Four Key Attitudes That Are Killing Church Attendance

November 19, 2018

There has been much written on declining attendance in churches. Specifically, many of us have addressed the issue of attendance frequency where even “active” church members attend less frequently.

Many pundits have rightly observed the impact of culture on the church, where church is, at best, just another activity. We have also addressed the issue of increasing choices. Many church members and attendees have so many opportunities to do other activities, and they can often afford them like never before. Still others note the increasing numbers of people working on Sunday, precluding them from attending worship services that day. Even more lament the reality that many children’s sports have been moved to Sundays.

These reasons are sound. But behind many of these reasons are attitudinal issues. These attitudinal issues are really the sources of the problem. And there are four attitudes in particular that have a devastating effect on church attendance.

  1. The attitude that church membership is not biblical. One commenter on this blog challenged me: “Show me where church membership is in the Bible.” I asked her to check 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul said clearly, we are members of the body of Christ. He wrote that letter to a local church in a local community. You might argue that many churches have adapted cultural forms of church membership, where it looks more like a country club membership or a civic club membership. Probably so. But don’t take those biblical deviations to be an excuse not to practice biblical church membership.
  2. The attitude that we are part of a church primarily to get our needs met. It is this attitude that causes much division in the church. We demand our own worship style, our preferred order of worship, and the building to be built, painted, and arranged just as we demand. But we are to be functioning members of the body of Christ for the greater good of the body. If you have any lingering doubts, read Philippians 2:1-4. Look at verse 3 in particular: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves.” Take that verse to your next church business meeting.
  3. The attitude that church leaders are not held to a higher standard. I hear it again and again from pastors and church staff. It’s frustrating that many church members have a lackadaisical attitude about church attendance. But it’s exponentially more frustrating when deacons, elders, and other church leaders do not set the example, when they attend infrequently and demonstrate low commitment. Take a few moments to read 1 Timothy 3:1-13 to see clearly that church leaders are indeed held to a higher standard.
  4. The attitude that expectation of faithful church attendance is legalistic. For sure, we can turn any admonition into a legalistic trap. But God gave us the gathered body to encourage and love one another. Look at Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us watch out for one another to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.”

We shouldn’t take breaks from our church family any more than we should take breaks from our own family. We are to serve, to love, to encourage and, simply said, to be there.

Declining church attendance has at its core unbiblical attitudes.

It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.

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73 Comments

  • A couple things to consider.
    First, although the NT does not seem to require church membership in the same form we have it today, as Thom Rainer pointed out there is a scriptural basis for membership with a wide degree of biblical latitude and freedom and requiring people to commit as Rainer emphasizes is quite Biblical.
    Second, membership is not bad just because some churches and people misuse it and abuse it. Some people abuse prayer and misquote the Bible. That does not mean we do away with prayer and Bible. On the contrary we then need to work to correct the abuse.
    Lastly, it is true, we are here to make disciples and not members, but we also must realize the reality of our current system. Neither Jesus, or Paul had to deal with the IRS, bylaw requirements, 501c3 status and a litigious society. Therefore, our formal membership setup will look somewhat different than the NT setup. Yes, in the first century you probably could be killed versus sued as in the USA, thus a different world requires different approaches, within the Biblical framework.

    To me it does not matter if you meet in a home or a huge sanctuary, form does not trump function. In either form we need to live in His grace and pray for revival.

  • Gone, but not Done says on

    Hebrews 10:24,25— The cudgel most used to shame disobedient members into ‘showing up’. I can be meeting with fellow believers, encouraging, admonishing, supporting, giving, caring for them the other 6 days a week, but if I miss a Sunday meeting I’m not considered to be ‘meeting together’? Those Sunday meetings are not structured for me to do any of the above when I ‘meet’. They are structured for me to ‘sing’ a few songs and listen to someone ‘tell me’ something. Frankly, that fails the sniff test of the intent behind Hebrews 10:24,25. Most Sunday mornings fail in their entirety to do anything like the above.

    Sundays are used to have the ‘one’ teach everyone else. Such an approach cripples (and inadvertently excuses) the congregation from any responsibility to take the initiative in the one-anothering of each other. We neither show them how to do it, nor equip them to do it in a hands on fashion. We simply lecture them and tell they ‘should’ do it. Is it any wonder that more and more are seeing the hollowness of what we do? Worse yet, we run the risk of placing a higher value on church attendance than on relationship with the Master. We miss the fact that our words do not align with our practices and somehow wonder why folks no longer marvel at the emperor’s fine clothes.

