The Millennials have left the building.
Countless kids who grew up in children’s and youth ministries, who memorized scripture at Vacation Bible School, who spent summers in church camps, who worshipped in age-segregated “children’s” and “teen” churches, who served as youth mentors, participated in mission trips around the world and enjoyed the finest youth ministry resources, events, concerts and experiences in the history of the Church…no longer attend church services.
In general, they’ve been tagged the “nones.”
When it comes to church affiliation, they mark themselves “none.” They don’t attend church. They don’t appreciate church. They don’t think it’s necessary to their spirituality or Christianity. Many profess atheism or agnosticism. They want “none” of it.
Even Gen X is quitting.
Known as the “dones” this cohort of American Christians are tired of the games, the “show,” and the politics of “churchianity.” They endured the worship wars between the Boomers and their G.I. elders in the 1980s. They suffered through the “mega-fication” of the Church, particularly in evangelical strains. They watched the quaint church of their youth evolve into malls, performance halls, schools and corporate offices. They’re now in their 40s and 50s and growing tired, cynical and cranky.
It’s why most American churches are graying fast.
The Baby Boomers are the only ones left.
I recently enjoyed two insightful conversations with formerly churched individuals.
- Bryan (not his real name) is a twenty-something Millennial who grew up as a pastor’s kid. He attended church every Sunday with high participation in the events, programs and studies his church offered. He volunteered to lead worship, counsel and mentor. He went to Bible college but eventually dropped out. He stopped attending church recently, mostly due to work conflicts on Sundays.
- Jerry (not his real name) is a fifty-something Gen X pastor who rarely missed a day of church until five years ago. He’s got a degree in theology, served as a small group leader, youth minister, lay counselor and elder. He and his wife moved to town a few years ago. They found a church, but not “community.” Now they stay home and “live stream” services and fellowship in a small group Bible study.
Both men are committed to Christianity. They believe deeply in Jesus, but have grown cynical of what they experience at church.
I asked them both “Why don’t you personally attend church anymore?”
“It’s not engaging.”
Despite all the bells and whistles, lights and fog machines, video and sound cues, both Bryan and Jerry found their church experiences dry and “ho hum.” Bryan says most Christian music bores him, even though he played in a worship band. Jerry was more complimentary. He likes the contemporary worship and preaching, but has tired of fighting traffic to just “sit there” for an hour.
Both Bryan and Jerry say church isn’t worth their time. In fact, it’s often a waste of time.
Now before we judge that harsh view of church, let’s be brutally honest. We raised our Millennial kids in an “entertainment” church model. We suckled them on “Veggie Tales” and weaned them on Crowder and Tomlin worship sets. We incentivized their spiritual practices with “Bible Bucks,” candy, toys and money. We reduced discipleship to entertaining curriculum, youth pastor “talks,” large events, youth lock-ins and retreats, and annual teen conferences.
So it’s no wonder they’re walking away. The church will never compete with Hollywood (nor should it try). We taught Millennial Christians to conform (to the rules) and perform (to our expectations) but not to be transformed by Jesus Christ. And, frankly, if we’re honest most of our churches today are just doing “youth ministry for adults” and that’s the problem. That model failed to attract young disciples yesterday and it’s failing to retain adult disciples today.
“I don’t need it.”
Which produces the second general reason Millennials and Gen Xers are done with church attendance: it’s not necessary to their Christianity.
I asked Millennial Bryan where he goes to be nurtured and discipled in his faith and his answer was sobering: a small community of Christian friends, podcasts and the Internet. Gen X Jerry expressed a similar sentiment: “I can get the same experience in my pajamas at home on Sunday morning as I do in physically attending a church service.”
Again, this brutal critique has some truth to it. The modern Church, driven by Enlightenment values in reasoning and Industrial Age principles in business and operations, essentially created a conveyer belt religion that focuses on producing numbers (attendance, offerings) and things (programs, staff, facilities) rather than discipling persons. We see it in the vocabulary of the “modern” Christian: “I went to church last week” or “I’m attending church tomorrow.” Modern Christianity was about place and time, but in a post-Christian and post-modern world that’s 24/7/365 both space and time are irrelevant. We can learn without a physical school and the dying modern church is discovering that postmodern Christians don’t need a “place or time” to spiritually grow.
