Last month we began to look at facts about church attendance in the United States. As we continue to look at these facts this month, remember the goal is not to be discouraged by the numbers but look at them as starting points. For instance, the first fact was, “Less than 20 percent of Americans regularly attend church.” This is disappointing,of course we want to see more people going to church. What we need to do is let our disappointment lead to action. If only 20 percent are attending church, then there are many people who need to hear about Jesus and get connected with a church. The number of people who could potentially get connected with us is huge. That’s exciting.
Here is this month’s fact, not only is the percentage of people who attend church low, it continues to go down.
2. American church attendance is steadily declining.
Well-known church researcher and author Thom Rainer notes that the failure of churches to keep up with the population growth is one of the church’s greatest issues heading into the future. In a 2002 survey of 1,159 U.S. churches, Rainer’s research team found that only 6 percent of the churches were growing—he defines growth as not only increasing in church attendance, but also increasing at a pace faster than its community’s population growth rate. “Stated inversely, 94 percent of our churches are losing ground in the communities they serve,” he says.
Though scholars are hesitant to definitively acknowledge a decline, they do say that church attendance is not increasing: “There’s no good evidence to suggest that overall church attendance has gone up in the recent decade,” Chaves says, adding that he believes there has been a decline. He cites the watershed book Bowling Alone (Simon and Schuster) by Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam as his primary reasoning.
“I think church attendance is a close cousin to the other kinds of activities. Putnam says Americans are doing alone—indicating that Americans have become increasingly disconnected from family and friends,” Chaves says. “So if all those areas are going down and church attendance isn’t, that would be odd.”
He identifies various implications declining church attendance may have for church leaders: “If this is the reality, then I see a trend toward people being less involved, while maintaining a connection to the church. Maybe a pastor used to be able to count on seeing someone every week, but what’s now happening is that people’s lives are busier and they’re attending more infrequently. So church leaders can’t count on these same people to teach Sunday school, serve on committees, etc.”*
Church attendance is declining. It should be safe to assume that this is at least somewhat related to the fact that those who attend church are attending less often. While there are creative ways to make the church look like the place to be, at the end of the day, we need to remember the Gospel message is unique, there is nothing like it. The truth of God’s transforming love is attractive in and of itself. While there are many things that can distract people, there is nothing that satisfies like Jesus. So, the first thing we can do is make sure people are experiencing Jesus for who He truly is, the biblical Jesus. The second thing is to be excited about church. Excitement is contagious. We need to let our friends and family know how much we love church. They will then want to come and check it out for themselves.
Finally, bathe the work of the church in prayer. We need to keep these facts about church attendance in perspective. It’s good to know the challenges we face, but they are just that, challenges, not something that cannot be overcome. God wants His Church to grow and we need to rely on His power to make it happen.