Of all the points of discussion among church leaders in America, one currently tops the list: declining attendance among members. Books and articles explore the various reasons and potential solutions, podcast hosts ask leading experts on church growth about the most-recent statistics and conferences, research firms as well as denominational teams attempt to discover what the future might hold for churches across the nation. This is not an isolated occurrence; it is being felt in the largest of metropolitan churches as well as smaller, rural congregations, and the trend is happening across denominational lines. People attend church less frequently than ever before.
The temptation is to single out one factor and claim that it is the sole reason for the decline, but leading research shows that the problem has multiple roots.
People are much busier and are presented with many more options for spending their time. Families travel more and tend to take weekends to enjoy leisure activities. Members do not see a deep, spiritual need for regularly attending church services because they feel that a “monthly dose” is enough. Still others show up only when they have no competing activities on the weekend’s schedule. Over my years of ministry, when this topic comes up, I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard the same words, “We are all very busy during the week, so Sundays are for me and my family.”
Though the specific reasons for the decline are many, I do believe that there is at least one overarching theme: we have an identity problem. More specifically, we have become more consumer-minded than disciple-minded. As followers of Christ, church is not a place we go; church is who we are. The church is the body of Christ, not a building. Sunday services are not about “having church,” but are opportunities for the church, the people who know Christ, to gather together to worship and bring glory to the one, true God, be built up in our maturity and understanding and then go into the world and make disciples (Ephesians 1:12, 4:12-13; Matthew 28:19). In all honesty, many of us church leaders have been guilty of furthering a consumer mindset by tailoring service style, music choice and message delivery to appeal primarily to those farthest from Christ instead of actually equipping the followers of Jesus for ministry outside the walls of the church (Ephesians 4:12). We feed the goats and starve the sheep. Then we presume that God is blessing because of the crowds while we ignore the need for the teaching of and maturing of the people of God.
We can forget easily, in a world that values individualism, customizable options and personal preferences, that to live for Christ is to live in the context of his body, the church (1 Corinthians 12:14-27). When we miss the fact that we are connected to each other in Christ, we can also begin to forget the true identity and unchanging character of the One we have the honor of worshipping.
The author and speaker Francis Chan expressed this potential neglect well when he said, “I’ll confess that a lot of times I don’t act like Jesus is the head of the church and that I’m just an arm. The arm doesn’t do anything unless the head tells it to. I don’t really humble myself and say, ‘Lord, you’re the head of the church. What do you want me to do?’ When we let God be the head and realize exactly who we are, that’s when things really happen…I’m talking about the miracle of true rebirth: where the Spirit enters someone, and you don’t have to force them to get rid of sin in their life. You don’t have to beg them to get along with the Lord. Their spirit is crying out, ‘Abba Father.’”
If we share the same Spirit, should we not also share God’s desire for unity among his followers (John 17:20-23)?
The church is who we are. The church is Christ’s body. The church always gathers.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:24-25