“They don’t miss me.”
Ironically, both Bryan and Jerry echoed this same refrain: after several weeks of absence their churches showed no concern.
Millennial Bryan views this as hypocrisy. He says his church was always preaching “community” and “friendships” but as soon as he stepped down from his leadership role (to ease some burnout) and missed a few weeks, he realized no one really cared about him. Gen X Jerry said the same thing. He still goes to church occasionally (“out of guilt,” he confides) but no one acts like he’s been gone. “It’s just easier to stay home and mail in the check,” he adds, “besides I find my ‘community’ in my small group and that’s good enough for me.”
The dirty secret reality of many churches today is the average church-goer moves on within a few years and many leave within months. People join a new church hoping to find friends but end up disenchanted.
Ironically, when I asked both Bryan and Jerry what it would take for them to return to active church attendance, they both quickly answered: a friend. I want to hang with people who have similar values, said Millennial Bryan. Essentially, they’re not going to church for the worship (though inspiring) or the preaching (though instructive). What they want is connection, cooperation, companionship, collaboration and community. They hunger for a spiritual experience with friends and most churches don’t offer (at least easily) these opportunities.
“When was the last time you went to church and made a new friend?” Gen X Jerry asked.
Friendships and authentic community is what’s missing.
It’s definitely what the first century church enjoyed:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
It’s the type of church Bryan and Jerry long to experience.
Come to think of it, it’s the type of church I want to attend too.
Houston has a problem. So does Phoenix, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis and other cities.
But it ain’t just in the big towns. Small town and rural USAmerica are experiencing the crunch too. It’s a problem so big that Thom Rainer, a notable church researcher rightly observed:
“About 20 years ago, a church member was considered active in the church if he or she attended three times a week. Today, a church member is considered active in the church if he or she attends three times a month.”
In his apologetic, Rainer cites five reasons for this shift:
- The local church has been minimized.
- Americans idolize their activities.
- We take vacations from church.
- Members aren’t held to high expectations.
- Churches make infrequent attendees leaders.
While I appreciate Rainer’s astute analysis, I do think the real reasons are much deeper, even different. Yes, times have changed. There’s no question the local church has lost influence and pull. For most of two millennia the church was the center of a local culture. That’s why steeples and bells were needed. Churches doubled as schools, community centers, voting places and other social spaces. Many pop historians think the television did more to erode the influence of the local church than anything else. Television became the new conduit for Faith thanks to guys like Billy Graham, Robert Schuller, Jimmy Swaggart and other televangelists.
And don’t forget a Millennial generation that dined on Veggie Tales.
Do USAmericans idolize their activities over church? Take vacations from church? No doubt. But WHY do they find other social gatherings, events and pastimes more inviting? Why do people avoid going to church when they’re on vacation?
I have lived both sides of the ecclesiastical fence. I’ve been both a pastor and pew-warmer.
I grew up in a small church (attending easily 3 times a week) during the ’60s and ’70s. I loved the community, security and the opportunity my home church provided. Monthly fellowship dinners. Sunday and Wednesday night church. All night prayer vigils. All day service projects. Two-week revivals and VBS. In my church we had but one paid position: the preacher. Everyone else were volunteers, including janitorial and secretarial. Every child learned ministry as soon as they could help. I washed communion cups as a preschooler, served offering and communion as a child, led worship for Sunday church as a junior higher, preached and took communion to shut ins as an older teen.
In my church we didn’t have a youth minister. We made ministers of our youth.
But something happened during the 1980s and 1990s. Church went from being a place of mission to a Sunday morning “show.” Even worship pastors think it’s a concert, asking–sometimes forcing–people to “stand” to worship (as if that’s the most “spiritual” posture). Preachers have turned incredibly territorial. Back in my youth I remember elders preaching and lots of guest preachers (missionaries particularly). Today, church has become what one of my grad students labeled just a “Ted Talk and a concert.” In my Christian Church tribe, weekly communion has become a drive-by event. Anybody remember the pastoral prayer? In the church of my youth, I recall several minutes reserved to pray for the needs in the body. I remember elders praying for communion, deacons praying for offerings and even moments of silent prayer. Not anymore. Some churches barely have a prayer…literally.
