For the first time in American history, the percentage of people attending religious services is below 50%. While accelerated by the pandemic, this trend has been firmly in place for decades.
I recently spoke with a co-worker in New York City and he couldn’t think of one person he knows that goes to church. Faith is being pushed to the sidelines. I find this troubling because like so many others, my life was transformed by the church. But in order to be transformative, the church must be visible.
Why is church attendance dropping? Is there anything that can be done to turn the tide?
When I was a pastor, I didn’t understand why everyone didn’t love church. Most people I knew were Christian and church was central to our existence. Now that I’m working a corporate job, I can see more clearly where the church is missing the mark and slipping from cultural relevance.
Here are 3 reasons why I believe the church is shrinking:
We all start out wanting to reach the world for Christ but then settle for having a nice family and being kind to neighbors. When I started to follow Jesus, the contrast from the world was so clear and I wanted to tell as many people as possible about the transforming grace of God. But as the years go by, the contrast isn’t as clear and we get comfortable, choosing to settle for less than our potential.
Jesus didn’t sacrifice His life in order for you to be a nice Christian. You were created for more. Jesus modeled a life of intentional mission and asks His disciples to follow suit (John 20:21). We have a massive mission to accomplish — millions who have never heard the gospel, millions who are distant from God, millions who need a witness.
The church needs to wake up and not settle until our mission is accomplished. The only thing holding us back is lack of faith. Pastor Yonggi Cho of Korea’s Yoido Full Gospel Church grew his church to over 800,000 members because he had the faith and boldness to pray for it. So many of us settle for less than what is possible in the will of God.
The church loves to focus on insignificant issues that bear no weight on eternity. The term “navel-gazing” references someone who just sits and looks at their belly button, engaging in excessive self-contemplation. I recently came across a video on YouTube that debated whether or not women should pray with their heads covered- it was 6 hours long! We don’t need 6 hour videos about peripheral topics — we need Christians willing to get outside their bubble and serve people!
Jesus did not train His disciples on personality assessments and how to advance their careers. He taught them to die to self and serve the grand mission. It’s so easy to get distracted, we need to be vigilant about staying focused on the important things.
“Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” 2 Timothy 2:23
3. Lack of Innovation
The church is meant to innovate alongside culture but most of us have been taught the opposite. We have been told that the church is supposed to stay constant and steady in the midst of a shifting world. The truth is that we are supposed to adapt style and methods while staying anchored in unchanging doctrine.
We see this most clearly in the life of Paul on his missionary journeys. His methods varied greatly depending on his audience. Culture should influence how the gospel is communicated. Perhaps part of our problem is that we have not innovated our methods in the past 50 years.
Did you know that Sunday sermons were not a thing until the 1500s? Did you know that instrumental worship wasn’t mainstream until after the Civil War? In fact, the modern church service is largely an innovation from Robert Schuller, Chuck Smith, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and others who created new ways to do church in order to reach more people.
We need the next generation of innovators! People who are willing to think different, challenge the status-quo, and take risks in order to do what’s right.
It is estimated that most Americans will become religiously unaffiliated by the end of the century. We have a choice to make whether or not we will allow that to happen. Many Christians have resigned to the belief that America will follow the path of Europe. They take comfort in the idea of the church being a small but mighty force in society.
But a shrinking church is not a biblical church…
“And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Acts 2:47
“When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” John 12:32
“So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.” Acts 16:5
We have an invitation to continue the legacy of this ever-expanding church. But God is not going to force it, we must choose it.
This is our time. Let us reject complacency, navel-gazing, and the status quo. Take hold of the mission and turn the tide.
Important Update: I have had several people reach out and ask why I don’t include things such as the demoralization of culture or demonic principalities as reasons for church attendance dropping. The reason is simple — we don’t control those things. In order to enact change, one must focus on where he or she has direct control or influence. The alternative is to constantly blame outside forces and never make an effort to change.