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.