For many it’s practically not worth the time to get dressed for church anymore. Unless church is on the way to some other Sunday activity, it’s just as easy to catch a few more winks and watch the live-stream service in pajamas.
I’ve been blessed to experience hundreds of different churches, from home-based to megachurch, from rural to urban, and nearly every denominational flavor you can imagine. I’ve enjoyed church in every state except New Mexico and Hawaii (with hopes to knock that latter one off in 2017) and on three continents from South Africa to Tanzania to Moldova to Mexico to Canada. I’ve talked to countless people about why they no longer regularly attend church and the reasons generally fall into a few main themes related to community issues, pastoral leadership or church vision.
1. WE CAN BAIT’EM BUT WE CAN’T BAG’EM! Most churches are great at “welcoming visitors” but have no clue for how to engage and assimilate guests into the mission and ministry of a local church. Visitors feel welcomed but many returning guests grow confused. People don’t need another coffee mug, but they would love a friend. When guests enjoy the “show” (worship and preaching) but feel no connection or community, they quickly convert to spectators. And if you’re not feeling up for the “show,” you stay away.
2. THE WORSHIP IDOL! Most people, even guys, will sing and worship if it’s real and moving, but let’s be honest: the whole “show” thing is troubling and many Christians–including very devoted ones–refuse to partake. I attended a church for a couple years that purposely hired “worship artists” to lead their Sunday gatherings. So it was no mistake that church turned into a concert with light shows, high-tech visuals and even fog machines. Some churches now pass out earplugs for sensitive ears. But look around and you’ll see very few are singing.
3. THINK “CHEERS!” We all want to go where “everyone knows my name.” That’s why bars are packed on Saturday nights and churches are emptier on Sunday morning. When was the last time you went to church expecting to meet a new friend or improve a relationship? Simply put, all churches need to create space and time in the worship experience for community. I’m not talking that “meat and greet” thing to waste a few minutes so the musicians can fix/tune/change instruments. I mean, REAL time (up to 10 minutes) where people can connect, reflect, share, pray and discover friendships.
4. BORE NO MORE! Preachers need to realize in a YouTube, Ted Talk and Twitter culture that less is more and that’s why more are staying away. The 30 minute sermon was a very productive tool in yesterday’s church but today’s postmodern prefers preachers to set the table and let them TALK about it. “I don’t need some guy on a stage to tell me how to live,” one Millennial opined, “I only need that guy to help me understand God’s Word and let me talk it out with a friend.” Preachers could easily do that under 15 minutes and I show you how in my book Sermons Reimagined.
5. A TRUE RESTORATION MOVEMENT! I’ll confess my choice of churches is limited (at least for regular attendance). I can put up with a lot of ecclesiastical stuff–including some poor theology, occasional bad preaching, church cliques and other shenanigans–but I have one requirement of the church where I choose to attend regularly: weekly Lord’s Supper. It’s more than a tradition for me. It’s where I connect with Christ in my life. I look forward to the Lord’s Supper more than singing praises, more than the sermon, more than the coffee and day-old donuts in the lobby. I love this ancient biblical tradition. Another one is baptism. What a beautiful picture of community, grace and new life! So I’m calling all churches to re-emphasize the biblical sacraments of baptism and weekly communion.
Ultimately, the Church will reorientate, reimagine and, hopefully, restore itself.
It has too.
In today’s 21C culture, one of the few truly radical “alternative lifestyles” left is a conservative, Bible-believing, Scripture-quoting, amen-shouting, hymn-singing Christian.
The Grinch desperately tried to steal Christmas in 1994, 2005 and 2011, but 2016 might be the year he finally gets the deed done.
After all, Christmas falls on a Sunday this year. And it’s proving controversial. Some have already called on pastors not to cancel Sunday services. The reasons are good, but it may be too late.
For centuries in Christendom, a Christmas Sunday was particularly blessed. The “Christ Mass” and Sunday (selected because it honored Jesus’ resurrection) were highly honored days within Christian culture. After all, it was widely believed Jesus was conceived and died on the same day. And since the ancient Jewish calendar placed Christ’s death as March 25, then nine months after this day (December 25) was the date for the Messiah’s birth. Consequently, when his birthday and his Resurrection (Sun)day landed together, it was something truly special.
