My Church and I – Part 2
Introduction: Two weeks ago I started a series entitled ‘My church and I.’ I have been announcing that week 2 would be about reasons people are attending church less and possible changes that we can address to make the local church what it needs and is supposed to be.
• a year-long project exploring the current challenges and opportunities facing the Church, we aim to shed more light on why Americans’ relationship to churches is changing and help Christians discern a faithful direction forward.
• Barna Group has been gathering survey data on the long-term shifts that have occurred in the United States over the last several decades. In this report, we explore data collected among 96,171 surveys over more than 20 years, giving us powerful insight into the changes happening in terms of faith practice, such as church attendance, Bible-reading and prayer. What emerges is a nuanced portrait of people trying to figure out what faith means in the 21st Century and the role of Christianity in their lives. And while key markers of religiosity have diminished overall, there are some signs of steadiness among committed Christians that stand in contrast.
Currently, Just One in Four Americans Is a Practicing Christian
• To get a broad view of the role of Christianity in the American Church, as well as those outside of it, let’s start by looking at the manner in which Americans relate to Christianity, using three segments: practicing Christians, non-practicing Christians and those who are not Christians.
Practicing Christians identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.
Non-practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who do not qualify as practicing.
Non-Christians are U.S. adults who do not identify as Christian.
The first and perhaps most significant change we’ll explore is that practicing Christians are now a much smaller segment of the entire population.
In 2000, 45 percent of all those sampled qualified as practicing Christians. That share has consistently declined over the last 19 years. Now, just one in four Americans (25%) is a practicing Christian. In essence, the share of practicing Christians has nearly dropped in half since 2000.
Where did these practicing Christians go? The data indicate that their shift was evenly split. Half of them fell away from consistent faith engagement, essentially becoming non-practicing Christians (2000: 35% vs. 2020: 43%), while the other half moved into the non-Christian segment (2000: 20% vs. 2019: 30%).
This shift also contributed to the growth of the atheist / agnostic / none segment, which has nearly doubled in size during this same amount of time (2003: 11% vs. 2018: 21%).
One-Third Fewer Americans Attends Church Weekly Now Than in 1993
Evidence of a shifting religious landscape is made even clearer when viewed solely through the lens of church attendance. Here, Barna data goes back to 1993. The graph below visualizes the share of Americans who say that they attend church in the last seven days, a fairly conventional way of measuring church attendance.
Transition/Question: Carey Nieuwhof writing for ‘Church Outreach Assessment’ cites the Barna group and give the top ‘5 Reasons people have stopped attending your Church.’
THE CHURCH IS IRRELEVANT, THE LEADERS ARE HYPOCRITICAL AND LEADERS HAVE EXPERIENCED TOO MUCH MORAL FAILURE
‘That’s three reasons in one. But the Barna study groups all three reasons together as one reason.
And I think that might because that’s what most people do in real life. I mean, just have a few conversations with unchurched people.
They will go something like this: the church is irrelevant (why would anyone go) and full of hypocrisy…just look at the moral failure of so many of its leaders.
To some extend, I can’t blame people for this perception. I wince every time I see another headline announcing a new moral failure. And far too many of us have been burned by the judgmentalism of the perpetually self-righteous.
Too many people have been burned by the judgmentalism of perpetually self-righteous Christians’.
Question/Antidote: ‘So what’s the antidote’?
Application: ‘Just because many churches are like that doesn’t mean yours has to be. It’s more than possible to create a counterculture of integrity and grace. It’s actually a bit strange to call things like integrity and grace countercultural (even within the context of church culture), but they are.
Jesus said that it would be by our fruit that people would recognize us. Live a life of integrity with each other and outsiders, and your church will become a magnet, not a repellant’.
Transition: The second reason given….
2. GOD IS MISSING IN THE CHURCH
‘People go to church looking for God but are having difficulty finding him’.
‘This one hurts, but in an age where perception is reality, you can’t ignore this criticism.
The paucity of personal experience with God is disturbing. It would be easy to point at rock show churches and blame them (I lead one after all), but the truth is that people in all kinds of experiences from liturgical to charismatic have left the church in search of God’.
Application: ‘Although some would disagree with me here, I’m not sure leaving the church for an individualized, personal or even home-based experience of church helps people any better. Although our consumer culture certainly applauds individually tailored experiences, what if the real paucity is that we had have even lost a sense of what true maturity and the experience of God is?
So how do we address this? Seeking a new definition of spiritual maturity (also blogged about that here) is a great place to start.
Application: A clearer understanding of Christian maturity and experience could go a long way in better helping people connect with God’.
Transition: The third reason given….’
3. LEGITIMATE DOUBT IS PROHIBITED
‘Honestly, I simply agree with this criticism. It is very difficult to have an honest conversation in many churches today.
In many conservative churches, legitimate questions get dismissed with pat—and often trite—answers. In many liberal churches, there is often so much ambiguity that questions that actually can be answered are left unresolved—as if leaders were taking people nowhere.
Church leaders today simply have to get better with handling the tension that comes with questions’.
Transition: The fourth reason…
4. THEY’RE NOT LEARNING ABOUT GOD
‘It’s amazing to me that people come to church seeking God only to not understand anything they’ve heard’.
Illustration: ‘One couple that attends our church told me that they tried to go back to church when their kids were young only to give up in frustration after a year. The reason? They couldn’t understand anything the pastor taught. The woman said “It was like he was speaking a foreign language.”
After 5 more years out of the local church, they decided to give it one more shot when they came to our church. I’m so grateful they were willing to try again’.
‘The truth is you and I can relate. Every one of us has listened to a sermon for 45 minutes only to walk out the door tremendously unclear about what was just said. And—preachers—come on, we’ll all given more than one of those message.
The solution to this is simple: clarity’.
‘Speak in everyday language, not in church speak or in a meandering way. It takes far more work to be clear than it does to be confusing.
Have a clear point to your message’.
‘Be clear about what you want to have happen when people leave’.
Transition: The fifth and final reason….
5. THEY’RE NOT FINDING COMMUNITY
* ‘The Barna study points out that despite a growing epidemic of loneliness, only 10% report going to church to find community.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s because people expect the church is the last place they’ll find community. And that’s tragic.
Of the many criticisms that can be levied at the church, lack of community shouldn’t be one.
Nobody should be able to out-community the local church’.
Application: ‘You can make a legitimate argument that one of the reasons behind the explosive growth of the first century church was because of the way they loved each other and the world. Love should be a defining characteristic of the local church.
If we loved the way Jesus loved, people would line up out the door’.
P.S. My next segment will tackle what you can and should expect from your local church and it’s leadership.
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