It is no secret that Americans do not attend church as much as they once did. Whether Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, or Evangelical, attendance patterns overall are down. Just over a year ago, The Pew Research Center published a report titled “Choosing a New Church or House of Worship.” One piece of information gleaned from their survey showed that those who go to church less frequently than they used to overwhelmingly said “logistics” was the biggest reason. The survey indicated that these “logistical” barriers included being too busy, having crazy work schedules, being too lazy, and not caring to attend church as much as they liked doing other things. The research clearly suggests that people today view attending church as optional in a way it was not viewed in the past.
I grew up in the church tradition of attending Sunday School, Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening service, and Wednesday evening prayer service. That is four services a week. Additionally, I remember attending a Bible training hour prior to the Sunday evening service in one church, and in another I attended a Friday evening children’s Bible club. Many people I know who were raised in the same tradition have cut their services attendance in half, and 4/4 Sunday mornings a month is becoming a rarer occurrence, even among the “faithful.”
A few observations.
- Confusing church attendance and disciple making. The church’s mission is not to get people to attend church but to make mature followers of Jesus Christ. Some see attending church services as the equivalent of being a disciple though they have never once shared their faith with an unbeliever, or discipled a believer to maturity. I remember one lady in the church I attended as a teenager who had the longest string of perfect attendance pins for Sunday School (I’m not exaggerating), and was quite proud of it, but had children who had no interest in church at all. I have noticed a number of my contemporaries who grew up in a church environment like mine, and who have scaled back on their church attendance. In some cases, it is a reaction against having to be at church every time the doors were open. But let’s be honest and admit that the problem was not having the church doors open that frequently; the problem was not understanding why they were open.
- Fuzzy definitions of church. This observation goes with the previous one. In surveys like the one conducted by Pew, church is seen as a place you go on Sunday for a religious service. That is not the NT definition of church. The church is a redeemed people, called out of this world to God through faith in Jesus Christ, baptized into union with Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and empowered to fulfill the mission of Jesus to the world. The church is spiritual, but it is also human and visible, gathered in small, medium, large, and extra-large groups around the world in assemblies called local churches. One of the things these local churches do is meet together to worship, and Sunday has been that special day since the 1st century, a day of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. A few years back, Ed Stetzer (researcher, author, church planter, college professor, and missiologist) analyzed research on the church and concluded that the church in America is not dying but is in transition, and noted that “transitioning is not the same as dying” (read his article here). Another church researcher, of a more liberal persuasion, dismissed Stetzer’s conclusion as an excuse and a convenient denial of reality (read that article here). The fact is, Stetzer’s observation was based on a NT concept of the church. He identifies three kinds of Christians in America: cultural Christians (Christian in name only by cultural definition), congregational Christians (who have a loose connection to a church), and convictional Christians (what I would see as NT Christians). Stetzer observes decline in the cultural and congregational categories, but growth in the convictional. That’s what he means by “transitioning,” and why he says the church isn’t dying. Rather (and the Pew study supports this), there is something of a religious revival occurring on the devout end of the church-attendance spectrum. The church is people, not a building, not services, and not programs. The latter three are relevant to the church, but they do not define what a church is. If a church has fewer attenders this year than last, but makes more disciples this year than last year, it is fair to ask the question, is that church dying or is it becoming healthier?
- Multiplication of options. The abundance of church brands and alternatives has certainly contributed to the erosion of faithful church attendance among Christians. Between online church, radio and television preachers, podcasts, and a multitude of parachurch options, the local church is hardly needed. What does the local church offer that can’t be found through any of those sources? The ease with which one can find great sermons, sound Bible studies, uplifting worship music, and prayer groups greatly diminishes one’s sense of need to actually gather faithfully with their church. Even at our church, if you miss a Sunday you can catch the sermon on our YouTube channel. All that to say, it is easier than ever to miss church but not miss it.
- Succumbing to “logistics.” I want to return to this one because it was cited by the survey respondents as the overwhelming reason for their reduced attendance. They were too busy, had crazy work schedules, were too lazy, or just liked doing other things instead of going to church. I’m not going to comment on being too lazy unless the reason is staying out too late the night before. That’s a problem. I’m also not going to comment on crazy work schedules, unless that crazy work schedule is not required by the employer but chosen by the employee. If chosen by the employee, that is a problem. But I am most interested in the “too busy” and the “other things” reasons for missing. From my vantage point, going to church has more competition than I ever remember. It used to be easier to attend church because nothing competed with it. Culturally, Sunday was a “protected” day. But that protected status has been systematically eliminated. Sunday is a free-for-all. Schedules get filled up with work, sports, family, and leisure. Other things more attractive than going to church are readily available. Since salvation doesn’t depend on going to church and sanctification can’t be measured by a mere attendance figure, what’s the big deal to miss? The “logistics” of getting to church are just more complicated these days.
I am not on a campaign to increase church attendance. But I am committed to affirming the value of the church gathered. At the church I pastor, we covenant as members to “sustain” the worship of our church, which means supporting it with our presence. When the writer of Hebrews exhorted his Christian audience not to neglect meeting together (Heb. 10:25), he meant literally together, which is what we call attending church (there is no figurative meaning in the Greek). Don’t neglect it, he says, especially in view of the imminent return of Jesus. Might it be that neglecting this exhortation is symptomatic of being too caught up with this present age? How else could faithfully attending church become a “logistical” challenge? As we move closer to the Lord’s return and all that means in our world, one thing seems clear — we don’t need less church.