Nobody missed mass on a Christmas Sunday.
But that was then and this is now.
In 2016, the tipping point for the decline in American churchianity will be very evident, I fear. Although I hope I’m wrong, my guess is Christmas Sunday morning services will prove to be among the lowest attended all year. Many churches have already shuttered services. Still other congregations are scaling back or reducing services to accommodate lower attendances.
The good news? What still draws USAmericans are Christmas Eve services…where I’m definitely predicting larger than normal crowds. Most of America’s 223 million Christians traditionally gather to remember the Christ child’s birth on Christmas Eve, but it remains to be seen if they’ll return hours later for a second service. Many church watchdogs feel it’s unlikely and suspect the sanctuary will be eerily emptier on Sunday morning, December 25, 2016.
Let’s face facts: Sunday morning is hardly sacred anymore. It’s just another day for Americans to play, shop, dine, sleep and work. Regular church attendance has been sliding for years (in some parts of the country its in single digits). The average churchgoer now attends around two to three times a month, even in the buckle of the Bible belt. This explains the traditional Easter bounce, when on Resurrection Sunday, Christians collectively gather and, consequently, boost attendances. This year, Christmas will likely produce the opposite effect and collectively be a day USAmericans choose to sabbath at home. Many churches have simply decided not to fight the obvious, but is this caving into culture or an attempt to serve the needs of our context?
Will people, including many regular attenders, stay away on Christmas Sunday? And why does Christmas Eve still attract like the star in the east? The reasons are intriguing.
First, because Christmas Eve services are often better designed and produced than normal Sunday services (and people know it). Furthermore, Christmas Eve services don’t separate families, focus upon traditions (carols, hanging of the greens) and are more experiential (candlelight communion, living nativities). Christmas Eve messages are simpler and shorter. Offerings are designated for community need. Ironically, the churches who draw the largest crowds for Christmas Eve are those who still go old school. Here in Boise it’s standing room only at the Cathedral of the Rockies every Christmas Eve when pipe organs, Christmas hymns, candlelightings, handbells, high-back pews and inspiring stained-glass windows make the yuletide bright.
A second reason for this year’s mass Christmas Day exodus is because the holiday has become the day to stay home with family and friends. Unlike Easter and Thanksgiving, nearly everything is closed on Christmas day, especially in the A.M. It’s the only calendar day that most restaurants, shops and stores shut down. Families also have special traditions, customs and rituals for Christmas and many of these treasured traditions happen during the morning hours. Just like churches used to fight the Super Bowl on Sunday night (and lost), now churches who plan Sunday services for Christmas day will also lose to Christmas morning gift exchanges. This year, more than ever, even regular attenders will stay home…especially since they’ve already participated in Christmas Eve services.
A third reason also presents a brewing problem: the average church service requires a boatload of volunteers and they’ll likely be missing. Churches rely upon multiple volunteers to greet, pass offering buckets, lead (and play) worship songs, run lights and sound, teach Sunday lessons to children and teens, distribute bulletins and countless other necessary tasks. Since most church families will prefer to stay home or wish to be out of town, including those most likely to volunteer, the stress to find replacements is already proving taxing. It’s not like the old days when you could hold a church service with a preacher and a piano player. Today’s event-driven worship services require numerous individuals to produce a service. Furthermore, many volunteers will have already served Christmas Eve (including multiple services in larger congregations), so it’ll be hard to persuade them back for another round in the morning. Finally, it’ll be downright impossible to find teachers and workers for the nursery and children’s ministry on Christmas Day. And since most families will likely be the first ones to miss church on Christmas Sunday, even if a teacher is replaced who’s to say there’ll even be students?
Consequently, many church leaders are rethinking a Christmas Day worship service. And some have already concluded it ain’t worth the time or energy. It’s like Sunday night church. Television killed Sunday night church services in the 1970s. By the late 1980s, most churches finally ditched the dead dinosaur. Similar ditchings have happened with church camp, revival services, Bible Bowl, pews, organs and pulpits. All good ideas and useful in their contextual and cultural era, but are now largely out of step (despite detractors who argue otherwise).
With that said, I’m not sure a full shuttering of services is necessary. Just don’t be surprised if only a scattered few show up on Christmas Sunday (the optimists predict 50% of normal). In fact, I think an unplugged, even acapella, scaled-back worship experience could be attractive, especially if its late in the morning (11 a.m.) or early afternoon (1 p.m.). An early morning service will most certainly crash this year. If possible, the services need to require few volunteers. Use only the necessary people. You don’t need a full band, maybe just a couple of guitars or a keyboard.
Another outside the box idea is a return to the midnight Christ-mass (candlelight communion). Historically, Christians gathered at midnight on Christmas Eve to celebrate the Eucharist. What if your church held a midnight service that also served as your Sunday worship service too? Many Christians, particularly those from mainline and Catholic traditions, value and seek midnight worship experiences on Christmas eve. Christmas day is then a time to rest, open gifts, eat and celebrate family. It’s still not too late to add such a service.
For those who are cancelling services altogether, it might be good to publish service times for other churches in town. After all, you might have a few faithful saints who still want to attend a Christmas Sunday morning church service.
Of course the wild card in this whole mix is the weather. If the U.S. is hit by a monster storm (or storms) on Christmas Sunday, that will make it even worse on attendance counts. But, in general, this Christmas Sunday will reveal the terrible, troubling, continuing tragedy of the decline of American churchianity. Like it or not, it’s getting easier and easier for western Christians to stay away from church.
The old hymn extols how we “heard the bells on Christmas Day.” It’s a warm and welcome yuletide sentiment. Unfortunately, few churches now have steeples or bells. The times have changed. Consequently, Christmas Eve services is when the Church should unleash her finest creativity, best resources and greatest talent. It’s the best window all year to attract the de-churched, former churched and unchurched.
And when Christmas falls on a Sunday, like this year, we might also need to relax, reinvent and reimagine. If its best to cancel, that’s understandable. If it’s better to meet, then so be it. Perhaps it’s profitable to remember Paul’s words to the Romans: One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord (Romans 14:5-6).
Ultimately, American Christians will vote with their feet this year…they’ll certainly flock to Christmas Eve services and don’t be surprised if they’re not back in the A.M.
Bells or no bells.
Today the Barna Group released it’s annual report on the State of the Church. And while many will rightly focus on the positives (like most Americans still identify themselves as Christians), there is continuing evidence for general stagnation and decline.
A glaring example is how the report shows only 1 in 3 USAmericans (31%) are now “practicing Christians.” That might sound still pretty good until you read the fine print: Barna defines a “practicing Christian” as someone who attends church only once a month and also says faith is “very important.” I’m not sure many church leaders, pastors or professors of ministry would agree that someone who makes it to church once every four weeks is “practicing” his or her Christianity very fervently. And it’s difficult to understand how that same person could also conclude faith is “very important.” It’s contradictory, even oxymoronic. The real truth? In many communities, particularly in the Northeast and Northwest, less the 10% now attend church every week.
But I think there’s a deeper insight to this troubling statistic: the continuing disconnect of the modern church with wider culture, including self-professing Christians.
After all, this study reveals, most people still think church is a “good thing.” Most Americans even shrug and say, “Yeah, I’m a Christian.” But this post-Christian, post-modern perspective reflects a growing type of Christianity that’s more individualized, eclectic and subjective. Many of these “Christians” self-identify also as the “nones” (no faith affiliation) and “dones” (formerly churched). They still go to church on occasion, perhaps even once a month, but they’re no longer engaged in churchianity.
Many USAmericans now choose to attend sporadically because it’s no longer the best thing personally. As one Millennial recently confided (and this is someone who grew up in church): “Sunday morning church is a waste of my time. I’ve got better things to do.” When probed as to why the Sunday morning church experience is lacking, this Millennial offered several reasons: passivity (“I have to sit there and be quiet; I prefer to be active”), lack of connection and community (“I really don’t know anyone nor feel anyone cares about me”), the lack of ritual (“I like to take Communion and my church only does that once a month, so that’s when I go”) and the sermon (“I want to talk about Faith not be lectured and told what to believe or how I should live my faith”).
