Declining Church

This morning, my friend Jason sent me a link to this article about declining American church attendance. He might as well have sent me an article that says the sun came up today. The report begins with the same kind of stats we’ve heard before:

  • Church attendance in America has dropped to 36 percent of the population
  • Only two in 10 millennials believe church is important
  • Almost 60 percent of millennials who grew up in church have dropped out
  • Even among elders (those older than 68) only 40 percent believe church is very important.

Yawn. Church attendance is declining. We get it.

But the second half of the article woke me from my bad-stat-induced coma, because the researchers asked “Why?” Remarkably, here’s what they found: the number one reason people come to church is…

To be closer to God.

Far above any other reason, consistent across all demographics, people come to church to meet God. And yet the research says they’re not finding him there. “Fewer than two out of 10 churchgoers feel close to God on even a monthly basis.”

If our churches aren’t facilitating an encounter with God, then what are we doing? Entertaining? Educating? Indoctrinating? Those may be valid pursuits, depending on your faith tradition, but they miss the mark because they miss the market. Believe it or not, the church market is demanding God! People want to encounter the transcendent, eternal, supernatural, spiritual God. I can understand how churches would not give the people what they wanted if the people wanted heresy or compromise or amusement. But they don’t! The market demands God and we supply something else.

Think about this another way. Imagine a world where millions of people desperately want vegetables; where everyone likes the taste of vegetables more than meat or bread or even sweets. Imagine people shopping from store to store looking for vegetables. There are websites about where to find the best vegetables. There are podcasts that describe the right way to eat vegetables. There are clubs devoted to growing your own vegetables. There are classes about finding vegetables, using vegetable substitutes, denying the existence of vegetables, and presenting vegetables to others. Now imagine that you’re a vegetable farmer. Every week you gather large crowds of these vegetable-craving consumers. And what do you tell them?

Here’s a Twinkie.

I worry that we’re doing the same thing: offering people sugary processed filler rather than the real thing.

Now, all of this ignores an important complication: churches can’t manufacture experiences with God the way farmers grow vegetables. Church leaders are in the awkward position of facing a consumer demand that they can’t meet. God is sovereign and he’ll draw people closer to him when and if he pleases. But I wonder if we could at least get out of his way. I wonder if we could stop stepping in to meet the demand with preachers or programs or presentations. I wonder if we should invite the Holy Spirit to show up now and then just wait to see if he does. What would our small groups and church services look like then?

There’s another factor being ignored here; namely, what counts as “church”. Based on the article, my guess is that when respondents talked about “going to church” they had in mind attendance at a large group worship service. This is also reflected in the reasons they go. Only 10 percent of respondents said they go to church to find community. In our culture, “church” means a performance — an event with a stage and amplification and seating in rows. No wonder people don’t find what they’re looking for there. In my experience, it is difficult to move closer to God or others in a large group. Almost all of my spiritual growth has happened in circles and chairs — in private prayer or in community with a few brothers and sisters. That’s church.

Maybe we shouldn’t care much if more and more Americans skip big-stage-performance-church. Would we be happy instead if more and more Americans moved closer to God and his people? Would we be happy if we got the “why” right but the “how” changed? Those are tough questions, but at least they’re not boring ones.

Ryan SandersComment