Church Members Aren’t Attending as Often – Are They Trying to Tell Us Something?

No LikeChurch attendance is down in the western world.

Why?

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:

  1. Raise the expectations of membership
  2. Require an entry class for membership
  3. Encourage ministry involvement
  4. Offer more options for worship times
  5. 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?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(No Like Sign photo from Jason Eppink • Flickr • Creative Commons license?)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

18 thoughts on “Church Members Aren’t Attending as Often – Are They Trying to Tell Us Something?”

  1. I agree there are many reasons for church attendance decline, and also that I have never seen someone who was better off when they attended church less. Studies and statistics prove church attendance is good for you (here is one example http://marri.us/reasons-for-religion). One factor has come into play is so many people and kids are involved in sports year round including Sunday. Still we are called to “go” and as much sinners are called to “come” to Jesus. I am starting to understand we cannot always measure ministry effectiveness by how many people attend a church service or meeting and there is a great harvest before us. Still it can be frustrating and discouraging when attendance is down. But maybe it will help us adapt and adjust to reach more people. I appreciate your thoughts and help on these matters.

    1. Thanks for that link, Charlie. I’m like you, too. No matter how much I know that attendance isn’t the issue, those low Sundays can still be hard. I’m getting better at it, but I’m not that holy, yet!

      1. Me either! I think there is sometimes a lot of pride that can go with this issue. A lot of people left Jesus and he was left with only a small group in the end. But that small group changed the world. The mistake I have made in the past is thinking what we have is not enough. I think you have made the point well that it is enough to do something and make a difference. I have made a point to people to never say “Why is nobody here?” or “Where is everybody?” My response is I am somebody, and so are you. Nobody is a nobody. And you don’t realize what you have until you don’t. I used to think our attendance was low, now I realize it was actually pretty good.

  2. I agree we need to adapt to people’s needs. Every time I’ve tried to start a ministry and fumbled, it’s because I over-zealously didn’t bother to get input from fellow Christians.

    But most of the non-churchgoers I run into, believe Christians don’t need church. They figure they can follow Jesus on their own, without any preacher telling them what to do, without any fellow Christians judging them or forcing them to conform, without commitment to any Christian body. So it’s just them ‘n Jesus, by their lonesome.

    Obviously it sounds like they’ve been burned by unhealthy churches, and don’t want to plug in to another. Which is a whole other issue.

    1. K.W., I think you got it right, especially that last sentence. Many people have had bad experiences in church, so why would they want to go back and revisit that pain? It’s one more reason for rethinking new ways to do church. A solid biblical church with a fresh face and feel can help them feel OK to give church another shot.

  3. We started a short Monday evening service last year that now runs from Easter Monday through the last Monday before Advent (we have opted to take an official hiatus during the winter because we had to cancel for bad weather so often last year). Attendance ranges from 6 to 20 depending on people’s schedules and memories; I preach the same texts as on Sunday and I like the second bite at the apple, so to speak. This has helped to keep our attendance in worship up in the midst of busier and busier lives. It’s not the final answer, but it’s working for us in rural western PA for the moment.

  4. I think some of it IS our culture’s shift of thinking. Does’t the Bible say that in the last days people will be more lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God? (2 Timothy 3:4) I think in large part that’s what we see.

    I had a lady leave our church because she said her teen-age son was bored with church (so they went somewhere that was heavy on activity and light on substance) Her son would fall asleep during service – and he’s a Christian young man. I told her, that if her son got excited about Jesus, church excitement would follow. We seem to get them reversed now a days. Church needs to be exciting – keep up with the world’s glitz and glam – THEN we’ll get excited about Jesus…maybe.

    I came from a split home. My father was not saved, mother was – but only a Sunday A.M. attender. I was saved as a child, baptized in the Spirit at 12 and called into the ministry at 13. I loved Jesus. (no bragging, I just did) As a teenager, as soon as I could drive, I’d wake up at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday morning to attend early service BY MYSELF at 8:15. I attended Sunday School, Sunday PM and Wednesday night services by myself. No one woke me up on Sunday A.M. Sometimes for punishment my mom would “ground me from church.” I know, that makes no sense to me either.

    Let me be clear. I was NOT some super spiritual Christian. (believe me) But I LOVED JESUS. I was committed to HIM. As a result of my committment to HIM – came my desire to be with HIS people! I wanted to go to church. During the sermons as a 15 year old, I was taking NOTES…not sleeping. You didn’t have to entice me with entertainment to go to church – in fact I was usually bored with the “pre-show” at youth group…I wanted to get into worship.

    Again – I was normal. I loved Jesus. I wanted to LEARN about Him. I wanted to BE with His people. That was an overflow of my love, committment and desire to obey Him.

    So – how does that translate to lack of church attendance? As a young person, I was busy. I would’ve like to have slept in on Sunday mornings…As a tri-vo pastor my husband many times is DEAD TIRED on Wednesday afternoons, but somehow we make it to church.

    It has something to do with our culture and commitment. Here are two quotes regarding divorce and average job stays of today:
    Barna, a born-again Christian, dolefully admitted that the areas of the country where divorce rates were highest are frequently the areas many conservative Christians live.
    A young couple marrying for the first time today has a lifetime divorce risk of 40 percent, “unless current trends change significantly.”
    The average worker today stays at each of his or her jobs for 4.4 years, according to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics,

    Commitment. Dedication. Perseverance. Faithfulness. Loving Jesus. Obedience.