Now before we cast stones at this Millennial “Christian,” let’s not miss the bigger point: This individual is very open to Christianity but not churchianity…and there’s a difference.
Churchianity is “come and soak.” Christianity is “go and become.” Churchianity is “going to church” while Christianity is “being the church.” Churchianity is all about numbers: attendance, offerings, facility and staff size. Christianity is about making disciples anywhere and everywhere. Matthew 28:18 is the Great Go-Mission not the Great Come-Inside.
Churchianity is stage-focused and lecture-driven. Christianity is people focused and experience-driven. Read the book of Acts. In this historical account there are clear clues, descriptions and explanations for how to “be” and “do” church. I know this is difficult to comprehend but Christianity doesn’t need a building, an order of service, a liturgy or a preacher or a worship team. The most authentic expression of ekklesia (gathering or “church”) is a small home group. There’s only one instance in Acts where thousands were saved on one day (Acts 2) and they all went home afterwards all over the ancient world. The modern church has reduced discipleship to 25 minute lecture inside the context of an event. Any commanded rituals like baptism or the Lord’s Supper are rushed, reduced or resisted.
Churchianity is representative and top-down. Christianity is democratic and bottom-up. The last will be first. The least will be honored. The small will be big. Water will be wine. You don’t need to be baptized by an ordained pastor or priest. Church was never meant to be merely a concert and Tedtalk (as one of my students opined). I Corinthians 14:26 reveals an interesting insight into what church meetings looked like: What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. In the early church everyone prayed (not a few), everyone contributed (not a few), everyone shared Divine insights (not a few). The Lord’s Supper was a communal meal. Churches were ruled by a plurality of elders not a single person. Today’s church looks nothing like the original small, interactive, experiential New Testament church.
The problem is today’s Christian (former, inactive, occasional) is rejecting churchianity. They are rejecting the form. They are rejecting the wineskin. They are rejecting discipleship by lecture. They are rejecting another “service” where they sit there for an hour and watch others perform.
Ultimately I believe a church (a gathering of believers) should be judged only against the Original DNA, as revealed in Acts 2:42. Essentially, believers gathered to learn the apostle’s doctrine, to pray, to fellowship and to partake of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist. This model was clearly Jesus’ intent. It’s how he discipled. It’s what he did when they met together.
We can evaluate every church (and services offered on Sunday) by four simple standards:
- DOCTRINE: Does a church meeting include teaching of the apostles’ doctrine? One Body. One Spirit. One Hope. One Lord. One Faith. One Baptism. One God and Father (Ephesians 4:4-6).
- PRAYER: Who prays at a church? The preacher or the people? Is there opportunity for everyone to pray? Is prayer a promoted value or just supplemental to open and close?
- FELLOWSHIP: Do people genuinely know each other? Does the church create connections, conversation and community in its worship experiences and activities, events and gatherings?
- COMMUNION: Does our church practice the Lord’s Supper every time it gathers? By the end of the first century, the early Church set aside every Sunday morning to gather and participate in this commanded ritual.
If the church where you pastor or attend answered NO to any of these questions, it’s time to refocus the PURPOSE of your gatherings. It’s time we stopped the exodus.
After all, as this Barna report reveals, what we’re doing is no longer working.
And it hasn’t for years.
It’s only a few days after Easter and social media still buzzes with good reports of Easter Sunday gatherings. Pastors from around the U.S. are gleefully citing higher attendance, baptisms and the good feeling that Resurrection Sunday always brings.
Personally, I celebrate with these pastors and their churches.
We all need some “wins” in the ministry and Easter is one of those few Sundays when we feel like we’re making a difference. There is a noticeable “bump” in the attendance. There is an increased interest in getting baptized on this special day. There are fresh faces in the house. And there are plenty of warm fuzzy stories of lives changed by Resurrection Sunday special moments.
But if you peel back the veneer, if you step back and take a hard look, if you simply and honestly consider the reality of the moment, something troubling emerges.
Easter Sunday is a very special, once-a-year day.
But next Sunday is rapidly approaching and that attendance “bump” will be strangely gone again like shaved ice on a Phoenix summer day.
What’s truly happening in the USAmerican church? Why is Easter the only day left when churches can openly brag on higher attendances? I mean, even Christmas is no longer getting that “bump.” In 2016, Christmas falls on Sunday. Mark my words now: LESS people will be in church than normal this Christmas than usual. Why? Because Christmas is viewed as a family day. It’s not a day to “go to church.” And, for the most part, they won’t. What will swell this Christmas will be Christmas Eve attendance.
The problem with the Easter “bump” is the false assumption that this bolstered attendance is rooted to “outsiders” suddenly flocking back to church. The higher attendance, according to conventional wisdom, is the Easter pews and chairs are filled with seekers, unchurched, non-churched or otherwise non-affiliated. It’s not true. And its not hard to confirm that fact. Just ask your children’s ministry department to see how many “new” families registered their children on Easter. Just ask greeters who regularly man the front doors. Just look at how many checked “more information” on the communication cards (most of whom are church shopping and you’re the latest flavor).
The Easter “bump” is in reality a special “attendance phenomenon” when the ENTIRE congregation finally gathers together in one place. It’s nearly all FAMILY (local church members) showing up at once, accompanied by visiting out of town Easter guests (many of whom are already church-attenders themselves).
After all, depending on your location in the U.S., weakly (pun intended) attendance in the average church runs a wide swath between 5-35%. That means 65-95% of a local church Body will miss on any given Sunday, some more than others. Many people only attend 1-2 times a month. And the older the average age of a church, the higher the percentage for a “regular” (weekly) attender. The Gen X (b. 1961-1981) and the Millennial (b. 1982-2004) generations are staying away from church and largely attending irregularly.
Consequently, Easter Sunday is when everyone who has an affinity towards Christianity, including those who attend occasionally, make church attendance a part of their holiday celebration. For those who grew up Christian or have Christianity in their family line, Easter Sunday means going to church, so off to church they still go. It’s not that they’re not going to church (they still do occasionally), but that they don’t miss on Easter.
And what will these “irregular regulars” find?
Ah, here is the problem. They tend to find the same thing that drove or bored them into spotty attendance in the first place. A lack of community. A nice religious show. Irrelevant traditions. Long lectures (sermons). I spoke to a young (Millennial) woman on Easter Sunday night about her church experience. Although a Christian college graduate and a pastor’s kid, she struggles to find church relevant to her life these days. What turned her off the most was the pastor’s sermon: an 11-point, 45-minute lecture on “resurrection.” In her mind and experience with “church,” nothing had changed. Sadly, she confessed, she won’t be back. If these “irregular regulars” do find the Easter experience enjoyable it might warrant a return visit in a week or two. But, at best, it only produces someone who attends a bit more than they did. And if there’s any true “win” from Easter Sunday that might be it.
Therefore, if there’s something that should make pastors and church leaders stay awake at night it’s the slow recognition that their “attractional” and “missional” programming no longer retains the REGULARS, let alone attracts the SEEKER.
Something is wrong in the American church. And, face it, Easter Sunday isn’t attracting “seekers” anymore. Even worse, the “irregular regulars” are now struggling to hang in there. It’s one more proof that churchianity is dying in the USA. Authentic Christianity remains, but you won’t find much of it in the chair on Sunday mornings. Authentic Christianity operates 24/7/365. It’s not confined to a service time, a program or a budget.
That’s why the Easter “bump” can be an ecclesiastical illusion. Yes, it makes us feel good, and it should (and it’s okay to celebrate the win).
But if next Sunday everything is back to normal it’s a troubling sign.
And that’s not good.
The American church, bloated by the massive crowds and satiated with the success, is like a four year-old on a chocolate Easter bunny sugar high. Facebook posts by pastors boasting about high attendances, extra services, multiple baptisms and amazing worship experiences were the norm. And there’s no reason not to celebrate.
But what goes up has to come down so let’s be honest.
Next Sunday I’ll predict attendances will be back to average or worse. Why? It’s because postmodern generations (now under 50 years of age) are attending church IRREGULARLY and AT BEST every third Sunday. Easter is just one of those Sundays that they all show up together (which explains the attendance spike). One in five American Christians aren’t even committed to Easter services, according to one study.
