Church attendance has been in the news lately. The Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Resources published a recent survey of public opinion indicating that a majority of people think church attendance is acceptable (88 percent), even admirable (65 percent), but they also see it going downhill: 55 percent said they believe the church in America is declining, and 42 percent think it is dying.
Not all are so gloomy: 51 percent say the church is stable and 38 percent think it is thriving, while 36 percent perceive it to be growing. That was a surprise.
Meanwhile, Baptist News Global has a column by Bill Wilson on the Top Ten excuses people give for not attending church on Sunday mornings. They are: athletic events, diminished commitment, exhaustion, holidays, illness, children, parents, travel, vacations, and work.
Let’s face it, there’s no question that church attendance has fallen way down on the priority list from the lofty perch it enjoyed 50-60 years ago.
Those were the days when we faithfully filled out the six-point record system on our offering envelopes each week, indicating not only that we were present (20 percent), on time (10 percent), and had studied our Sunday School lesson (30 percent); but also that we had brought our Bibles (10 percent) and an offering (10 percent), and planned to stay for worship (20 percent).
I was proud to have my own box of envelopes and filled it out religiously, always striving for 100 percent. Somehow, despite the occasional illness and rare vacation, I managed to earn a six-year bar on the perfect attendance pin I faithfully wore.
It was easier then, I suppose. There were no soccer leagues in my hometown, and no one would have dared to plan a Little League or any other sort of game during the sacred hour of worship.
And it was the thing to do. If you were a Christian believer and an upright citizen, you went to church on Sunday morning, or people considered you suspect.
Such conditions no longer apply. Culture has changed. Blue laws for businesses and a polite deference to church by organizers for children’s sports have gone by the wayside. Sunday is no longer sacred, but fully secularized.
Some folks, especially older ones, still attend church faithfully because they’ve always done it and believe it’s the proper thing to do. Others have either fallen out of the habit or never developed the custom to begin with.
To get people into church these days, worship leaders feel compelled to offer something more exciting or meaningful than the option of staying in bed, playing golf, watching news programs on TV, or going out for a leisurely brunch.
Churches that provide only the “same old same old” are not only as dry as toast, they are toast, and won’t last much longer.
There must be a silver lining in this conundrum: we can at least argue that those who do attend church regularly are quite intentional about it, attending with purpose rather than succumbing to the peer pressure of a more religious yesteryear.
Or, we can argue that the church is healthiest when it’s a minority, so it won’t be tempted to grasp power or become too complacent.
That still feels like an excuse, however — a way to make ourselves feel better in the light of declining attendance.
I believe the church will survive, though it will be less predominant in future years. Any number of factors play into the mix, but the churches that have the best chance of thriving, I think, are those that have the most effective preaching.
That puts a lot of pressure on preachers. But, as William Self wrote in a relatively recent issue of the Review and Expositor, “We who preach must believe in what we do and do it more effectively. Effective preaching of the gospel and teaching of the Bible are essential if a church is to reach people.”
Boldly, Self wrote: “In most cases, people have not rejected the gospel; I believe they rarely hear the gospel. With the juvenilization of American Christianity and the trivialization of the pulpit, we have created an anemic church” (R&E 110:Summer 2013, p. 397).
Those words are a bit like large vitamin capsules: they may be hard to swallow, but good for us.