Eight Reasons It’s Easier Not to Attend Church Today


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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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  • I was in a church that unfortunately thought they were the “true” church and had some beliefs with which I did not agree. I finally found a non-denominational church, Cross Connection, and the pastor systematically takes his sermons straight from the Bible. He knows the context, setting, customs etc that go with the Bible verses. I feel like I am being spiritually fed. I love going to church finally.

  • Rick Sewell says on

    I have pastored for the last 21 years and now am unemployed. We are taking advantage of this time to intentionally visit a wide variety of churches. I can tell you that most churches are quite unfriendly across a broad spectrum. The ones that aren’t are often so far into decline that they come off as desperate rather than friendly. They make it very clear that they will go to great lengths to get our contact information so that they can “follow up” with us.

    I have read a number of comments about doctrinal problems, especially in regard to liberal doctrine. I have not seen this problem at all. It is not a lack of doctrine that I have seen, but a lack of thought. Time and again I see pastors using sermons they have gotten from a book or downloaded from the internet. The sermon experience lacks life because the preacher is rehearsing words that he has taken as a way of short cutting the demanding spiritual task of preparation.

    • “Time and again I see pastors using sermons they have gotten from a book or downloaded from the internet.”
      I hear this now and then but always want to know how the person knows that. Have you read the exact same sermon in a book or internet yourself? You read that many sermons and remember them?
      I’ll never forget the time my Bible College professor called me in to accuse me of plagiarizing my theology term paper. He couldn’t find anything that I copied from, it just sounded like it! Glad he did it privately! I was able to convince him these were my words.
      But, I’m not saying you’re wrong, just not sure how often these accusations are generally correct. I imagine as a former pastor you have read many sermons, just not aware of any pastors I know who do this. And I know a bunch. Maybe I should poll them. 😉

  • Nathan says on

    Eight reasons people don’t go to church:

    1. The church is preoccupied with getting people, because people = money + power.
    2. The church works to justify spending massive amounts of money on building, programs and staff rather than feeding the poor.
    3. The church love being right but does not show concern for justice.
    4. You may happily attend and belong so long as you are not a woman with a voice or opinion, or perspective other than what is preached.
    5. Relevance has nothing to do with looking like the culture, it has everything to do with mindfully engaging in cultural issues from a spiritual perspective. Most people find the church irrelevant.
    6. People see the church as too political. Jesus was not a republican, liberal, democrat, conservative, or libertarian. He was about God’s kingdom…which was decidedly spiritual rather than political.
    7. The message of the church is not the gospel, it’s almost anything but the gospel: attend, pay, believe, work, belong, do, conform.
    8. The church is really more a bunch of little kingdoms built by men with narcissistic personality traits that want to be famous rather than making Jesus famous. The key issue is not the lordship of Jesus, but the lording over other by people in authority.

    Respectfully submitted to deepen the conversation.


    • Nathan, Respectfully submitted? Really? “The church is really more a bunch of little kingdoms built by men with narcissistic personality traits…” Thanks for that from a pastor of one of the 90% of churches which are under 100 in attendance. You don’t even know me but I have narcissistic personality traits. From reading your post I could speculate on some of your personality weaknesses but I won’t.
      But I think, based on the weakness of some (not all) of your points you have some serious church issues. So, do you tell your Savior, “Lord I love you but your wife is really messed up dude”?
      1, 2, and 3 all happen in a minority of situations.
      #4 is odd, I don’t want anyone’s opinion when it comes to Bible, theology, morality. I’d just as soon we kept things biblical. I have to answer to God for what/who I allow to speak in my church.
      5 and 6, Good points.
      #7, Umm, sometimes that happens.
      And #8, well, just bizarre.
      I much prefer Dr. Rainer’s list.

      • Sorry, but Nathan is right. Most pastors and churches don’t even get the basics of end time prophecy right, not do they preach the whole of the Bible and instead go the Joel Doreen approach. That turns away far more people from God than keeping them.

  • I’ve been thinking about this and want to contribute late to the discussion. In the 1950s-60s it is true there were high expectations of church members. But it was also sort of a rigid legalistic expectation and when that went away, it all fell apart. I’m thinking there was no substance there in the first place. The church can be one of the loneliest places on earth. I’ve been studying Hebrews 10:23-25 and thinking about the purpose of the meetings, it was to “stir” each other up, it was to “encourage” one another. I’ve yet to be stirred or encouraged by any other than the perfunctory duty of a pastor–it doesn’t feel genuine either. Lots of surface smiles, friendly conversation, “see ya next week,” sort of stuff, but no substance. I don’t want to go most of the time either.

  • I’ve served on a church staff for about 25 years. We’ve been talking for years about how our attendance is dropping. I read through the comments and no one mentioned the fact that people have more demands on their time than ever before and that includes Sunday mornings. Sports, cheer leading (if its not a sport) and dance and other school and extracurricular activities are now regularly scheduled on Sundays. There was a day when church was the only thing going on on a Sunday. Now its just one of many choices, and some of the other choices have merit, too.

    We are also a much more mobile society. Weekend trips out of town, or to the lake or beach, are much more common than they used to be.


  • Thom Rainer says on

    Thanks to all of you for the great comments. I was in an all-day exec team meeting yesterday, and I’m meeting with Lee Strobel and Mark Mittleberg all day today. I hope to catch up and answer your questions soon. Thanks for your patience.

