Another Look At Worship Attendance

Patrick Vaughn, Pinnacle Affiliate

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Have you seen this image? It’s been circulating on social media for several years.

How many faces do you see? Some see five or six. Others see two. With time and focus, many are able to identify ten. 

Similarly, how many factors do you see when you look upon the decline in worship attendance? It’s a development that has been noted in churches across the theological spectrum. Some congregations, to be sure, are experiencing an increase in worship participation, but research indicates that there has been a steady decrease for sixty years. Since 1984, worship attendance has declined an average of .25% each year. For example, in 1998 the median worship attendance at a church’s main service was seventy; that dropped to 60 by 2012.

What’s going on?

Well, when we take a quick glance at this gnarly situation, we can easily identify the faces of two usual suspects. The first regards the increasing secularization of Sunday. No longer considered sacrosanct, our Sunday morning calendars are now filled with children’s activities, NFL tailgating, and few hours of precious family time carved out of our hectic and harried schedules.

Secondly, our trust in social institutions stands at an historic low. Not only have we withdrawn from congregational life, we have also pulled away from bowling leagues, the Rotary Club, the Eastern Star, and many others. We lack confidence in our local school board even as we lack confidence in our elected officials in Washington. D.C.

We can lament the demise of blue laws and the civil protection it afforded the Christian sabbath. We can yearn for a time when our collective institutional trust buoyed congregational vitality. There is, however, another option. We can focus on factors which we can actually change.

One of the most religiously active demographic groups is married couple with children. Worship attendance in our churches is shrinking in no small measure because the proportion of this group in American society is shrinking. There are simply fewer married couples with children.

Subconsciously, we know this to be true, and, thus, we repeatedly hear this plaintive wail, “How can we get more young families?” With knee jerk reactivity we race to replace older pastors with younger pastors. We endlessly complain about the deterioration of the traditional family, and we feverishly develop programs that appeal to youth and their parents.

There is another way: we can ask new questions.

To whom is God calling us to minister in our context?

How might we engage middle age empty nesters?

What are the spiritual needs of grandparents in our community whose children live in distant states?

Who are the families in our community who don't fit our usual understanding of family? Who are those we have neglected who would welcome the love and acceptance of a caring faith community?

Worship attendance is declining because there are fewer and fewer “traditional families” in our society.

Perhaps as we release our idolatrous preoccupation with this particular group, we might just see new faces, faces that we have overlooked and ignored for many, many years.

 * Trends and statistics gathered from American Religion: Contemporary Trends - Second Edition, Mark Chaves.



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