3-Week Series: Double Blessing

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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.”

The Shift

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.

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Stephen Belokur

commented on Oct 14, 2014

Hello Karl. I did my best to embrace and thoughtfully reflect on what you wrote but some things just poked me in the heart like a sharp stick such as, "What we do after we leave church matters more to God than how we behave when we?re there." Do we not gather on Sundays to lift up holy hands before the Lord in true worship and reverence? To have Him search our hearts and to grow in the wisdom and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? Aren't we to come together to encourage one another? There is just something about the giving of oneself in corporate worship that is transcendent. And then, the idea that people can, "leverage their time in church for the blessing and benefit of others" mystifies me. Won't good works for others will be a natural outflow of a heart that is saturated with the presence of God? I am sorry; I do not intend to be critical and if I am unable to grasp what you intended to say I apologize. May the Lord bless you with grace and peace.

Karl Vaters

commented on Oct 14, 2014

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Stephen. My intention was not to say that corporate worship is unimportant, but the opposite. Too many churches think that if people show up, putting our Sunday faces on for each other, that's enough. It's not. Perhaps I could have expressed that more clearly. I agree with you that church matters. But a lot of churches haven't made it clear as to why it matters. "Being saturated with the presence of God", as you wrote, is clearly an essential aspect of that. But if all we do is worship, then leave and never impact others outside the church walls as a result of being in God's presence, we've only done half of the Great Commandment. It's not automatic for people to bless others as a natural result of corporate worship, even though it should be. We love God in worship, but we have to leverage that experience to empower us to love others after we leave. Church attendance is not the goal. Loving God and loving others is. I hope this clarifies things for you.

John Balon

commented on Oct 15, 2014

uGood comments. I believe testimonies can serve as a catalytic in this process of living the greatest commandment. Actually, this Sunday we will be talking about passion for Jesus and different individuals are going to share how od is moving in their lives. One lady goes to or local hospital weekly to encourage and pray for the sick. A young man in his twenties visits the juvenile detention center in town. He also headed up an outreach in the cities skater park this summer and just started a bible study in the factory where he works. another lady leads a service for special needs folks in our area. These testimonies are to show the goodness and power of God working in us and through us. These acts of service make the gospel come alive and reveal that were ready now to love and serve.

Daphne Solomon

commented on Oct 15, 2014

Hello Karl I like the way you clarified your response to church worship and going out to make a difference in the life of others. thankful for your insight on " Ways to Connect with a New Generation. I will use the guide lines you have so graciously out line for allowing people to be participants in fulfilling their spiritual hunger.

James Wayne Playter

commented on Oct 15, 2014

Thanks for the article, and thanks Stephen for your articulate comments. I've often said that people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. So often, we make the church service the centerpiece of our ministry. No wonder it doesn't grow as it did in years past. In reality, worship is a by-produce of God's involvement in our lives. It's after we have encountered God and he's has done something that matters in our lives that we then worship Him. So, I believe the approach that will enable the church to grow numerically, is that of showing how much we care, so that they will then care how much we know. That's why mercy ministries are so effective. They say to the consumer; "we understand you don't care what we think, until we demonstrate that we care for you as a person". Our church, while in a small rural village, has shown continued growth numerically (don't ask me for the attendance figures, because I don't know, and rarely pay any attention to them) because we have invested in care ministries like a day-care, food pantry, support groups, and community projects. This past week we paid for and installed a roof on the house of one of our own. We hope to place a sign in the yard that says "roof lovingly paid for and installed by a church that cares for people's real needs". (Acts 2:45) It's a risk, because what if someone else calls and says "you put a roof on so-and-so's house, and I need a roof too." But, we trust that God will provide the resources so that we can do whatever He calls us to do. We do however have a killer Worship Service where we take the time to encourage one another, as well as tell God how much we love Him.

Enid Rangel

commented on Oct 16, 2014

I think pastors are interested in numbers because those are the people that are going to heaven. If more people are interested in God the probabilities that they go to heaven are greater. Yes I know that there are egos that only think in numbers because it reflects their successful in stewardship, but God's only interest is the people. I think that the dropping numbers from church attendance is a sign that we are on the End Times. We are behaving as the jews were behaving when they were taken out from their land and were taking as slaves in babylon. Idols were found inside the Great Temple of Salomon because they were so spirituals that they added more gods to their life. My last comment is that you said that people want to learn and interact, well I say that's why there is a sunday school, but I also say that people want magical things and magical resolutions to their problems instead to read, learn and obey what is God'swill. Thanks.

Olawepo Adeniji

commented on Oct 17, 2014

Thank you for this balanced post. God, I believe takes attendance, the story of the feeding of the four thousands; that of the five thousands and even the story of the Pentecost day converts are good examples. It is however very important, as Karl is trying to pass across that God is also interested in the individual as in the case of the woman with issue of blood, the blind Bartemues and the like. So I believe strongly that while pastors try to brag about numbers, they also have great responsibility of caring for each of the number as an individual. Be big enough to reach the least; to whom much is given much is required.

Patrice Marker-Zahler

commented on May 5, 2015

Karl, your comments are right on. When I was a family life pastor, the teenagers wanted to be involved, talk things out during the lesson and be involved. They zone out on their phones when they are preached at for a more then five minutes. The women I have in my Bible study, I am the youngest at 55, stare at me like deer in the headlights when I ask them to respond to a question or for their opinion. They want to be fed; they have not been taught how to fed themselves, get involved and find the answer for themselves instead of having a pastor tell them what to think. Electronics in meetings are changing things, for the better.

Harold Goff

commented on May 5, 2015

Hebrews 10:23-25 (HCSB) I wonder if they are building a God that they want to follow instead of the Jesus of the Bible?????

Peter Tang

commented on May 13, 2015

Your article is a great reminder for Pastors and Church Leaders not to take church and worship service for granted. In wanting to be relevant (geared to the times), the church must always be anchored to the Rock of all ages. Lots and lots have been written and preached about churches being relevant and meeting the needs of the present generation of congregations with rising expectations to be fed. Sadly, there is very little said and written about how congregation should be responsible to complement and complete their spiritual experience in church and at worship services. "What's in it for me" seems to be common grouses in churches today. No wonder they miss God speaking to them throughout the worship service and after!

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