The Growing Disconnect Between Spiritual Hunger and Church Attendance

bridgeDoing church together is an essential aspect of what it means to be a Christian.

But church attendance rates keep dropping in most of the developed world.

Why?

I often hear it’s because people aren’t as spiritually-minded as they used to be. After all, if it’s not their fault, then some of it might be our fault. And that can’t be.

But the evidence doesn’t support that. In fact, it suggests that people’s spiritual hunger may be growing, not shrinking. Spiritually-themed books, movies, TV shows and blogs are having a major resurgence. Alternative spirituality is booming.

Spiritual hunger isn’t a cultural thing. That God-shaped hole is hard-wired into every one of us.

Church attendance isn’t down because people have stopped caring about spiritual things. It’s because we haven’t done such a great job at showing them how church attendance will help them answer that longing.

As the character, Amy Farrah Fowler said on The Big Bang Theory“I don’t object to the concept of a deity, but I am baffled by the notion of one who takes attendance.” No, we don’t take our lead from fictional characters on TV sitcoms. But is the person who wrote that line trying to tell us something?


 This is a companion post to Church Members Aren’t Attending as Often – Are They Trying to Tell Us Something?


Disconnect and Distrust

There’s not just a growing disconnect between spiritual hunger and church attendance, there’s a growing distrust in church leaders who pay too much attention to it.

To the average pastor, counting and promoting attendance numbers seems like good stewardship. To the average non-clergy, it feels more like ego. This is especially true among younger people – both Christian and not.

And they’re right.

No one cares about helping us reach our attendance goals. In fact, the more they hear about them, the less they trust that we have their best interests in mind.

As I wrote in The Grasshopper Myth, and I tell my congregation regularly, God doesn’t take attendance. What we do after we leave church matters more to God than how we behave when we’re there – or how many people we jammed into the room at one time. 

But we’re so ego-driven when it comes to church attendance, it’s become a running gag among ministers about how we count people. Thom Rainer even wrote a recent post about this, entitled Five Ways to Avoid Lying about Church Attendance. Yes, we need a list to help us stop doing that.

As Rainer wrote, “Sometimes church leaders lie about the weekly church attendance. Sometimes the lies are the result of an inflated ego where a leader gets his self-worth by leading a bigger church. Sometimes it’s the result of the sin of comparison with other leaders and other churches. Sometimes we rationalize it because our denominations or publications make such a big deal about it. In all cases it’s wrong. Inflating attendance numbers is committing the sin of lying.”


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The Shift

We used to be a society of clubs and groups. Fraternities, sororities, community service clubs, political parties, you name it. We loved meetings and the structure those meetings provided.

Not any more.

A recent article in FaithandLeadership.com, entitled RIP Average Attendance, tells us about this change. “Average worship attendance was once such an important number. … Today that number means much less… The growing lack of dependability on attendance is a sign that the virtuous cycles that have sustained congregations since the end of World War II are collapsing.”

We no longer identify ourselves by clubs, groups or denominations. And we don’t like going to meetings, either.

More and more, people don’t think they count when the crowd is being counted. Every number may be a person, but people don’t want to be numbers. It makes them feel devalued and manipulated. More like a commodity than a person.

Coffee shops and restaurants are going back to calling people by name instead of saying “take a number”. Sure, the Starbucks barista may write your name wrong half the time, but even a wrong name is better than a number.

But the church keeps taking attendance. And telling pastors that increasing the number of those nameless, faceless people is the best proof that we’re doing our job well.

No one else is buying it.

Most people who leave the church aren’t leaving God. Many of them are leaving the way we do church to try and find God.

 

Doing Matters More Than Attending

So what can we do to inspire people to a greater spiritual commitment? Here are some starter ideas:

1. Give people the chance to make a difference.
If you think people today won’t commit to anything, check out a Breast Cancer Awareness March. The Susan G. Komen Foundation has helped people see a direct link between wearing pink while walking up to 60 miles together, and funding breast cancer research. People want to make a difference, and the Komen Foundation has shown them how they can.

The church has a lot to learn from that. We haven’t done a good job at showing attenders why their presence matters. How it fills their spiritual hunger. And how they can leverage their time in church for the blessing and benefit of others.

2. Make the communication two-way as often as possible.
People want to be active participants, not just passive consumers. They want to talk with, not just be talked to. Even if it’s just the chance to tweet about the sermon. They want to know that their voice matters.

3. Tell stories more than statistics.
Let’s change from “we count people because people count” to “we tell stories because people matter.” For more on what that means and how to do it, check out Donald Miller’s blog. No one addresses this issue better than he does.

4. Make the connection for them.
People no longer see the connection between paying for a pastor’s salary or a church mortgage, and how that feeds the hungry or answers their spiritual longing. So we need to make that connection for them. If we can’t, maybe we should stop doing it.

The desire to make the shift from passive consumer to active participant is a good thing. Maybe not for a lot of our church mortgages or retirement plans. But for the church as a whole.