  • Pastor Wayne says on

    Brother Rainer,
    Why should people go to church if they are not regenerated?? The Church Christ and His Apostles established was made up of believers (1 Peter 2:5ff; 1 Cor.10:32; et al.). It was then the believers who were to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11ff). Each believer is to be a witness of Christ to those they rub shoulders with.
    Part of the problem why the church is in trouble is because many have tried to attract the church with “entertainment” (point #3).
    There are also reasons believers do not “attend church.” One is because it too often is merely attendance (and their money) which is wanted. The “professionals” want to run the church and its programs. Their primary need for bodies is to help them build their own little kingdoms and make them “successful.”
    Another reason is because much of the church has embraced politics and used worldly business models to fashion the church after.
    Coupled with this is that most of the western church more closely resembles a religious social club than the church of Jesus Christ.
    The kingdom of God and His Church is has relationships as its foundation – relationship with God with all one has and possesses and loving one another as one loves himself. I’ve been in approximately 40 churches in the last 10 years and have found very little of either. Oh, many have claimed love of God, but 1 John makes it clear that one’s love of God will be displayed in the love for one’s brother or sister. Most are so wrapped up in themselves that they virtually ignore any real need or relationship with one another.
    The sad truth is, I have found just the opposite to be true – many people in the church would rather stab you in the back than demonstrate any real love toward someone else. When confronting so-called brothers and sisters with truth and righteousness as a prophet of God, I have been kicked out of 5 of the 8 churches I have been a part of in the last 10 years (3 of them as a member and one as a pastor). One church literally locked the doors when I showed up for a service and would not allow me to enter. Not only was there action taken against me, but there was all kinds of indirect action in the “witness” such actions demonstrate to others not directly involved.
    Much of the “church” bears so little resemblance to the Church of the New Testament and then we wonder why people are not wanting to “attend.” There was no “attendance” in the Church of the NT – there was fellowship. There were no paid “professionals” (with titles and letters after their names) – ministry in each gathering-together was open to ANY and ALL believers present (1 Corinthians 14:26).
    Even basic requirements for pastors are being ignored in favour of the world’s standards. I subscribe to several ministry job websites for the last 5 yrs. In that time, virtually ALL the advertisements for a pastor (or senior pastor) requires a recognized degree, yet almost NONE list any of the Biblical requirements.
    And then pastors like yourself whine about decreased “attendance” when the worldly methods and systems you employ do seem to be working the way you want them to.
    The Lord has taken me through great lessons about the degradation of His Church in contemporary western society. He has done this through great trials in the last 24 years. I know I am a thick-headed German who often learns slowly and with great difficulty and it may not take others what it has taken the Lord to take me through. However, I encourage all pastors to humbly seek the Lord on their faces for HIS DESIGN for HIS Church. In some cases this may mean that “their” church will close (or die) or they may be rejected by man’s organization of which they are now a part. However, I ask you, “Where is your security? Is it in Christ alone or is it in your position, your organization, or ‘your’ church?”
    When I started my comments, Wesley Rees’ comments were not yet posted and in reading them before posting mine I realize we overlap somewhat and likely have had similar experiences. Again, I urge those reading these comments to honestly and humbly seek the Lord for HIS DESIGN for HIS Church and do all you can to conform yourself and those you serve. The Lord is working a new reformation within His Church to destroy the “Americanization” of His Church and replace with Himself and His disciples.

  • Thom, I appreciate all that you do to try and bring about discussion and I appreciate your research. Certainly we all have things that we like or don’t like about church or may have had a bad experience. Reading through the comments thus far gives a wide range of issues and topics for discussion. I certainly have had my own bad experiences but I also know that I am called to Love my fellow believers. I would like to post my reasons for staying home from church or not wanting to go. Although, I do attend, I have been burned and it does leave a mark.

    I have spent the better part of almost 40 years in church, around church or looking from the outside in. Reading the New Testament leads me to have many questions. The book of Acts and the writings of Paul, Peter and James talk a lot about the church, it’s mission and acceptable behaviors within the church. Their books give requirements for Pastors and Deacons, and basic attributes of church members. This seems to suggest that there are “bare minimum” things that church members ought to do. I wonder why I rarely hear these characteristics taught about in church.

    I have always believed that people who are friendly will show themselves to be friendly. I am taken aback when I see people cluster with their group of friends and not even attempt to greet guests or others that they may not know yet. I guess, to a degree we are all guilty of this one. We tend to float or gravitate to the familiar. OK, so not a big deal right? Wrong. How do we know if someone is checking out this particular church for the first time? Maybe this was their last attempt at trying to find a church home. Maybe that’s the problem; we don’t think about others long enough other than to judge them or make some sort of determination about them. Moving on…

    Over the years, I have seen a lot of appalling behavior within the church. Arguments, Judgment (and a lot of it), Inquiries about someone’s attendance or lack of it, (without regard to their well-being). Misguided decisions and off-hand remarks. No wonder attendance is down. People want something real, genuine. It’s hard to do that if we won’t pick up the manual and read how we’re supposed to be acting. And I have seen more authentic community in neighborhoods where churches fear to tread than inside of a church building.

    The Bible describes believers as members of One Body. If my hand were to have something against my mouth, than I probably wouldn’t get to eat much. It’s a shame that we fight and complain, tear down sinners and saints alike and forget all about the amount of grace that it took for Christ to save our sorry excuse of a follower of Him.

    It is my belief that churches should do a better job of establishing it’s goals. (It’s hard to attract new members if you have no plan to do so). And if you are not attracting new members than you are just a civic club or place to hangout. (I’d rather stay on the couch). And if we are just in the building to hang out and feel better about ourselves, what’s the point?

    As Christ’s followers, we are to Love Him and Love Others. If we are doing those two things, than we are attractive to those on the outside who have yet to experience His Grace and Mercy. If not, we are playing high school games and dividing into categories and only surrounding ourselves with like people. Shouldn’t members of the same body try to work together, love each other deeply, and meet each other’s needs? If we can do that, than those who have not Come Home yet, will see it and want to take the first steps on the journey Home.

    Thanks for allowing me to rant. Sincerely, Wesley Rees

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