The Good News of Low Church Participation

People today are less interested in participating in a local church than they were 20 years ago.  A group of denominational leaders gathered at the Claremont School of Theology to explore the reasons. They came up with nine reasons why people today are less interested in participating in a local church.

  1. “People no longer believe that church attendance is socially necessary, that is, necessary for the social health and perhaps even the economic survival of individuals and their family…”
  2. “People no longer believe that church attendance provides the only or the most important means of establishing and maintaining a sufficiently strong connection with God.”
  3. People no longer join institutions. Participation in Boy Scouts, Kiwanis, etc. is also down. People spend their time with family and friends, use electronic entertainment, shop, or go online.
  4. The classic modes of church teaching–sermons, responsive readings, hymns– are no longer effective models of communication for Americans.
  5. Traditional churches geared their ministry to the family unit consisting of mom and dad and three kids. Fewer people today come from or live in such family units, and so they are less motivated to participate in churches with these assumptions.
  6. People no longer live in one place long enough to put down real roots. “When three generations of your family were hatched, matched, and dispatched in your local church, that was a pretty strong magnet to keep you involved.  Now families may move seven times or more before the kids leave for college.”
  7. There are fewer churches today, and since people today have fewer church options, it is harder for them to find a church where they feel they “fit.”  Churches must accommodate people with more diverse beliefs, values, and social identity. Since people are uncomfortable with diversity, they stay away from places where they must mingle with people who are not like them.
  8. People no longer view pastors as moral authorities in their communities. Christian theologians no longer have an influential role in the larger American culture.
  9. People no longer look to churches to be their platform for social and humanitarian contributions. Today, many institutions and charities give people the opportunity to donate time and money to people in need.

It’s easy to read this list and see only bad news.  But think again. If the nine items above are the reasons why people are not coming to church today, then they also indicate the reasons why many people came to church in the past.  For example, many people participated in a local church because of the social advantages (1), or because they were “joiners” (3), or because they wanted to help people in need (9), or because they wanted to be good moral Americans (8), or because it was a family tradition (6).  Maybe in the good old days, churches were more full because more people were there for lots of wrong reasons.

Consider these words to the church of the first century: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light,” (1 Peter 2:9).

Maybe we are entering a new time in American history when the only real motivation for people to participate in a local church is because they know Jesus has called them out of darkness into his wonderful light, because they know Jesus has incorporated them into his chosen people, made them part of a royal priesthood and his holy kingdom, and because they know Jesus calls them to declare his praises into a dark world.

Maybe the American church is being pruned. Pruning is painful, but necessary. Pruned trees bear more good fruit.

Maybe it’s time to give up on the good old days and get serious about being Jesus’ disciples in this new era, time to quit assuming  people will just show up on Sunday morning, time for us to pray, time for us to put aside any embarrassment about the Gospel, time for us to talk up that Gospel.

Maybe the bad news of low church participation is really good news. Maybe through this pruning we can become more like the church Jesus intended.

– Pastor Chris