Five Reasons Church Members Attend Church Less Frequently

About 20 years ago, a church member was considered active in the church if he or she attended three times a week.

Today, a church member is considered active in the church if he or she attends three times a month.

Something is wrong with this picture. For 2,000 years, the local church, as messy as it is, has been God’s place for believers to gather, worship, minister, and be accountable to one another.

And every time I write something about church membership and attendance, I inevitably hear cries of “legalism” or “the church is not a building” or “the church is a messed up institution.”

But the local church, the messy local church, is what God has used as His primary instrument to make disciples. But commitment is waning among many church members.


  1. We are minimizing the importance of the local church. When we do, we are less likely to attend. A few drops of rain may keep many folks from attending church, but it won’t stop them from sitting three hours in the downpour watching their favorite football team.
  2. We worship the idols of activities. Many members will replace a day in their church with a day at kid’s soccer or softball games or sleeping off the hangover of the previous day’s activities.
  3. We take a lot of vacations from church. I am not anti-vacation. But 20 years or so ago, we would make certain we attended a church where we were taking a vacation. Today, many members take a vacation from church.
  4. We do not have high expectations of our members. Any purposeful organization expects and gets much of it members, whether it’s a sports team or a civic organization. It is ironic that most churches do not come close to being a high expectation church.
  5. We make infrequent attendees leaders in our churches. When we do, we are making a clear statement that even the leaders of the church do not have to be committed to the place they supposedly lead.

I heard a leader of an organization tell the members he did not want them if they were not fully committed. They could not be AWOL if they wanted to be a part of the group. He expected full commitment.

He is a high school football coach. And all the team members follow that high expectation of commitment.

If we truly expect to make a difference in our communities and our families, members of local churches need to have at least the same level of commitment as members of sports teams.

After all, the mission of each local church is far more important.

At least it should be.

Posted on May 22, 2017

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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  • Perhaps what some are missing is the fact that we are to be faithful to Jesus. Jesus and the church are not the same thing.

    If in order to faithfully follow Jesus and be with Him we must miss a church service, we are not being unfaithful to Jesus. We are being faithful to Him.

    Reminds me of the time our children were to be part of the nameless shepherd group in the nativity play at church. My husband was unexpectedly called to another state to work over the Christmas break. We called our pastor to tell him we would be with my husband and not part of the play, and were promptly told off for “putting family ahead of Jesus.”

    My reply: no sir, that we are not doing. We are putting two weeks of family time under difficult circumstances in midwinter ahead of one church service. We definitely will be present with Jesus even while absent from here.

    Gotta remember: Jesus does not equal Jesus.

  • Allan Jenks says on

    My church can’t afford a ‘full-time’ pastor, but we have four elders who seem to think it’s a job-sharing arrangement, as long as there’s one there on Sunday, the other three can be somewhere else. Occasionally there’s none there. In my opinion, oversight requires each one’s continual (except for valid reasons) presence.

    What do you think? – I’ve been praying for a long time! in case that’s your answer.



  • I vividly remember attending prayer meetings on Wednesday night, teaching children to pray on Friday nights and teaching Sunday school, and Saturdays for meetings twenty years ago. Today, I attend church may be twice a month. I fit the description of this article perfectly. However, not for any of the reasons listed. The 5 reasons listed are more of an observation than reasons.
    There is a strong appearance of spirituality or spiritual maturity in being at church frequently; one may falsely think that they are more spiritual by counting how often they are at church. Actively participating in many spiritual activities in church may not make one spiritual. Structure of growing church has changed; thousands worship online at Saddleback church around the world in remote places. They meet in thousands of small groups; may be just a few Christians in non-church settings. Many worship outdoor in the open, in the mountains or at sea, not in buildings. Some “Go” out of the church to make disciples. Some “Go” to mission field as called by the Lord. Some churches doesn’t have God’s presence. Some church is more of a social gathering than a place of worship. Church /sermon are plain boring. Pastors misinterpreting the Bible. People can find Biblical answers and good sermons online/internet. Those are some of the reasons I think people may not go to church.

  • Charles Spurgeon once wrote:

    “It is our duty and our privilege to exhaust our lives for Jesus. We are not to be living specimens of men in fine preservation, but living sacrifices, whose lot is to be consumed; we are to spend and be spent, not to lay ourselves up in lavender, and nurse our flesh.”

    C. H. Spurgeon, The Sword and Trowel: 1868 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1867), 125.

  • Alex Clayton says on

    The major reason for church attendance declining is the church has been teaching ” a personal salvation theology”. We need to have a personal relationship with Jesus, Jesus is my personal savior, and God has a personal plan for my life. Who needs a church?

    A second cause which is more practical is the lack of mission planning for the “Boomers”. While the millennials who are the children and grand children of the “Boomers” are leaving the church or leaving their denomination, the “Boomers” have not left, but have become apathetic towards the church. Once the Boomers made sure their children made it through the “great” youth group, and their children went off to college or a career, the church was caught without a mission for the next phase in the Boomer’s life. As an result, most boomers spent as much as three Sundays a month traveling. They go to the church where their grand kids are attending, they go visit their children out of town, or they go see an aging parent. In other words, they have not quit, but they have checked out. Check your own congregation and see what is happening with those who are Boomers. This is a great talent pool; however, there is no vision and neither are they asked to help develop a vision.

    • Many people in the church are neither Boomers nor millennials. They call us “Generation X”, but sometimes I think they ought to call us “Generation Middle Child”.

      • Exactly. In 1996……when I heard about this study saying two out of three GenXers had never set foot in a church, and church leaders wringing their hands saying “what are we going to do about this?”

        The answer was nothing.

        Remember the Millennials? They were going to be the generation the church was going “reach out” and claim for Christ.

        Now in 2017, I am hearing “again” that the young generation coming up is “the one” we’re as a church gonna rescue.

        I don’t believe a word of it, we’ll adopt the current ‘pop’ sound, and the youth pastor will ‘dress’ like them. That’s about it, the same they did with the Millennials.

        Gen X? Oh yeah…….they were back in the 1990’s…….but it’s now, and our mission is to reach the “youth”

      • Another Anonymous Mark says on

        Yep… GenX got thrown under the bus!
        But, we are still here and working for Christ.

      • Jennie says on

        Indeed we are!

    • Jesus Christ and His Apostles taught “a personal salvation theology,” as described in your opening paragraph. Without that, we have no walk with Christ. Fellowship and service with our brothers and sisters in Christ is another important aspect of our life after we are saved.

      If you do not have a personal relationship with Christ, 1) you are not saved, and 2) you have nothing to offer the Body as a whole. We are saved as individuals, not groups. Going to church regularly does not save you or make you a Christian. Repenting from your sin and committing your life to Christ as your Lord and Savior does.

      We have a responsibility to grow spiritually as individuals–and to share that growth in fellowship with other believers, to encourage and nurture each other in faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. It’s not an either/or proposition.

  • How do you suggest we create higher expectations (#4)?

  • Thanks Thom, for providing a forum to investigate and recognize the diversity of opinions on what role the church is perceived to have in our current society by fellow believers in Christ. Part of the dialog focused on the place where church took place. In the article, the premise appeared to me to be a church building. I came to this idea after reading all of the responses the article generated.

    This presumption that the church was a building was challenged by a few. It seems salient to their points that the historical meeting places that Scripture indicates where people met for fellowship and the breaking of bread were in homes, not special purpose buildings as described in the book of Acts. By extant historical records we also know that early Christians were often persecuted and would meet in catacombs or other secret places where they were able to fellowship with each other with some degree of security from an oppressive government. The church as a unique building did not develop till later, however. These were the experiences of Christians that ultimately produced the canon we now hold inerrant as “Scripture”. In time the church building was formed and served as the political and social center of a community in post Greco-Roman civilizations, especially as the Catholic expression of the Christian faith developed prior to the Reformation. The idea that courts were held in these church buildings with the power of life and death is not contested in extant historical literature. This fact is, I believe, relevant to the current cultural perception, both good and bad of the modern day church.

