By Carey Nieuwhof on Jul 14, 2016
It comes up in a surprising number of conversations these days. And no one’s quite sure how to respond to it. The issue? Even committed church attenders are attending church less often.
It comes up in a surprising number of conversations these days. And no one’s quite sure how to respond to it.
The issue? Even committed church attenders are attending church less often.
Sure, the trend has been happening for years (gone are the days when people attended 50 out of 52 Sundays), but the issue is reaching a tipping point in the church today.
I first wrote about this two years ago in a post called 7 Ways to Respond as People Attend Church Less Often. In the last 24 months, the conversation has come up far more often and, to many leaders, feels much more urgent.
This isn’t a post about why people have left the church (that’s a different subject.) This is the first in a series of posts about church attenders who love God, appreciate the local church and are even involved in the local church, but who simply attend less often.
This post is the first part of a 5 part series on why people are attending church less often:
If you want to access the podcast interviews easily on your phone or other device, the best way is to subscribe to my leadership podcast for free on iTunes or Stitcher.
So why all this attention?
This trend isn’t going away…in fact (as the podcasts will show) it’s accelerating,
It impacts almost every church regardless of size, denomination or even location.
It probably marks a seismic shift in how the church will do ministry in the future.
Of course, church attendance is never the goal. But attendance a sign of something deeper that every church leader is going to have to wrestle with over the next few years.
The first key to addressing what’s happening is to understand what’s happening.
So…why are even committed attenders attending less often? There are at least 10 reasons.
1. Greater affluence
Money gives people options.
If your church is at all engaging the middle class, the upper middle class, or a suburban demographic, an interesting trend is developing. The middle class is shrinking, but as this New York Times report shows, it’s shrinking (in part) because more of the middle class is becoming upperclass. Both US and Canadian personal disposable incomes are at all time highs.
There are simply more affluent people than there were decades ago, which may in part explain why so many “average’ people indulge their obsessions with granite counter tops, designer homes and decent cars, even without being mega-wealthy.
Naturally, this leaves a huge theological void about ministry to and with the poor, but it helps explain what’s actually happening in the suburbs and increasingly with the re-urbanization of many cities as the affluent move back downtown. Please…I’m not arguing things should be this way. I’m simply showing that this seems to be what’s happening.
And again…people with money have options. Technology options. Travel options. Options for their kids. And, arguably, that affluence may be one of the factors moving them further away from a committed engagement to the mission of the local church. It’s perhaps fuelling some of the reasons outlined below.
2. Higher focus on kids’ activities
A growing number of kids are playing sports. And a growing number of kids are playing on teams that require travel.
Many of those sports happen on weekends. And affluent parents are choosing sports over church.
It’s as simple as that.
3. More travel
Despite a wobbly economy, travel is on the rise, both for business and pleasure.
More and more families of various ages travel for leisure, even if it’s just out of town to go camping or to a friend’s place for the weekend or a weekend at the lake.
And when people are out of town, they tend to not be in church.
4. Blended and single parent families
Fortunately, more and more blended families and single parent families are finding a home in church.
So how does this translate into attendance patterns?
Church leaders need to remember that when custody is shared in a family situation, ‘perfect’ attendance for a kid or teen might be 26 Sundays a year.
Similarly, while the affluent might not be in church because of access to reliable transportation, single parents (who, not always, but often, struggle more financially) might not be in church because they lack access to reliable transportation.
So here’s the strange twist. People who have a car are often not in churchbecause they have a car. People who want to be in church are often not in church because they don’t have a car or because it’s not their ‘weekend’ for church.
Sadly, people who want to get to church simply can’t.
By the way, I lead a church that virtually requires a vehicle to get there. I love how we often see people with reliable transportation helping out those who don’t have a vehicle. That’s at least a partial remedy to this problem.
5. Online Options
Many churches have created a social media presence and many podcast their messages like we do at Connexus. Churches are also launching online campuses that bring the entire service to you on your phone, tablet or TV.
There are pros and cons to online church (I outline 7 here) and there’s no doubt that churches with a strong online presence have seen it impact physical attendance.