  • The attitude that Church (Worship/God) is one of many equal parts of my life. Rather than Christ is my life and that impacts everythingelse I do.

  • Christopher says on

    When the focus of the American church for the last 60 years has been making customers, not disciples, it’s no wonder that church members act like fickle customers.

    We lure people into our church by offering them the latest, greatest thing in performance, technology, and culturally relevant content and then we’re surprised when they’re lured away by the next latest, greatest thing.

    We have libraries of books about how to do church, most of which are based on market research, but how many people simply read what the Bible has to say? How many people take seriously the phrase, “God gave the growth.”?

    We have one of the leading pastors in the country telling churches they have to “unhitch” from the Old testament because it makes people uncomfortable. Never mind the fact that Jesus’ entire ministry is based on OT foundations and prophecy. I wonder if Jesus ever thought to Himself, “Hmm…I better stop quoting the Old testament because I’m making people uncomfortable.”? If this is not an example of making customers instead of disciples, I don’t know what is.

  • Thom,

    Thanks so much for this. A key concept that I think we must drive home with our churches is that being a member or a part of the family of God is not like all other commitments – it is in fact our “identity”! Every other commitment should be affected by that one choice.

    I have explained to more than one person that the reason so many of our older folks are so faithful is not because they have nothing else to do (retired people are actually busier), but because they have learned the true value of worship and spiritual dependency on the family of God!

    I think as we “raise the bar” as leaders and teachers, we do that by doing just what you have – just cite the scripture and let God’s word do it’s work! Isaiah 55.

    Thanks again Thom!

  • Some valid critique of attitudes from the side of attendees — how about some from the “other side”? I believe attitudes are learned and transmitted, both from the broader culture and the church culture.

    1. Church leaders who believe that the primary role of the attendee/member is to show up.
    2. Church leaders who believe “the ministry” is primarily a function of what occurs on the platform.
    3. Church leaders who hold message “content” to a few easy-to-hear topical points rather than challenging biblical messages where listeners hear hard truth, conviction and see God’s work in the messenger.

    • David Troublefield, DMin says on

      4. Providing too few corporate opportunities for guided practice till independent practice is established (do much more standing and serving, much less sitting and soaking).

  • Hello my brother…
    Here in Brazil is no different from the USA. The churches have become even more traditional clubs like my (Presbyterian) have been involved in various activisms to please these and those.
    There are many cults in every day at different times of the day.
    It is a fact that people have difficulties for free Sunday, but it is also a fact to open a fan in the churches to embrace everyone, when in reality no one embraces.
    I believe the church has lost focus. It wants to be everything everywhere and this is not possible.
    To please everyone, in what reality this is possible.
    I worked in a church where the “owner of it” said: Do this or that “And at the time of study I was walking through the church parking lot and found at the main gate … Is this a leader?
    Hug to everyone…

  • Actually, it may be true that the church is restricted to the building. Whatever the ekklesia had on the day of Pentecost … then they didn’t even have a building … that caused 3,000 to be saved, is sadly missing today.

    Not only did they not have a building then, they didn’t have a plan or a program, of which we have loads and loads, today. What we don’t have is whatever they had, then. I’m guessing those who deny, or do not experience, the power of the Holy Spirit, have prevailed.

    • Christopher says on

      I agree with your overall point, but the early church definitely had a plan. Their plan was to preach the Gospel of Jesus and make disciples.

      Sadly this is a foreign concept to most American churches today. I listened to an evangelist yesterday who never actually shared the gospel. He talked about himself for the most part, with occasional references to Jesus calming the storm. He closed the service with the typical emotional plea to respond while outlining the “steps” to becoming a Christian. At no point did he say why someone should be a Christian with no mention of heaven or hell or of the death and resurrection of Jesus. A lot of people responded but I’m not sure to what they were responding.

    • David Troublefield, DMin says on

      No sustained Great Commission Resurgence until a true Great Commandment Emergence.

  • I personally have noticed a push from the world for everyone to work on our recognized sabbath day decreasing church attendance. I recently worked for a man who outright was against the church and when I told him I go to church on Sundays, he changed my Sundays from off days to work days, and Saturdays to off days while simultaneously, our minister had many famous ministers attending and preaching great sermons. It happens to the Blue collar man more often these days I believe and as far as I’ve seen, it is the blue collar men and women who need to attend the church as there is a push in that area to stop faith there. Likely because the worker is the backbone of this country. Have you noticed the way things have gone lately? Now I am just an online Minister but I’ve seen this harsh pushback too, times have changed and I believe we must do our due diligence to pursue the people just as Christ does.