The every week attender has become a elusive as an Easter bunny in Santa’s workshop. Many postmodern Christians attend multiple churches. Just because they aren’t at yours doesn’t mean they aren’t attending somewhere. Plus, with the advent of live streaming video, the younger generations have no problem staying home and going to church on their computer. And how do you track this attendance? The truth is you can’t.
This past weekend I participated in two different churches in my area. On Saturday night I attended a megachurch that runs around 2000 in weekend attendance. The sea of attenders was largely gray, bald and wrinkled though, despite a clever programming twist to offer an Easter Egg hunt about a half hour prior to the worship. While some families attended, they were clearly the minority. I was also surprised to hear the pastor encourage Saturday night worshippers to come back and “seed” Sunday services. I then wondered how much of their final Easter attendance were return worshippers or people counted more than once. Several years ago I caught a church posting bogus attendance marks simply by counting their 60 member choir at every service, adding nearly 200 to the final count. Beware the preacher count.
At the second church, where I attend faithfully and work as a volunteer in community “stickiness,” I served for two service hours on Easter afternoon and evening. For the first service I worked a front door and for the second I helped with food service delivery, questions and general community building. Both services were larger than norm but, surprisingly, not as stuffed as I imagined for a church recently recognized as the one of the fastest growing churches in America. I interacted with the pastor of family ministry and learned there were few NEW families that registered and no real bump over normal.
In other words, Easter was a typical Sunday for guests…except that attendance sky-rocketed due to EVERYONE attending the same day. Furthermore, many brought family members in town for the holiday to worship.
Here’s the real problem. Postmoderns are growing increasingly weary of being a number. They hear the statistics too. Church attendance is in decline with exception to Christmas and Easter. They know their attendance on holy days gives the pastor a smile and a false hope that things might now turn around. But every Easter they feel less inclined to make this a habit.
In general, churches (and pastors) don’t get it. The only holiday service that still attracts the unchurched is Christmas Eve and that’s losing steam in my observation. Easter is primarily a Christian holiday and most outsiders respectfully stay away to enjoy the springtime. In other words, if your pastor used Easter as a day to evangelize the masses he was largely preaching to the choir.
I will brag on my church for a moment. Maybe the reason it’s growing so fast is its 4:30 and 6 p.m. services that feature a full meal (for a buck) with dessert (free). The average age of these services is 35 and kids are everywhere. A family of five can eat for less than a meal at McDonalds. People come early and stay late. Conversations are happening. Community is developing. I’ve been to the morning services at my church and without the meal component, people come and go quickly. The meal is the glue. The afternoon and evening service time permits a more relaxed atmosphere (no one’s trying to beat it to the buffet or get on with the day).
With that said, the Church can (and must) do much better. I would love to see opportunities in the main worship for conversations and community. Somewhere along the line we took the community out of church. It’s now a performance and lecture in many megachurches. The once standard “meet and greet” moments are rare, even in smaller congregations. I don’t understand why every sermon can’t have a moment of reflective interaction. Why can’t we pause and talk about the message for 5 minutes? I wish preachers would let me, in conversation with family and friends, make some applications. Finally, for those who celebrate Communion weekly, as my tribe does, it’s time to end the drive by moment and create a deep experience. The two greatest sacraments of the historic Christian church are baptism and communion and both are routinely practiced like we wish they weren’t. When we spend more time on announcements than communion something’s horribly wrong.
I realize my commentary may be misunderstood, even maligned, but I believe next Sunday will prove my points, regardless of church size, denomination or geography:
- Easter is a holy day for Christians and the attendance spike is due to the irregular showing up at one time.
- Most visitors are family members from outside the area.
- The unchurched do not attend Easter services.
- If we’re going to reach postmodern (under 50) generations, we’ll need to change to more communal and experiential formats.
This past weekend an interesting article revealed that by 2030 China will be the most Christian nation in the world. Meanwhile American Christianity continues to wane. Many Christian leaders will point a finger at the secularization of our culture but that’s a red herring. China is a communist country. What’s it doing different? My guess is Chinese Christian churches are growing because they are culturally relevant and recognize it’s 2014.
The American church is still stuck in the golden age of 1980-2000.
And Easter attendance might remind us of the good old days but like that chocolate Easter bunny its just a hollow high.