A recent Pew Research Center survey, describing the religious topography in the United States, showed a continuing decline in Church attendance amongst those who ascribe to be Christians. Although there has been a 12% drop amongst U.S. adults who identify as Christians over the last decade, there is a more alarming statistic that stood out to me in the survey. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they attend religious services a few times a year (or less) has outpaced those who say they attend Church multiple time per month. The trends are clear. Involvement in the Christian religion in the U.S. is on the decline. The question I am concerned with is ‘Why?‘
Reasons for Decline
Countless ‘thinkers’ over the past several decades have offered their analysis and critiques as to why they believe “Christianity is on the decline;” various reasons have been suggested, including (but not limited to) the intermingling of Christianity with the State, other competing ideologies (including Islam, Buddhism, Atheism, etc), highly publicized Church scandals, and secularism. Whereas each of these items are worth addressing (and I certainly hope to do so in future posts), I believe there are other more pressing and significant reasons for the decline in Church engagement. Each factor can be linked to the changing cultural and sociological trends we face in the West. I will offer 6 reasons why I believe that even Christians are attending Church less often:
- Greater Affluence: The more we have, the more easily we oftentimes forget to worship the One who saved us. When we are able to provide for all of our various bodily needs, psychologically we tend to think of ourselves as truly self-sufficient. It is for that reason, I believe that when preparing to enter the promised Land, Moses gave the children of Israel a stern warning: “11 “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today, 12 lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; 13 and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold aren multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14 when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage…17 then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14, 17)
- Children’s Activities: As children are being consumed by their screen time during the week, parents are eager to get their kids physically engaged by playing in organized sports over the weekends. Whereas this parental desire is certainly one that has a positive objective in mind, the long term effects can be quite detrimental with eternal consequences. Last Sunday after Church, I took my children to one of the local sports complexes for a birthday party. As I was chatting with one of the dad’s, he jokingly said, “Welcome to the new ‘Church,’ where parents take there children to spend their Sunday mornings now.” Are we sacrificing our children for the sake of their activities?
- Tired and Stretched: With more tasks to do and a constant sense of technological ‘connectedness’, I know of many people who have personally voiced a desire to just ‘want to be home, so they can avoid doing anything or engaging with anyone.’ Ask someone how they’re doing and you will likely get either “Great” (knee jerk reaction) or “Busy” (existential reality). People are tired and need rest. Most of us are working longer hours as our jobs demand more from us, we lay in bed staring at our cell phones until we doze off, and as a result we are getting a worse quality of sleep. The issue is that we oftentimes wake up and still feel tired! Perhaps this is all the more reason to heed the words of Christ who said “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
- Bad Theology Coupled with Online Options: If you can attend Church on-line, then why show up? After all, you can listen to countless sermons live, attend the Liturgy or worship service at your Church of preference, engage with people in meetings or Bible Study during other days of the week, and you can do all of this while avoiding the commute and crowds. A major flaw with this thinking is that Christianity cannot simply be reduced to opportunities for greater intellectual engagement on matters of Truth or of social connectedness with other Christians but rather it is the opportunity for the infusion of God’s life into ours through the sacramental life of the Church.
- Everyone Has Become their Own Pope: During the start of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther refused to accept the authority of the Roman Church to interpret Scripture. In his personal opinion, the scripture alone was to be the only and final authority of the Church. But the elephant in the room that Luther (and most other reformers) failed to address was “who then was it that had the authority to interpret scripture.” The consequence has been catastrophic. Instead of having one Pope, soon there were millions of little popes running around interpreting scripture as they saw fit and deciding how one ought to be a Christian. And such is the reality of many today who express “I have my own way of worshipping the Lord.”
- It’s Not Quite What You’re Looking For: You visited this new Church and REALLY loved it! The priest was friendly, the people were different, you felt engaged during time of worship, the sermon ‘spoke to you’, the coffee was great, and you just felt super connected. However, within a couple of years (or possibly quite less), you had this great epiphany…”this Church actually is not quite what I’m looking for.” The priest didn’t smile at you last Sunday, the people aren’t as nice as you thought, you didn’t feel as engaged during worship, the sermon was less than inspiring, and even the coffee was terrible! Sound familiar? And so the trend continues,’on to the next stop…hopefully’. Consumerism is a plague that the Christian must keep out of their relationship with Christ.
It may be true that Church attendance is declining in the West. However Christ did promise that the gates of Hades would not prevail against His Church (Matthew 16:18). All glory be to God, the Church is thriving in many other parts of the world, including Africa, Asia and South America. In fact, Global statistics reflect that Christianity is the fastest growing religion in the world and is even outpacing the global population growth rate. However, my hope is that the Church will continue to be a force for God here in the U.S. as a place that not only speaks Truth into the culture and does Good to (and for) others, but that also seeks to infuse God’s life into those who realize their need for His healing presence. For that, we must not only call people to attend Church services but rather to more fully engage with the Holy Trinity within the sacramental life of the Church.