After laying out grim statistics on long-term drops in attendance at mainline denominations, an article in The Christian Century noted: “No one knows the reason for the overall attendance drop.”
But we do know the reason. We just don’t want to see it.
The reason is too painful, strikes too close to our core values, and would require us to rethink so much of what we do.
In harsh marketplace terms, we are selling products that many people no longer want to buy. Their lives and needs have changed, and we haven’t changed with them.
As long as we continue to emphasize business as usual in denominational identity, we will be burdened with negative perceptions.
The “No” to Sunday worship is particularly loud in smaller congregations that don’t offer much beyond Sunday worship. Larger congregations (1,000+) do better, partly because their “production values” are better on Sunday but more because they have multiple ministries and multiple entry points that keep the overall constituency strong.
In guessing why the attendance drops occur, the article offers three “possible explanations”:
“Worshipers attend less frequently.” Possibly true, but just another way of saying they aren’t buying what’s offered. Pressing irregular worshipers to be “more faithful” in their attendance misses the point of why they attend less frequently.
“Aging constituencies.” Undoubtedly and disturbingly true, but that reality is a symptom, however, not a cause. Other churches are filled with younger constituents. We should examine how they reach them.
“Lack of interest in religion.” Not true, or at least not true enough to mean much. Every study I see shows a growing interest in God. What’s down is interest in sitting in a Sunday pew, buying into denominational issues, and “doing church” in ways that appeal to older generations.
Our way forward is clear:
» Stop relying so much on Sunday worship. Offer more and varied ministries.
» Even though ministers feel called primarily as Sunday worship leaders, ministers need to diversify their portfolios, if you will, and look at non-Sunday ministries, off-site ministries, and online engagement.
» Even though many older parishioners see only Sunday worship as having value, they must stop blocking diversification of ministry.
These are painful prescriptions. Many clergy feel deep down, as one puts it, that “worship is the heart of what we do.” Their training points there. Their lives and work schedules revolve around Sunday morning.
Older and longtime parishioners don’t see a larger picture. Their needs are being met. It takes a leap of imagination — and considerable generosity — to see that other people’s needs aren’t being met.
By all accounts, denominational executives are reeling and unsure what to do. My suggestion: get out in the field and see what others are doing more successfully. Listen to the marketplace.
Before any step forward can be taken, leaders need to break through denial: see the drops but, even more see it as an adaptive opportunity.
TOM EHRICH is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest