in church on Sunday, we need to give them new ways to worship and serve. Ways that fit today’s realities. Just like we found ways to adapt to the needs of gentiles, farmers and city dwellers in the past.
Pastors have always said our faith is about much more than church attendance. Church members now agree with that. So let’s give them tools and opportunities to worship and serve, not just to sit and listen.
What’s the Answer?
As I stated in my last post, Wanted: New Church Methods for New Church People, I don’t have any ready-made answers for many of people’s questions.
This may not be a time for answers. It may be a time to open ourselves up to new conversations and questions.
We may be able to learn something from our infrequent church members if we stop all the hand-wringing and pay attention to what they’re trying to tell us.
What if, instead of trying to get church members to do church our way, we started asking them what would work better for them, their spiritual growth and their hunger to be discipled?
If we start with asking, instead of just telling, we might come one step closer to helping them find what they’re looking for.
So what do you think? Have you struggled with what to do about the decreasing frequency in church attendance?
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