  5. I came across a sermon by Bob Russell who pastored Southeast Christian Church, a very large church. The sermon is “Why I love the Church?” describing what a difference the Church makes. But he also describes a small church where many great things happened (I believe the church he grew up in). I have the full transcript if you are interested and it is also available online in video – here is a link to an article http://christianstandard.com/2014/05/bob-russell-says-i-love-the-church/

  6. I think that as a whole the biggest area where we have failed people and a major cause of a decline in church attendance is simply that you have three groups of people and we only partially do a good job of ministering to one.

    First, you have the enthusiastic church goers who love church. They get excited to come to church and love their pastor. They see the church service as vital to spiritual life and growth. But they may tire after a while and may base their love of church on an individual preaching style.

    Second, you have a group that want to anonymously come to church and slip out at the end. They may decide week to week whether they are going to church or not. They want to feel a part but don’t want the commitment of a volunteer ministry. A forced membership class would drive them away permanently. But why don’t they want to commit? Like you said, Karl, listen. Find out what would make them value other events over church attendance. Bring the church to them innovatively.

    And last, and perhaps most sadly, you have the opposite of the previous group. They want to be known; they want to play a bigger role at church. They have gifts and talents they want to use. But they aren’t staff so we make them sit there. From personal experience, I sometimes chafe at sitting there as a lay leader/minister in training just listening to the same sermon trying to fire me up when I don’t see results or strong vision. I want to run with a vision but I’m not staff. I love my pastor,but is it possible I eventually leave? Yes, but in my case, only if I clearly hear from God; others might have a more knee-jerk reaction.

    We have to above all for all these groups have more involvement. Let people use their talents. Will it always be smooth? No. Will we be able to start every kind of ministry? No; that why you partner with other churches so NO ONE just sits there. Might that mean my church is smaller and more specialized? Maybe, but we are the Church and we advance the Kingdom before our own little kingdoms. An engaged member attending some Bible-believing church somewhere should be the goal; it’s great if it would be ours but we support them if it’s not. God bless.

    http://www.gospelstrategy.wordpress.com

  7. I am still doing a lot of thinking and having conversations on this topic. Some other ideas came to me, that another possibility is that we have failed to truly “make disciples” as Jesus said, that is people who follow Christ daily, not just those who “check the box” going to church. If we have a culture of church box checkers, that ends in disappointment because there is little substance or depth if all we do is attend church service each week or so. Our faith has to be a personal walk of life. Does that make any sense?

    1. That makes a lot of sense, Charlie. I’ve used the phrase “check box Christians” myself. Discipleship is the key to.

      In a previous post, I talked about the danger of churches who tell attenders to “sit back, relax and enjoy the service”. Statements like that send the wrong message – making it sound like church is about watching a show, instead of making a commitment. I’m convinced that’s a big part of the problem.

      Here’s a link to that post, if you’re interested.
      http://newsmallchurch.com/sit-back-relax-may-be-killing-your-church/

  8. “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.” – I totally agree. What how do you practically implement new ways for people to connect… I’m not looking for ready made answers 🙂 just wondering what path you’re following.

  9. Come Holy Spirit ! come into my Church and blow fresh powerful wind and tongues of fire. Come and change us in worship and witness

  10. Great post, I love this stuff!

    “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.”

    I don’t think we feel that attending church is NOT necessary for our spiritual growth. It is that attending certain KIND of churches no longer helps us grow spiritually.

    “I don’t go to church because I don’t need church to grow spiritually” is a completely different thing than saying “I don’t go to church because the church no longer helps me grow spiritually.”

    If you are involved in leading a “Seeker-Sensitive” type church model, and members are attending less and less, you have to look at what you actually offer believers in the way of growth opportunities. Why should we come, if we don’t get fed and are only expected to be worker bee’s and bankers in the ministry machine of your church?

    If Subway, Chipotle, or your favorite restaurant stopped serving food, would we be surprised if people stopped coming? Would we blame the customers?

    This is a “The Emperor Has No Clothes” moment for the church. You can not have a service that is designed to nurture believers and a service that speaks to the lost at the same time. It is one or the other. Choose. If your church leadership chooses to design the weekend services to “reach” unbelievers, don’t be surprises when the non-fed believers are leave to go somewhere else. They will, eventually and this is EXACTLY what is happening.

  11. I think that it is time that we as humans go to God and ask Him what is going wrong with the way we have decided to worship Him. Humans can make things so complicated.
    How about the next time a gathering takes place we do like Geoff said and invite the Holy Spirit to come? I remember once I went to a informal worship and the man who was “leading” it said, “we are waiting for the Holy Spirit to come.” In all my years of attending worship, I have never heard anyone say that. That place always has many people in attendance. People came in there happy, and they left happy. No matter in which direction I turned, someone was smiling at me. The chairs were arranged so we could look around and see each other. It was awesome!
    We are supposed to be led by the Holy Spirit! So, let’s get out of the way so He can lead! No worship will be successful without the Holy Spirit present.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *