The percentage of American Protestants who attend church has held steady since the 1970s. But churches report smaller numbers of Christians in worship each week.
What’s going on?
1. Changing Definitions
First, the definition of “faithful churchgoer” has changed. In the 1990s, a faithful church member attended worship services three times a week. Now, most churches consider members to be “plugged in” if they show up three times a month. Church attendance numbers are down, not because a smaller percentage of Christians attend church, but because Christians attend church less frequently than before. No surprise then to see sagging worship service numbers.
2. Individualistic Age
Second, our age is one of expressive individualism. Institutions that once received loyalty and faithfulness by default are now judged on the basis of their therapeutic effects. Communal life across the nation is on the decline, as books like Bowling Alone have demonstrated. Areas of community life that continue to do well (professional sports, cross-fit, and so on) focus on bettering one’s skills or well-being. (Even our community activities are focused on the individual!)
3. Church as Optional
Third, evangelicals in previous generations sought to distinguish between nominal, cultural Christianity and vibrant, heartfelt conversion. Church leaders used to say, “Going to church doesn’t mean you’re a Christian” in order to distinguish between cultural rituals and being truly born again. That was the right move. Unfortunately, many Christians now interpret that distinction through an individualistic framework. They understand it this way: “Being a Christian isn’t connected to church attendance.”
According to Pew Research, only 35 percent of American Christians find “attending religious services” to be an essential aspect of being a Christian. The theologian in me quibbles with the word “essential,” because salvation does not depend on churchgoing. But most Americans who responded to that survey did not dissect the question theologically. They expressed their conviction that churchgoing is optional, not essential. Good for Christians who want it, but not necessary for Christians who don’t.
How to Respond?
Pastors can grow discouraged and disillusioned at these developments. We know that the Bible does not have a category for an “unchurched Christian.” We know the church is not an afterthought in the purposes of God. We know that when we call people to trust in Christ, we call them to join the family of God. Calling people to Jesus includes calling them to belong to Christ’s body.
So what can we do?
If we are to be faithful as pastors in an individualistic age, we must look for ways to lift up the beauty and necessity of the church gathering. Notice that I use the word “beauty.” If you focus only on the necessity, or the duty of going to church, you will lead people to attend services out of guilt. But, as I’ve said before, we don’t go to church because of guilt; we are the church because of grace. The better way forward is to show how the church is necessary, and why gathering with the church is beautiful.
Here are some ways we can place the beauty of churchgoing before our congregation:
1. Cast a vision for spiritual growth that goes beyond personal fulfillment.
In an individualistic age, many people come to church for therapeutic reasons. Does my church help me through my week and give me inspiration and strength? We should not dismiss these reasons for coming to church, but we want people to discover a beauty that goes beyond finding personal fulfillment. We want their ultimate satisfaction to be found in the God whose beauty is life-giving.
For this reason, we pray that people will see how churchgoing fits into the wider lens of God’s redemptive work. God wants to change us. But how?
Virtuous habits in response to God’s grace play a role here. Churchgoing is a spiritual habit, a beautiful one. We should not lift up the occasional visit to church, in which we expect to be awestruck by our experience with God, to change us. Instead, we need to recognize the power of frequent and regular visits to church, the ongoing habit of singing praise to God and hearing him speak through his Word. It’s not the one sermon that changes your life, but the 1,000 sermons you hear over a decade. It’s not the one worship experience that forms you, but the weekly rhythm of refocusing your heart and mind on the God who made you as you praise the Savior who redeemed you and sense the Spirit who indwells you. As James K. A. Smith writes:
We are creatures of habit, that God knows this (since he created us), and thus our gracious, redeeming God meets us where we are by giving us Spirt-empowered, heart-calibrating, habit-forming practices to retrain our loves. This is the means of the Spirit’s transformation, not an alternative to Spirit-shaped sanctification. If we don’t take this seriously, we will, in effect, be giving ourselves over to all of the rival habit-forming practices of our culture.
The beauty of churchgoing is something that happens over time. We long to grow as worshipers who know and love Jesus.
2. Lift up testimonies of people who show the beauty of the church.
We’ve lost something when we never hear from anyone but the preacher and worship leader. There’s something beautiful about watching the church in action, seeing how the local body of believers ministers to each other. There is so much beauty in your local congregation, and too few of our members ever see or hear about it. It’s our job as church leaders to make the congregation aware when the church is serving, when people are reaching out and strengthening each other, when suffering is taking place and the church is bringing relief. Look for testimonies to lift up so that people can see, I am not alone. The church is with me.
3. Watch your language.
One of the dads in my small group told me he corrects his kids if they ever ask about having to go to church on a weekend. “We never have to,” he says, “we get to go.” I like that. He’s policing the language of the house because he knows that the way he talks about church will send a signal to the rest of the family about how to view Sundays—as chore or as privilege. Some would say we shouldn’t speak about “going” to church at all, but only about gathering with the church, to make it clear that the church is a people, not a place. Whatever the case, look carefully at your language and do what you can to show people the beauty and privilege of churchgoing.
4. Don’t let the wonder of Sunday morning pass you by.
The weekly church gathering is a remarkable event. May we never lose the wonder of all these people coming together to praise the King!
Congregational singing is a beautiful aspect of our worship. Musical style is not what matters most. I’ve been in old-fashioned churches where people mumble along with old hymns, and contemporary churches with fog machines and lights, where everyone just stands and spectates while the worship team sings. My big question for any kind of service is this: Do people sing? How beautiful when the voices of God’s people lift the rafters of your sanctuary with praise! You can’t capture it in a recording or on a podcast or anywhere else. You have to be there to experience God’s people united in praise. Look for things that happen only at church and make them key parts of your worship service.
What about you? What other ways can we bring out the beauty of churchgoing for people who are less likely to attend?