Why nothing seems to get people back to church

The primary issue at the core of our decline

“People just aren’t committed like they used to be."

Sometime ago I came across a satirical article from the site BabylonBee - "After 12 Years Of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked By Daughter’s Lack Of Faith."

The article humorously reveals an issue facing many churches today. I can’t tell you how many times I have had the conversation where someone talks about the fact that young people aren’t as committed as they once were. People aren’t coming to church like they did in decades past, and those left behind have started to notice. Many congregations are feeling older, thinner, and tired out. The future feels bleak. The studies tell us that the church is declining.

As a result, churches try any number of things to attract people to church. Youth group programs, revamped and modern music, renovated worship spaces, hip and cool pastors with tattoos and any number of other gimmicks they can use to bring people in.

But nothing seems to work. At least I haven’t heard of any churches successfully bringing back all the members who drifted away. And yet we keep at it, week after week, year after year, worrying about people who were once here. Our grand plans for revitalization is to try and appeal to people who have already chosen to leave. Sure, it works once in a while, but this is probably not a strategy for success.

Yet, while churches worry about those who were once there, we rarely take the time to understand what we are asking people to come back and commit to.

Commitment to church

A lot of sermons, bible studies, meetings, conferences, lectures, consultants, coaches and more have been spent analyzing and communicating the message that the social advantages of church that drove attendance in decades past no longer exist. It just isn’t the case anymore that good citizens born in a local church are expected to become good church members. Schools, work, neighbours, businesses, governments don’t do – society-at-large doesn’t do – our evangelism for us anymore.

Church isn’t an expected social commitment any longer.

Yet, almost always when we speak of getting people to start coming back to church, we say it just like that – ‘back to church.’ And the issue goes deeper to than that. So often when I ask church members what reason keeps them coming to church, there is almost always one things at to the top of the list: Church feels like family, church is a community.

Churches should be communities where we feel connected to each other in deep ways. But family and community are still social commitments at the end of the day.

Social commitment

Most churches are, at their core, institutions formed around a social or societal commitment. The core of churches have been based on the fact that people are expected to attend because of societal pressures. And when society taught us through family, friends, neighbours, schools, workplaces, TV, movies, newspapers, courthouses, and governments that attending church was important, churches organized around social commitment worked well.

These churches did good ministry, reached people with the gospel, and they were servant communities.

But now that society is no longer providing the pressure to be church attenders, attracting people to a social commitment doesn’t work. In fact, it may be the very thing that is driving people away.

Our pitch for church has often become some version of “come to church because you should” or “come to church for your family” or “come to church for the community."

Yet, people are choosing sports or music or clubs or brunch with friends or sleeping in because they love those things. People are choosing things they are passionate about, things that they love. Social pressure doesn’t hold much sway anymore, even if our society did push church on people.

When you love soccer, finding a team to play on is also finding a community with a shared passion. When you love brunch, finding a brunch club means joining a community that shares your love of brunch. When you love lazy Sunday mornings with family, you have a community that also loves sleeping in.

But what is our shared loved at church? Are we just communities to join without a shared passion?

Commitment to Jesus

If I had to guess, the vast majority of people who still might be looking for a church in 2017 are not looking for a social commitment to church.

As a millennial, I never lived in the era of social commitment or social pressure to go to church. While most of my peers growing up weren’t interested in church, nor exposed to it beyond Christmas and Easter, the ones who did express interest did not do it for the social commitment.

My church-going peers were interested in following Jesus.

Now, imagine someone is looking for a church. They are looking for a church with a commitment to following Jesus at its core and they show up at a social commitment church. It would be like showing up for a soccer team that stopped playing soccer years ago, and who instead gathers for coffee and donuts with friends and family. But this gathering of people still call themselves a soccer team.

Now imagine members of that “soccer team” wring their hands week after week over the fact that no one wants to join the team to clean up coffee and pick up the donuts. You can see why soccer players looking for a team wouldn’t join. You can see why many members of the team left a long time ago.

As churches try to understand why all the attempts to attract people back to church haven’t yielded better results, I think it is because the core foundation that brings most church communities together is fundamentally at odds with what people who are looking for churches are seeking today.