But whether or not your church has online options doesn’t make the issue go away. Anyone who attends your church has free access to any online ministry of any church.
Online church is here to stay, whether you participate or not.
6. The cultural disappearance of guilt
When I grew up, I felt guilty about not being in church on a Sunday.
The number of people who feel guilty about not being in church on Sunday shrinks daily.
I regularly meet people all the time who haven’t been in months but LOVE our church.
If you’re relying on guilt as a motivator, you need a new strategy. (Well, honestly, you’ve always needed a new strategy…)
7. Self-directed spirituality
People are looking less to churches and leaders to help them grow spiritually, and more to other options.
We live in a era in which no parent makes a visit to a doctor’s office without having first googled the symptoms of a child’s illness and a recommended course of treatment. Just ask any family physician. It drives them nuts. (Google, doctors will tell you, is not a complete replacement for medical school.)
Similarly, when was the last time you bought a car without completely researching it online?
In an age where we have access to everything, more and more people are self-directing their spirituality…for better or for worse.
Similarly, another characteristics of the post-modern mind is a declining trust of and reliance on institutions.
The church in many people’s minds is seen as an institution.
I don’t actually believe that’s what a church is. I think it’s a movement…not an institution. But many churches behave like an institution, and the post-modern mind instinctively moves away from it as a result.
8. Failure to see a direct benefit
People always make time for the things they value most. If they’re not making time for church, that tells you something.
Even among people who say their love the church and who say they love your church, if declining attendance is an issue, chances are it’s because they don’t see a direct benefit. They don’t see the value in being there week after week.
That could be because there isn’t much value (gut check). Or it could be because there is value that they simply don’t see.
Either way, failure to see a direct benefit always results in declining engagement.
So what are you doing or not doing that leaves people feeling like there’s not that much value?
9. Valuing attendance over engagement
I’ll talk about this more in the podcast interviews and in the next posts, but when someone merely attends church, the likelihood of showing up regularly or even engaging their faith decreases over time.
At our church, I find our most engaged people—people who serve, give, invite and who are in a community group—are our most frequent attenders.
More and more as a leader, I value engagement over attendance.
Ironically, if you value attendance over engagement, you will see declining attendance.
10. A massive culture shift
All of these trends witness to something deeper. Our culture is shifting. Seismically.
Church leaders who fail to recognize this will not be able to change rapidly enough to respond to the shifts that are happening.
If you want more on how the culture is shifting, I outlined 15 Characteristics of Unchurched People Today here and outlined 12 Cultural Trends Church Leaders Can’t Ignore (But Might) in this post.
Change is unkind to the unprepared, so prepare.
That’s why I’m so passionate about this upcoming series of blog posts and podcasts.
Will Mancini and David Kinnaman With More
If you want more context for the attendance changes we’re experiencing in the church and culture today, listen in on the two podcast episodes below.
Want more? Get a fresh leadership podcast episode delivered to your devices every week by subscribing for free.
What Would You Add?
These are 10 reasons I see for even the committed church attender attending less often.
What do you see?
Really looking forward to the dialogue on this subject over the next two weeks.
Before you leave a comment, remember, we’re talking about why people who love the church aren’t attending as much.
This isn’t the best place to go on a rant about everything that’s wrong with the church. I’ll have other posts about that, and remember, I love the church and am committed to us fulfilling our mission better than ever, even if that means radical change…which it likely does.
So what are you seeing in your church? Leave a comment!
Related Preaching Articles
By Mike Breen on Oct 3, 2013
It's tempting. It's alluring. And it's the best way to kill your church.
By Michael Catt on Jun 1, 2012
Michael Catt: "We endanger the call, art, and gift of preaching when we make it about style instead of substance."
By Rick Ezell on Apr 21, 2011
Use these methods to practically reach people suffering from real hurts, problems, doubts, fears, and anxieties gnawing at their faith.
By Josh Reich on Dec 13, 2017
"The number one complaint I hear from people is, “I don’t have time. I don’t have time for hobbies, sleep, my marriage, relationships, kids, reading my Bible.” You do, you just gave that time away. You give your time to the things that matter most."