I’m not certain it’s all bad news. Sure, the majority of congregations are experiencing declines in attendance. And many more churches are growing at a pace that is slower than the growth of the community in which they are located.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that attendance declines are good. Such trends mean fewer people are engaging with believers, and fewer people are being exposed to the gospel.
But our nation is no longer a “churchy” culture. More and more, to be involved with a local congregation means you are counter-cultural. It’s now easier to see where the home base for congregations ends and where the mission field begins. There are fewer and fewer persons who show up at church services because they simply want to be part of the crowd. To the contrary, active congregants are now the exception in our nation rather than the norm.
For now, I simply want to share eight common factors that are negatively impacting church attendance. Some of the reasons apply specifically to the unchurched, while others could be related to either the churched or unchurched person.
- In most areas, it is no longer culturally expected for persons to attend church. I live in the heart of the Bible belt in the Nashville area. But when I leave for church services on Sunday mornings, I see numerous families out playing with their children, walking the subdivision, or just enjoying the day outside. They don’t feel the cultural pressure to attend church. To the contrary, they are joining the majority who opt out.
- Congregational expectations of the attendance of members are lower. In the recent past, the absence of a frequently-attending church member was noticeable. He or she might get a call from another member to check on them. Today, if a church member attends three of four weeks, rarely does another member inquire about their absence. By the way, if every member, on the average, attends one less Sunday per month, the overall attendance of the church drops 25 percent.
- Unchurched persons are often very demanding about the perceived quality of worship services. Though some of us bemoan this reality, the entertainment culture is now pervasive. If an unchurched person attends a perceived low-quality service, he or she may not return.
- Many church members are less friendly to guests today. I understand that this statement is categorical and not statistically verified. But I can say, after over 25 years of doing surveys of church guests, I hear more and more about unfriendly church members. So either the expectations of friendliness are higher, or many church members are really not that friendly to guests.
- Churches do not emphasize involvement in groups as much as they did in the past. Simply stated, if a person is only involved in the worship services, he or she is likely to leave the church within a few years or even months. But those involved in groups, such as home groups or Sunday school classes, have natural accountability. They also have stronger relationships to other church members that engender more frequent attendance.
- Most churches have no clear purpose. An organization without a clear and poignant purpose will have members wandering aimlessly. And many of them will wander out the figurative door of regular attendance.
- Most churches have no clear plan of discipleship. This factor somewhat overlaps with the previous issue. Church members are more likely to be faithful attenders if they understand how they can become a better disciple for Christ through the ministries of the church.
- The typical church in America is a low-expectation church. I have written on this issue extensively. And the less you expect of members, the less you will get, including attendance.
Of course, it’s easier to write about problems than offer solutions. But I will be doing the latter rather extensively in the months ahead.
In the meantime, I would love to hear from you about these eight issues.
Posted on May 5, 2014
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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