You see it year after year. Clergy and church staff pour time and effort into creating a magnificent Easter experience. The church is beautifully decorated, the choir is majestic, and pastors craft and deliver their finest sermons. Services are over-flowing with a well-dressed, attentive, and happy congregation. Yet the following Sunday, POOF, the crowds disappear. Why don’t they come back?
Perhaps we should ask ourselves, why people do and don’t go to church regularly in the first place? Americans who attend church regularly cite being close to God as the number one reason why they attend church. The top explanation for not attending was: ‘I practice my faith in other ways’.[i] It seems clear that people seek to be closer to God but their needs are not being met by traditional churches. What is the missing piece?
Harvard sociologist, Dr. Robert D. Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone, gives us a clue. He finds that Americans have become increasingly isolated.
“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,” [ii]
We could blame this on several factors: our obsession with social media, working from home, an over-emphasis on our children’s social lives versus our own or even the idolatry of busyness. Yet we are paying the price for this isolation. Loneliness is on the rampage.[iii] Human beings were not meant to be live like this. From the dawn of humanity, we were created to be social beings. We need one another.
Large scale group worship is not enough for many. They need personal connection. If the church does not create community for its congregants, they will find it elsewhere.
Change Is Happening in Circles Not Pews
The Hartford Institute of Religion Research says that 40% of people say they go to church every week, but only 20% actually do.[iv] Why the discrepancy? Where are the other 20%?
The Center for Missional Research at the North American Mission Board found that a growing number of people are participating in discipleship and community outside of their local churches. The study states that 24.5% of Americans now say their primary form of spiritual nourishment is meeting with a small group of 20 or less a week.[v] This may also explain the increase in Bible reading from 40% in 2000 to 47% in 2007.[vi]
When churchgoers were asked what improvements they would like to see in their church, this is what they answered:
- 27 percent want their church to help them understand more about God and the Bible.
- 20 percent want their church to help them find new ways to serve.
- 19 percent want their church to provide more Bible study groups.
- 16 percent want their church to help them get to know more people in church.
- 14 percent say their church could provide forums to answer their spiritual questions.[vii]
It is clear that for the church to remain viable, it must create opportunities for small group learning and fellowship. Most importantly, a personal invitation is key to bringing others back into the church family.
[i] Jeremy Weber, “Pew: Why Americans Go To Church or Stay Home”, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/july/church-attendance-top-reasons-go-or-stay-home-pew.html August 2018
[ii]“Seven Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church in America”, https://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html/2 April 2018.
[iii] Jayne O’Donnell, “Teens Aren’t Socializing in the Real World and It’s Making Them Super Lonely”, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2019/03/20/teen-loneliness-social-media-cell-phones-suicide-isolation-gaming-cigna/3208845002/
[iv] Toni Ridgeway, “Statistics Don’t Tell the Whole Story When It Comes to Church Attendance”, churchleaders.com, October 7, 2013.
[v] “Seven Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church in America”, https://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html/2 April 2018.