Why People Don’t Attend Church (It’s not What You Think)

May 13, 2015

Fewer people are attending church these days, and the reason is not what you think.

The Pew Research Center dropped a bombshell yesterday. The center for the study of religion in American life released a new study based on a survey of 35,000 Americans, which finds that Christians have declined sharply as a share of the population while the number of religiously unaffiliated and other faiths have continued to grow.

Though some see good news in the study for Evangelicalism, I strongly disagree. Though historically evangelical denominations may have gained about 2 million members, that gain was purely from “religious switching.” Evangelicals as a percentage of the US population declined by about 1 percent. There is no positive spin on the decline of Christianity in America.

Detail of the church seats with Bibles

The Pew research mirrors other data on the decline of church attendance, so it’s not really news. Still, it begs the question: Why don’t people go to church?

A 2011 study by the Barna organization showed that church attendance has declined, even among self-identified Christians, by nine percentage points since 1991.

Everyone connected with a local church understands that fewer and fewer people are now attending larger and larger congregations. And many are not simply shopping for a new church—they’ve dropped out altogether.

So while many congregations are growing in size, overall church attendance is declining—even among Christians.

Over the last two decades, two standard reasons for this have emerged in our thinking. People don’t attend church because—

  1. The music is outdated and not in keeping with current styles, and
  2. The preaching is dull and not relevant to daily life.

It’s time to admit that those answers are not correct.

Contemporary music is now the dominant model in the North American church, and life-issue sermons (“How to Have a Happy Marriage,” “Six Tips for Reducing Stress”) salted with fresh media content are standard fare in the pulpit. The church couldn’t possibly be more contemporary, yet attendance is still falling.

The real reason Christians don’t attend worship is that they find it irrelevant to their lives—not their ordinary lives but their spiritual life and well-being.

They find no power in church, not authentic connection to God, no life change. As long as Christians worship is simply a pleasant hour of adult contemporary music followed by an uplifting talk, it will never compete with soccer practice or a trip to the mall as a weekend activity for families.

So what if we quit trying to make church better and started making it other?

What if we actually prayed rather than giving tips on pray? What if we gathered around the table expecting Christ to be present rather than adding more screens to keep people engaged? Or if we practiced authentic fellowship, including accountability and discipline, rather than a two-minute greeting? What if preachers turned to Scripture rather than TED Talks to find fresh material?

We can’t possibly make church better than it is. The music is great. The preaching is nice. People are friendly. There’s good signage. And we always get out in an hour. It couldn’t be more like a trip to the movies.

And people, especially younger people, are leaving in droves.

Yet all of that would change if we, even one time, gave them what they came for—a genuine encounter with the one true God.

Fewer people come to church because they’re searching for God.

When he shows up, they will too.

 

Lawrence W. Wilson

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I blog about pastoral ministry and issues affecting the local church. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.