Doing church together is an essential aspect of what it means to be a Christian. But church attendance rates keep dropping in most of the developed world. Why?
I often hear it’s because people aren’t as spiritually minded as they used to be. After all, if it’s not their fault, then some of it might be our fault. And that can’t be.
But the evidence doesn’t support that. In fact, it suggests that people’s spiritual hunger may be growing, not shrinking. Spiritually-themed books, movies, TV shows and blogs are having a major resurgence. Alternative spirituality is booming.
Spiritual hunger isn’t a cultural thing. That God-shaped hole is hard-wired into every one of us.
Church attendance isn’t down because people have stopped caring about spiritual things. It’s because we haven’t done such a great job at showing them how church attendance will help them answer that longing.
As the character, Amy Farrah Fowler, said on The Big Bang Theory, “I don’t object to the concept of a deity, but I am baffled by the notion of one who takes attendance.” No, we don’t take our lead from fictional characters on TV sitcoms. But is the person who wrote that line trying to tell us something?
Disconnect and Distrust
There’s not just a growing disconnect between spiritual hunger and church attendance; there’s a growing distrust in church leaders who pay too much attention to it.
To the average pastor, counting and promoting attendance numbers seems like good stewardship. To the average non-clergy, it feels more like ego. This is especially true among younger people—both Christian and not.
And they’re right.
No one cares about helping us reach our attendance goals. In fact, the more they hear about them, the less they trust that we have their best interests in mind.
As I wrote in The Grasshopper Myth and I tell my congregation regularly, God doesn’t take attendance. What we do after we leave church matters more to God than how we behave when we’re there—or how many people we jammed into the room at one time.
But we’re so ego-driven when it comes to church attendance, it’s become a running gag among ministers about how we count people. Thom Rainer even wrote a recent post about this, entitled "Five Ways to Avoid Lying About Church Attendance." Yes, we need a list to help us stop doing that.
As Rainer wrote, “Sometimes church leaders lie about the weekly church attendance. Sometimes the lies are the result of an inflated ego where a leader gets his self-worth by leading a bigger church. Sometimes it’s the result of the sin of comparison with other leaders and other churches. Sometimes we rationalize it because our denominations or publications make such a big deal about it. In all cases, it’s wrong. Inflating attendance numbers is committing the sin of lying.”
We used to be a society of clubs and groups. Fraternities, sororities, community service clubs, political parties, you name it. We loved meetings and the structure those meetings provided.
Not any more.
A recent article in FaithandLeadership.com titled RIP Average Attendance tells us about this change: “Average worship attendance was once such an important number. ... Today that number means much less ... The growing lack of dependability on attendance is a sign that the virtuous cycles that have sustained congregations since the end of World War II are collapsing.”
We no longer identify ourselves by clubs, groups or denominations. And we don’t like going to meetings, either.
More and more, people don’t think they count when the crowd is being counted. Every number may be a person, but people don’t want to be numbers. It makes them feel devalued and manipulated. More like a commodity than a person.
Coffee shops and restaurants are going back to calling people by name instead of saying “take a number.” Sure, the Starbucks barista may write your name wrong half the time, but even a wrong name is better than a number.
But the church keeps taking attendance. And telling pastors that increasing the number of those nameless, faceless people is the best proof that we’re doing our job well.
No one else is buying it.
Most people who leave the church aren’t leaving God. Many of them are leaving the way we do church to try and find God.
Doing Matters More Than Attending
So what can we do to inspire people to a greater spiritual commitment? Here are some starter ideas:
1. Give people the chance to make a difference.
If you think people today won’t commit to anything, check out a Breast Cancer Awareness March. The Susan G. Komen Foundation has helped people see a direct link between wearing pink while walking up to 60 miles together and funding breast cancer research. People want to make a difference, and the Komen Foundation has shown them how they can.
The church has a lot to learn from that. We haven’t done a good job at showing attenders why their presence matters. How it fills their spiritual hunger. And how they can leverage their time in church for the blessing and benefit of others.
2. Make the communication two-way as often as possible.
People want to be active participants, not just passive consumers. They want to talk with, not just be talked to. Even if it’s just the chance to tweet about the sermon. They want to know that their voice matters.
3. Tell stories more than statistics.
Let’s change from “we count people because people count” to “we tell stories because people matter.” For more on what that means and how to do it, check out Donald Miller’s blog. No one addresses this issue better than he does.
4. Make the connection for them.
People no longer see the connection between paying for a pastor’s salary or a church mortgage, and how that feeds the hungry or answers their spiritual longing. So we need to make that connection for them. If we can’t, maybe we should stop doing it.
The desire to make the shift from passive consumer to active participant is a good thing. Maybe not for a lot of our church mortgages or retirement plans. But for the church as a whole.
People don’t just want to sit and listen anymore. They want to learn, grow and take part. Let’s help them find what they’re looking for.