    It’s my opinion that the 1950’s church building of which I was accustomed to was already seeing a diminishing of their traditional role in society that had been preserved since the middle ages in European, and later, western society. The Reformation brought about a schism that began the process of diluting a physical church’s role in society, while enhancing the reality at the time that Christian belief played a large role in society. It was interesting to see one of the commenters draw out the Catholic view of how this was perceived to impact the church!

    So the underlying (unspoken) premise in the article appears to indicate that the church is defined by the existence of a building coupled with members of a particular biblically based belief system. That’s where I would question whether the five points are really germane to understanding why commitment is waning among church members, but perhaps more applicable to understanding why a particular cultural tradition surrounding “the church building” is waning among church members.

    I’m of the opinion that the church of Christ, His bride, is very much alive and functioning well despite the diverse stylistic expressions of what happens inside any given physical church building. Americans that grew up in the 1950’s and on, like me, came to errantly associate a particular church building instance with the “biblical church”, whereas as I studied Scripture over the years, listened to many Pastors and teachers and struggled to bring the commitments of relationships under the Lordship of Christ; the conclusion for me and others was that the church body was indeed a place where two or three are gathered in His name, not a building, however good that physical entity may have played in society in the past and present or may in the future. Having said that, there is a biblical basis for gifts and offices in the church imposed on the “two or three gathered” church model. The offices are not, however, prescribed with the prerequisite of a physical building, only the natural presumption of a physical place where people can meet together to fellowship, break bread, and study the scriptures together.

  • I totally agree with you Thom. Our church has seen attendance go down in the past 18 months. I know some of the decrease is for the reasons you outlined. During this time the viewing of our live streaming has more than doubled. I’m certain we have a sizeable number of people who are staying at home and watching online rather than coming to worship, fellowship and serve on site, but we have not been able to quantify it. Have you seen or heard of that happening in other churches?

  • I guess the bottom line in all of this is that you reap what you sow. The dwindling attendance, the apathy is what we’ve taught for decades. Yep, we taught it. In our never ending quest for numbers, we treated people for whom Christ died as objects, as consumers. We’ve tried to give the visitor and the prospect whatever they wanted so we can seal the deal. We did the surveys, the canvassing, etc. etc. asking the unchurched, and unbeliever what the church can do for them, and labeled that evangelism. George Barna is more influential in the way our congregations are formed than St. Paul or St. Peter. And in the process of bending over backwards for the individual we taught them something, what we believe teach and confess as a congregation, as a church body doesn’t matter when we’re desperate. We’ll give a little here, we’ll gloss over things over there, and boast (in one way or another) that we’re not as stuffy or narrow minded as that congregation down the street. But what have we done? We’ve let the culture and the unbeliever determine what our churches will look like and say. And worse, we presume that the gen X’ers and the millenials are so stupid they won’t figure out how we’re pandering to them. We’ve demonstrated again and again that everything is negotiable, so long as you belong to our group, which screams to the outsider ‘none of this really matters.’ And we’re surprised that they choose to do something else with their day than sit in a pew and hear a sermon-or whatever it is we’ve decided to do that day. We’ve taught people that the most important thing is a personal relationship with Jesus, and then are shocked that they take that individuality to heart and reject the church! Well? If you’ve got a personal relationship with Jesus and a Bible what do you need all this other stuff for? We’ve taught people that they don’t need the church, because we either never had, or discarded the Doctrine of the church. And by doctrine of the church I don’t mean what the church teaches as its confession of faith, but the doctrine that teaches and defines what the church is! When I tell people that Christians gathering together in the name of the Father Son and Holy Spirit to worship the Trinity in spirit and in truth is the most important thing they do this side of heaven, I get looked at as if I have three heads. Yet what will we be doing in heaven? We will be one with the Lord, worshipping Him, praising him, and dining at his banquet table forever! No, no, no, evangelism is what is most important, that’s what I get told in so many words, ‘building the kingdom,’ (whatever that means). For what? To what ends? Are we born again so we can be spiritual orphans? Serving our neighbor in love is very important, faith without works is dead, but is it more important than gathering together to be served and fed by God in worship? The church is the Bride of Christ! But in so many ways we’ve taught Americans that you don’t have to be the bride, you can just cohabitate with the Lord for a while, be a friend with benefits. The sickening irony of it all is that we did this out of fear for losing the church!