People don’t just want to sit and listen anymore. They want to learn, grow and take part. Let’s help them find what they’re looking for.


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So what do you think? Do you have any ideas about how to bridge the gap that you can share with us?

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(Unbuilt Bridge photo from Vicki • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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19 thoughts on “The Growing Disconnect Between Spiritual Hunger and Church Attendance”

  1. Absolutely fantastic article! It spoke my heart and gave clarity to many of the thoughts I’ve been wrestling with. I will use some of the ideas in a message a few weeks from now and give appropriate credit. This blog has encouraged me so much since I found it a few months ago. Thanks, Karl, and keep up the good work.

  2. Good post! The state of much of the church in North America is sad, something like the proverbial ‘shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic’. There is activity but no real spiritual vitality. Stop trying to please everyone and make everyone comfortable! True discipleship isn’t comfortable. And true worship shouldn’t be like experiences in our world, but like stepping out of our world into heaven- God-centered and not people centered.

  3. Just because many, and even perhaps most, churches and pastors took attendance for the wrong reasons doesn’t mean attendance isn’t important to God and shouldn’t be important to pastors. Certainly in the Big Church culture of our nation, our paltry 107 at worship last Sunday isn’t going to do much for my ego. And yet, it is something I pay attention to for several reasons. First, I use attendance as a way of helping figure out who wasn’t there. And that is important, particularly when it is a family who is usually there. When we were 50 or 60, I just knew, but now I don’t always recognize who is missing. I may not do anything with that knowledge, but I think it is important. Second, I use attendance trends to identify deeper issues–for instance, I ran for political office and I looked at attendance as one way to see if my political involvement was negatively effecting our congregation (it didn’t) Finally, and most importantly, just because the church got sucked into a cultural value of big is better, let’s not sit by idly and allow the church to get sucked into the new cultural value of commitment isn’t important. Paul wrote, in Ken’s very loose translation, “don’t quit getting together, as some do, and it’s even more important as the day of the Lord gets nearer”. Attendance for the sake of attending doesn’t please God, build the church or help people grow in Christ. But, it’s pretty tough to please God, build the church and grow in Christ if gathering together with God’s people isn’t a high priority in life.

    1. I agree completely with all your points, Ken. Like I said in the first sentence, “Doing church together is an essential aspect of what it means to be a Christian.” The point of the piece isn’t that attendance doesn”t matter. It does. It’s just that people need to see a more clear connection to how their attendance meets their spiritual needs and equips them to bless others.

  4. In our Sunday School Class we often talk about the “small group” setting being important and necessary for clarity and discussion.

  5. Karl Thanks for the reply. I agree completely that Christians need to see the connection between attendance and spiritual health. While one of the problems with that is pastors often haven’t made the connection, another problem is that culture currently tells us there is no connection. I’ve found that many Christians will take anything that’s out there to help prove what they already believe-“I don’t need to be committed to gathering with God’s people”. Thanks for continuing to provide thoughtful and thought provoking posts.

  6. Today’s church is in desperate need of change. Pastors no longer pastor – many have no idea who most of the members of their congregation are. In this day and age, a pastor’s effectiveness is judged by the amount of people in the congregation – not how well they minister. The sad result is pastors who are motivational speakers, and worship leaders who are recording artists.

    Where is the ministry? This cannot all be left to small groups or small group leaders. The result is many believers who are deeply wounded – not just those who were broken hearted before becoming believers — but those who have been wounded by the church.

    In all the craziness – Christians have forgotten one of the most important ingredients we are to have in our lives……LOVE! Doesn’t the Bible tell us we will be known by the love we have for one another?

    I would submit that Pride is a great underlying motivator in church leadership. How sad…..because when we mistakenly think that being in church leadership is a popularity statement – we have missed the point entirely.

    I pray that as believers, we will stop looking at what every other church is doing – or their recipe for ‘success’ – and return to the Biblical model for the church – not to collect believers like points – but to bring people to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ – to teach – to train – and to send them out to do the same.

  7. Church attendance is indicative of the ‘health’ of the worship service, not the health of the church. How many people are involved in ministry outside the church walls? Maybe half of our people volunteer outside of their church work. While worship is important, it should serve the ministry of the congregation, not the other way around. Thus, worship should be a way to engage people in the outreach of the soup kitchen, the soup kitchen shouldn’t be a recruiting zone for worship.

    The challenge for modern pastors is that for too long we’ve been paid to be the “professional” christian, doing the work that the congregation ought to be doing. More and more that work is seen to be the care and feeding of the congregation to the exclusion of the rest of the community. I see the greatest value of the pastor to be not doing ministry, but teaching ministry.

    Lastly on the basic idea that people are spiritual and just want the right kind of message/place/community in order to come back to the Church, it isn’t going to happen.
    There are a few reasons. First is that the spirituality of the modern first world person is self-serving “I have a right to be rich and comfortable”. Nothing that challenges that assumption is going to be welcome. Christianity challenges it big time.
    Second is the spirituality of the day is lazy. People experience spirituality in places and situations that don’t call them to be different, or to change the world. Jesus wasn’t big on spirituality, instead he called his followers to live differently.
    Third, modern spirituality and much modern Christianity is personal. “I believe….” Nobody cares to listen to challenges on that belief. Yet we are called to examine ourselves and drive out the things that separate us from the Body of Christ.
    Of course these are broad generalizations. There are people who don’t fit, but there are all too many who do.

