MOST FOLKS IN THE U.S. DEFINE THEMSELVES AS REGULAR CHURCH ATTENDEES IF THEY ATTEND ONCE A MONTH.
Sorry for shouting, but it's an important item to wrestle with. I cannot remember if the article I read referenced PEW or Gallup, but the point is the same no matter who conducted the survey.
The majority of folks interviewed considered themselves regular church attendees if they attended worship only once a month.
This is quite different from a decade or so ago when regular church attendance was considered three or four times a month. Now, it's only one, and even though I don't like it, it did jar me with my experience as a pastor even in rural Texas. Even in my congregation, I think I can safely say a good chunk of people in my congregation fit this trend.
There are many things to wrestle with in regards to this trend. I have already breached the topic with my staff, and will be visiting with the congregation council about this matter at our next meeting, but I hope to spend only a few moments bemoaning and griping and wondering why. We can speculate and gripe and wonder 'til Kingdom come, and that does no good. The trend is not only in Cat Spring, TX--it is nation wide. The trend is caused by multiple factors, not by a simple cause and effect. Deciphering what is "wrong" and trying to give it a quick "fix" will not happen--even though we like to think we are capable of "fixing" such matters or people. What I hope to accomplish is get people thinking about the reality of church 1) if this is the trend and 2) what really must happen if the trend is to be reversed.
- First, just a few moments of bemoaning, griping, and wondering why. In my estimation, there is little wonder the definition of regular worship attendance has slipped and is slipping. Society has shifted from setting aside Sunday as sacred--a day of rest to focus on God--to a day of work for retail and service industries and recreation/play time for others. No longer do most businesses shut down on Sunday. The need for more profit drives them, and workers' religious affiliation be damned. Folks who work in this area of society generally are living paycheck to paycheck, and they cannot afford to tell their bosses and supervisors, "I want to go to church." When the choice is bring home less income and decide whether or not to pay utilities, basic needs will win out just about every time. And as the sacredness of the day gets diminished by the god of money, so then other gods find it easier to chip away.
- The gladiators of the ancient Roman Coliseum could not imagine the overwhelming draw of sporting events in our day and time. A pastor friend has remarked numerous times, "Society shows you what is most important by the biggest buildings it constructs." In the middle ages, it was the churches. Then the universities became prominent. Then the skyscrapers of business. Now, the stadiums. Sports offers all sorts of promises to parents and children. Some of them are true, but a great deal are false. Sports supposedly builds character, but I know from my own personal experience, it doesn't change a heart.
- Our technological society doesn't help either. More and more we "connect" to each other via electronic means of communication. Even this blog and the posting of my sermons is a testament to this. If I miss church, I can read and hear pastor's sermon online. There is no need to really and truly attend. I can hear/read God's Word right from my bedroom in my pajamas, and I don't have to deal with the messiness of human relationships. (Hey, I can even skip putting a few dollars in the offering plate. It's a huge win!!!)
Are there more factors: absolutely, but I told you, I don't want to focus too much on griping. Onto the implications--or rather, what are some major questions of implication?
- How in the world does a congregation run a Sunday School or youth program in such a cultural climate? If regular attendance is once a month at worst (even that is stretching it for some) and two times at best, how can students learn much about the faith? How can congregations with less than a certain amount of members find enough teachers who attend on a hyper-regular basis (3-4 times a month) to staff their teaching positions? How can teachers build from one lesson to another if children are constantly missing--akin to teaching mathematics when a kid is present for simple addition and then next shows up for division? Is it possible to have well attended monthly activities any longer? What does the role of a youth director look like in such a society? More of a program director? More of a mentor? More of a person who seeks kids out at home in the evenings? Tough questions.
- How in the world do people connect to one another and have a sense of fellowship and familiarity? How do people become more than a gathering of strangers on Sunday morning? This is a fresh question since a family in my congregation decided to pull their membership in favor of another congregation down the road citing a lack of feeling "connected." It's not surprising. They fell squarely into that "once a month" demographic. Given that there are an average of four Sundays in a given month, when your once a monthers are spread out over those four weeks...there is no way you can ever be connected unless you associate with fellow church members at other times on a weekly basis. Plus, it takes time...sometimes lots of time to connect. I am embarrassed to say that I have had quite a bit of difficulty remembering a particular congregation member's name. I keep getting confused between "Bob" and "Bill." I am sure it is more than frustrating for him--and it is for me too; and the sad part is, Bill is no once a monther. We need personal contact between one another to connect and have relationship--it's part of human nature. When we consider ourselves regular attendees while only coming once a month, we shouldn't expect to feel connected. We simply can't with this irregularity. Makes being in community truly difficult.
- How in the world do you put together a choir? A bell choir? A children's choir? Getting individuals to sing shouldn't be a problem, but a group? For the same reasons youth and Sunday School become problematic, so does choir and musical ensembles.
- How do you have a united sense of mission and ministry when so few are truly connected to a congregation?
- How do congregation members care for one another if they do not know one another? How does a congregation prevent pastors from becoming burned out since he/she is the only one who has direct contact with people on a regular basis? (The same can be said for other church staff in their appointed areas.)
Solving the "problem" goes far beyond logistics. This is not something that can be cured by making sure a congregation is warm and friendly; or has a website, Facebook page, Tweets, podcasts its worship services and has the latest technology; or has great programs; or has a dynamic preacher; or has a central authority; or who focuses on the right doctrine; or so on and so forth. This is not a problem which can be solved by a quick fix of tweaking something here or changing something just to be changing it. It's not about trying harder and working one's self or one's congregation at a fever pitch. Those will not change society. Those will not change people's hearts.
I am convinced only the change of hearts in people can make a difference. I am convinced that unless the Gospel fundamentally changes people and leads them to be in a church community more often, we will, as congregations struggle mightily with this issue. And the problem with this approach: it takes a lot of time before the Gospel affects this kind of change--a lot of time.
I am 40. I can say that it is only in the past year that I have finally come to begin to truly understand the Gospel--that it isn't about what I do but what God has already done. For so long, I was trying to justify myself and worship false gods. I thought I would get a sense of satisfaction and wholeness through such pursuits. You would have never, ever convinced me of this at the time. I thought I was doing God's work. I thought I was doing the right things. I thought my priorities were in line. I was and am a pastor, for heaven's sake!!
But I was wrong. Dead wrong. And I had to be fundamentally confronted with my sinfulness--my wrongheadedness before the Gospel could begin its transformational work. That's started. I know the Gospel's power. I know it can change things and mightily. But it takes time. A lot of time, and with a huge chunk of people coming to worship only once a month, it will take an abnormal amount of time before change is affected. Do we have patience?
I hope so.
I hope so.