    • I like your points, Allen. The church emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus and are shocked when people take it seriously.

      One big issue I feel with church attendance is that it seems to encourage passive participation by design. We come, sit down, face forward, and listen. We are never given an opportunity to speak, never given the chance to change the staff’s agenda. To me it feel rote and lifeless.

      What would you recommend churches facilitate today?

  • Wow. Nailed it Thom! We are intentionally (such a buzzword I know) trying to counter this and we find so many people think we are strange. One example, last year my youngest (7) son made the all-star team for baseball. We have four kids total and knew this would be a sacrifice on our part but we were excited for him. The coach called and the conversation went like this:

    Coach: Mr. Mackenzie I am excited to have Samuel play on the team. We will go far this year.

    Me: How many practices will he be required to attend?

    Coach: Ummmm all of them. We practice six days a week.

    Me: I am sorry but Samuel will not be on the team. I am a youth minister and he is looking forward to church camp and I also have three other kids and so this is not possible.

    Coach: (dumbfounded) Are you serious?

    Me: Completely. Thank you for your time.

    He could not believe we did this. I learned a valuable lesson: It’s ok to say “No.” Samuel still smiles, breathes and functions like a normal kid even though we did not let him play all-stars. They won state and played all through June. They got a plaque at the park with their name on it and every time I pass it and think about my son’s name not being on it I smile and praise God for the fun time he got to have with his family.

  • Kelly R says on

    Heb 10: 23-25 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

    Do you see the plural, community references here? us, our, us, one another, together, one another… God made us to need Him and need others. He wants us to meet together. One sheep does not make a flock.

    Interesting…I see a lot of comments about individuals “special” situation. We all have them…large families, bad experiences, work schedules, young kids etc. Do you not think that if it is your desire to gather with brothers and sisters in Christ that He will make a way for you to do just that. It may take time, prayer and adjustments on our part but it can and will happen if that is what you truly want to do.

    Also, contrary to practice of a lot of people, criticism is NOT one of the spiritual gifts. Yes, the Church is not without wrinkle or spot, yet. But let each one examine himself. The Body of Church would be better served if we all looked inward, searched ourselves for any flaw, sin and imperfection and repent.

    Love to all

  • Jackson says on

    Church membership has been devalued. No one understands the importance of meeting with the body regularly. I’m not talking about the church building itself, but the body of Christ (but you can usually find them in building). If you lost your arms, you couldn’t properly function and do everything that your body was created to do. In the same way,
    when people skip out on meeting with the body week after week, our “body” is losing arms, legs, feet, etc. and we can’t function properly. I think there are many reasons people don’t value faithfulness to the body though.

    1. Poor preaching that’s not God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, and gospel-centered, all grounded upon the Word. Without this, why go? I don’t need to hear 5 steps to financial security, I need to hear about my sin and it’s consequences, what Jesus did to redeem me, and how to know and love Him and others as a result.

    2. A lack of discipleship to help believers grow in the relationship with Christ (not talking programs here, but real life on life, walking with Christ together)

    3. Believers being stagnant in their pursuit of Christ: infrequent prayer, rarely spending time in the Word (which leads to a misunderstanding about what it means to follow Jesus, including the need to be committed to the body), and therefore no desire to be with the body regularly.

    It’s not surprising when unhealthy, unbiblical churches struggle to see members be faithful. We have to focus on curing the disease (unhealthy theology and practice in churches) and then the symptoms will go away.

    I suggest Mark Dever’s 9 Marks of a Healthy Church as some good reading material for anyone that is discouraged with this situation.