If I had to guess, if people are looking for church these days, they are doing it in the same way that someone would look for a soccer team. A soccer player looks for a team because they love soccer. A church-seeker is looking for a church community because they love Jesus and want to follow him. They are not looking for a church because they love church.

And it goes deeper than that. If getting people to church is the chief concern, than we will always be looking to draw people in.

But if following Jesus, and letting people know about this gracious, merciful and compassionate God, is at our core, we will reach out. And reaching out to let people know about Jesus may or may not include more bums in pews. Either way, building the church is not the goal, but at best is a symptom of reaching people with Jesus.

So how can churches address this? How can churches built on the social commitment to church have the conversation about the fact that the very thing that brings them together as a community is their biggest problem? With a lot of soul-searching, a lot of questions, a lot of discerning and a lot of prayer.

Changing our foundations and cores will not be easy. In fact, many churches will choose to die instead of changing to the core of following Jesus.

Despite the social commitment at the core of our churches, I think that many churches and church members do want to follow Jesus too. And it isn’t that a church has to choose between being a community or following Jesus. One doesn’t exclude the other.

But churches do have to choose what is at their core. Churches need to choose the foundation that gathers their community.

Is it a social commitment to church? Or are we followers of Jesus whose shared passion brings us together?

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Erik Parker is the Pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Selkirk, Manitoba, as well as a blogger and speaker. When not doing those things, he is chasing his two young children around with his wife Courtenay. He blogs at millennialpastor.net

  • Amy

    A thought-provoking piece, so here are some of my thoughts on this question:
    It seems like church has become much less social and more commercialized. In some ways, this is bad, and in other ways, it’s a way churches have adapted and stayed afloat in the wake of sweeping cultural shifts.
    Church may no longer be a social obligation, but the community quality can still be a huge draw – granted it’s there to begin with – given the increasing disconnection and isolation people face in the cities and now increasingly in the suburbs. Maybe leadership could do some digging to assess the health of the congregational culture – are people upholding values of acceptance and corporate family, or mostly keeping to themselves service after service?
    Another major draw is transformation, which is a major reason why I suspect people follow Jesus in the first place. If people can’t draw direct connections between church family life and their own growth, it will not sit well with them.
    Thanks for writing!

  • Anna

    I like where you went with this, but you nearly lost me at the beginning when you essentially called “hip and cool pastors with tattoos” a “gimmick.” I suggest you give this a read and reflect on what tattoos might actually represent. https://muddyrivermuse.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/body-and-soul-of-mundane-miracles-and-secular-sacraments-2/
    There can be a great deal more spirituality in the process of choosing to get a tattoo than there is in a lot of the social activity that passes for church.

  • Sheila Emond

    Not being raised in church, I joined as an adult looking to find a place where I could be with people who strove to better themselves by loving their fellow human beings and doing as much good as they could in the world. Following Jesus is at the heart of that for a Christian church, but that can mean many different things, depending on denomination and beliefs. But I think there is a match somewhere for most people.

    While I found many people like that, I also found many more people who jealously guarded their “club” and tried hard to keep it in their own image. After 15 years in several churches, the hypocrisy, clannishness, bigotry and in-fighting drove me away. Although there are things I miss very much, I am hesitant to get involved again, because what I gained was accompanied by an equal amount of pain.

    Every church claimed that they wanted to grow, and they were willing to do anything to accomplish that except change. Young people do not want to join a church and be transported back to the 50s! You don’t have to become “hip”, but you do have to listen to all members and compromise to foster an environment where everyone feels like a valued part of the group, and that the church is a place they want themselves and their families to be.

    Until the people inside the churches improve their behavior, I believe church membership will continue to shrink.

  • Margaret Mason

    I have two thoughts on this matter. The first is that 50 years ago, when our church had to put chairs in the aisle to accommodate all the people who came for Easter Sunday, there were probably as many people in that congregation who were there because they wanted to follow Jesus as we have now in our weekly congregation. That is to say, ALL the people who come to church now come because of God and not because of societal obligation. I think this is a good thing.

    My second thought is that young people are willing to commit themselves. They will commit to long study to achieve a diploma that will get them a good job. They will commit to any number of good things like volunteering at food banks or Habitat for Humanity. They will commit money to save children overseas or to their local Humane Societies. I therefore wonder if we are asking too little of our young people. Are we offering them too many easy choices and asking for too little commitment?