  • Stuart Allsop says on

    Thanks you for this, Thom. Excellent article! Very timely for many churches.

    To your 1 Corinthians 12 and Hebrews 10 scriptures, I would suggest adding Acts chapter 2, which certainly illustrates very clearly the commitment to attendance, non-legalism, and “serving, not being served” foundations that the early church laid for us to follow:

    Verse 1 “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place …”
    42 “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer …”
    44 “All the believers were together and had everything in common … ”
    45 “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”
    46 “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts …”

    That clearly and unambiguously underlines your points 1, 2, and 4. Those very first believers, both before and after Pentecost, acted as a single body, totally committed to each other, with “all of them together on one place”, “all of them together with everything in common”, being “devoted” to learning from the leaders, fellowship, and prayer, and to “meeting together… every day”. With part of their corporate purpose being to meet the needs of others, at their own expense.

    In fact, that almost sounds like they considered themselves to be a family…

    To me, that unequivocally illustrates that the early church did, indeed, expect that everyone would be there “every day”, to fellowship together, worship, pray, learn, and meet the needs of others. Not legalistic: just an expectation of how family members treat each other, and stay together.

    You could say that they were members of a body, attended regularly, and placed more importance on meeting the needs of others, than their own needs. They were not “required” to do any of that: it just came naturally, from being members of the family of Christ.

    Acts 2 is about as Biblical as you can get, if you want a clear picture of what the church should be.

    • You are so right, Stuart.

    • Craig Giddens says on

      Acts 2 is also a strictly Jewish church. Peter is calling the nation of Israel to repentance for having crucified their Messiah. Every sermon from Acts 1-7 points out Israel’s rejection of Jesus as their Messiah as God is giving them a chance to repent. Once they kill Stephen then God sets Israel as a nation aside. After Peter brings the gospel to the Gentiles, God raises up Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles and reveals to him the mystery not known before that both Jew and Gentile are now equal in the body of Christ. Jesus reveals to Paul the doctrines and practices for the church. Contrary to popular opinion Acts is not the blueprint for the church. While there are many things we can learn in Acts it is primarily the account of the transition from God dealing solely through the nation of Israel to God dealing now with the body of Christ.

      • Hi Craig, I have a bit different understanding of Acts 1-7. The idea that all of Acts is normative and written for our example is not just popular but quite old, going back to the early church. Paul’s letters intertwined and supported Lukes accounts showing the way the Holy Spirit was working in the Church.

        Jesus ministry is an example of intensive discipleship that should be imitated even though it was exclusive to the Jews. Acts 1-7 is a clear example to all churches and written as such, by a Gentile. The transition to a formal inclusion of the Gentiles is in Acts 10 with the Roman Soldier Cornelius. This story is so central that it is repeated 3 times, Acts 10, 11, and 15.

      • Craig Giddens says on

        It’s okay to look at these passages and draw principles for the church, but the context is Jewish. When Jesus was on the cross He asked the Father to forgive them for what they were doing. God is giving the nation another chance to repent.

        Notice how repeatedly the Jews are held responsible for Jesus death on the cross.

        “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made the same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36)

        “But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses.” (Acts 3:14-15)

        “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.” (Acts 5:30)

        “Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers:” (Acts 7:52)

        Paul never made this accusation to the Gentiles. To Paul was revealed the before hidden mystery that Jew and Gentile were equal in the body of Christ.

      • Oh no! Acts 2 is NOT strictly a Jewish church but all Christian believers in all races!

      • Craig Giddens says on

        There were only Jews and proselytes in Acts 2.

      • DEAN JOHANSEN says on

        1. Once Paul confronted Peter about dividing Jew and Gentile believers according to religious practices; the New Testament church did not condone a division between Jew and Gentile. Did it take some time for that unity to occur? Likely it did given the sin nature of human beings. To separate Jew and Gentile in the early church totally destroys the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died for the sins of the whole world. Do not separate what Christ has united.

      • Daniel Woolsey says on

        Thanks Craig, for shining some light into the discussion.