  8. In essence we all want to feel that our life has meaning and if we are church goers that sense of meaning hopefully is reinforced by the church and its community. Beyond that I think we seek relevance rather than the same old biblical stories week after week. That said, of course those stories have relevance, but they have to be used in the context of what is happening in our time. This is our time and place after all. One more thing, let’s not act like we know it all. Instead let’s embrace the Mystery

    1. The great thing about your last line on embracing the mystery is that we have a generation which is more comfortable with that than previous generations have usually been. Previous generations were obsessed with certainty, while this one is obsessed with mystery. The church always needs to provide the proper mix of both.

  9. It’s not only pastors who get caught up in the “counting” or “attendance” game. It’s elders, board members, and decision makers who contribute to this syndrome as well. The book, “Move” (Hawkins & Parkinson) tells how Willow Creek worked through the process of the numbers game and began identifying the spiritual needs of the people who were attending vs. how many were sitting in their multiple services. Let’s stop blaming or pointing the fingers at Pastors and let’s all share in the problem. Let’s stop talking about the problem and find answers. That’s my viewpoint and it “counts!” 🙂

  10. I think the more people actively take part in a worship service or any other Church activity, the more likely they will feel like “one of the number”,similarly to going to polls to vote,after doing so they feel like their 1 vote actually means something.

  11. Today’s worship services seem tailor made to drive people away. Unsingable songs, eye glazingly long sermons that really have very little content and way too much filler, held in echo producing tin barns at ear splitting levels have driven the younger members of our family out of the church.

    Only we geezers hand on by attending Sunday School and Bible studies only.

    The emperor has no clothes. People are not out of worship attendance because they are shallow, unbelieving, or selfish. They are out of church because the service has morphed into something they detest.

    If you doubt it, visit a liturgical or non fundamentalist traditional church. You find plenty of folks of all ages there provided they haven’t gone the liberal politics is god route.

  12. There are many people who are very strong believers who don’t attend church. In my opinion, one thing i have experienced, a huge thing, is this feeling that the church comes before God. It seems that many people follow the church first and God 2nd. It often feels like God is put into a box and that each church has it’s own borders that cannot be penetrated. There is a culture in church that says we must look like good Christians and present a package that others will see and say, “i want what you have”. However, I have personally found that this paradigm isn’t true, and I believe others have found this, as well. Most people are NOT looking at Christians wanting or admiring their perfection. Striving to appear like a good Christian, using the right words to display humility, etc… , saying loving words, etc…. is a subtle form of legalism. Nobody finds it credible nor desirable. It tells people, “this is what you must be to be Christian”, yet it is unobtainable. It is a form of legalism and a focus on self rather on the savior. It is like rolling the stone away to maintain the “illusion”.
    The truth is, God is working our salvation out. It is on the backdrop of imperfection that his grace and glory shine. If we have pride in our heart, it is impossible to get rid of it on our own and is often a process that God works out in us. If it is covered up with humble words, chances are, we will deceive ourselves into believing it isn’t there and we will never allow Him to root it out. If we allow it to rise to the surface in spite of others seeing it but go to Him every day and focus on who HE is rather than what we aren’t, He transforms that while the world witnesses the transformations. It sends a different message that says, “that person has the same struggles as I do, and look what God can do in them!” They can relate to that.
    Church feels more like a culture and a box that either you join and become or you will struggle. It also often promotes sayings like, “love the sinner but not the sin”, yet still identifies “the homosexual” as “the homosexual”. The point is that God did not give this identity to them and neither should we. There are no homosexuals in heaven or even sex, so why do we allow people to identify themselves in this way and then perpetuate it by repeating the lie. The truth is, their identity is in who they really are, not on their “sin”. We play into the hands of the enemy when we call people out by their sin, rather than taking the time to really get to know them, see their heart, their passion, their creativity, etc.. before we say we love them. The truth is, we should be identifying them by how God designed them, not repeating the words of the enemy. True grace is recognizing that who we are is not grounded in our sin, but who God created us to be.

    I have found that many churches do not understand the mentality of those they are trying to witness to. It’s more about “sounding spiritual” than moving in the spirit wherever He may take us.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Andrea.

      I do believe that we need to have fellowship with other believers to grow in our faith. And that means church, whether in a church building, a house, or wherever. Church attendance is not required for salvation, so it shouldn’t be presented that way (and I agree with you that it often is presented that way, unfortunately) but the New Testament is really clear that meeting with other believers is always a central part of Christian life.

      If you’re interested, here are two articles I wrote that speak to this:

      Are We More Invested In Bringing People to Church? Or to Jesus?

      I Don’t Go to Church to Worship Jesus

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