        Eph3:9
        And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been HID in God,
        who created all things by Jesus Christ:

  • There is a fundamental disconnect between the modern church and the New Testament plan for it.
    Cessationism (we need the power of the Holy Spirit more than ever) and lack of mission (“Go!”) being prime core issues.
    The resultant apathy (pastors and parishioners) and ensuing absence (pastors are still present sometimes, but “at lunch” A LOT) are to be expected.
    Personally, my wife and I, after 25 years in the institutional church, and HD participation, have moved on to more effective means of fulfilling God’s plans:
    -House church
    -Healing Rooms volunteers
    -Independent evangelistic ministry incl trips to Africa
    -Peer witnessing
    -Most importantly: more time in daily scripture and prayer than ever.

    My motto: THE CHURCH HAS LEFT THE BUILDING!

    • Many are still fighting the good fight pouring their hearts and lives into their home church. I so glad the ministry god graciously give you is doing well and as I pray more will follow this path, I would strongly disagree the church has left the building. People often come to the building as a first step of healing and salvation , but not discounting the great importance of home churches. I certainly agree we all need to start looking and acting and going to spread the gospel to the nations but our Jerusalem is just as real and doesn’t nor should it look the same everywhere.
      From a servant deacon
      Blessings to you!

    • Hey Peter, What is HD participation? Thanks

    • Robert Roy says on

      Fantastic ! the Holy Spirit moved you to action, I was dissatisfied with Church’s were I went bc it was eithe Pastor dominate ( like ownership) or Socialising based ( basket ball, Christen Rock, etc , feiiowships watered down messages…Home Church is it, your list is fantastic, excuse me for yelling fantastic so mush ( yes ,yelling) but I run across it so seldom. I’m seeking like minded Belivers that subscribe to your list, I left the last church bc they handed out teaching jobs to very new believers in one case to a lost man, couldn’t stand it, new believers have no experience in/ with Yeshua to teach. Popularity should not enter in choices, what happened to praying , letting the Holy Spirit choose them ?

    • I completely agree. After 18 years in vocational ministry, it’s clear to me that the brand of “church” attendance as regular participation in the activities of a 501c3 religious organization aren’t the same as the function of the body of Christ described in the New Testament. Perhaps attendance is declining because of assumptions like this article makes, instead of asking the hard questions, such as what are we really called to as believers living in community? Few “one another’s” can be fully lived out in the context of church “attendance”. This article aims at the wrong goal and wonders why we aren’t seeing good results.

  • Jerry Watts says on

    Thom,
    It is interesting that you have posted this today. I am a DOM (after pastoring for 25 years) and was preaching in one of our churches and made the point that too often we see ‘church’ as move of a Country Club or Civic Club membership, expecting the focus to be on ‘meeting the need (translation = wants)’ of the members.
    While this article is on point, it is also sad. While any generalization can be pushed too far, these 4 are possibly the tip of the iceberg.
    My daily prayer is “Lord, send a revival, we need it desperately.

    • I’ve been walking with Jesus since June 0f 1969 when as a 10 year old I came to faith in Christ at a Billy Graham crusade in NYC. . You are right on with those 4 attitudes but I can name at least two more. Another reason for declining attendance by members is the little to no emphasis on regularly members giving testimonials of the power of God transforming their lives, restoring relationships and redirecting lives. The unsaved attending also need to hear these testimonials of how and what CAN and WILL do. It’s one thing to hear and/or read how Jesus and the disciples healed people in their day. But when it’s Buba who got that job, or a wayward teen that returns home, or an addiction that gets broken… because God showed up….or a lost sinner repents and believes the gospel who’s announcing that!!! . which leads to the second attitude the one that says intercessory prayer meetings are a thing of the past. We have not because we ask not. I’ve seen all these attitudes turn in a congregation and the results followed when a few in a congregation sought the Lord in one accord and purpose and answered the door that Jesus had been knocking on. They were the “ANYONEs” Jesus called out too in Rev. 3:20 and today . He says “I will come in and have a wonderful reviving relationship” with them.
      God bless.

    • Dr. Larry T. Atkins

      Some where, we are missing out in our discipleship. I even fear that we have many in our country club like churches who have never experienced conversion. They then cannot be discipled. True spiritual revival among the truly converted is a must to see the change needed in American churches, especially evangelical and Southern Baptist. I remember Miss Bertha Smith crying out for this in the seventies until her death in her 100th year. Also, Manley Beasley and Ron Dunn and many others including Dr. Stephen Olford and Dr. Adrian Rogers. We need revival! Your four statements are really true. Most are looking for what they get out of church than what they can give.

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