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The Churches We Need, Pt. II

TAC commenters are the best commenters. Thank you for all of you who offered thoughtful input and commentary on my last piece [1] regarding the church and declining attendance.

Here are some responses to those comments—because they offered excellent food for thought, and I wanted to give some deeper thought to them. 1,000-or-so-word blog posts aren’t adequate to address the depth and complexity of the issues the U.S. church is facing, and it’s worth considering these issues in greater detail. So without further ado, here’s a look at some of the main objections I received Wednesday:

It’s About Catechesis, Not Community

This is true to some extent: don’t go to a heretical church, even if it’s just across the street. Don’t abandon doctrine or orthodoxy in your efforts to connect with a body of believers. When referring to “denominational difference” in the original piece, I was referring more to minor issues of worship or layout than core doctrinal considerations. If we’re considering two churches that are both Bible-preaching and doctrinally sound, then choosing between them becomes a matter of other, more gray issues: such as location, size, and communal integration.

Because we’re discussing this issue in the public sphere, and because logistics are what people pinpoint as keeping them from church on Sundays, I think it’s important not to simply say, “The right doctrine and sound preaching will keep people in the pews.” It should—that’s true. We would hope that, as one commenter points out, “the Church that preaches repentance and hope” would draw and keep a congregation. It’s about the Gospel, first and foremost.

But if people say that they are “too busy, have a crazy work schedule,” or are “too lazy” to attend church, it could also be that they need physical checks and balances (such as church proximity and member connectedness) to get them out the front door on Sundays. This isn’t unspiritual or belittling of doctrine: it’s an acknowledgment of the sinful proclivities of our nature, and the need for support and accountability.

In her book Got Religion? [2], Naomi Schaefer Riley considers millennials’ abdication of church (as well as the synagogue and mosque, which have also seen a decline in attendance). Many of the deterrents she pinpoints are social and communal: if a young person’s friends leave the church, they are likely to leave, as well. “When a group of friends who are coreligionists starts to dissipate, the religious observance starts to fall off,” writes Riley. “Practicing a faith does not, on its surface, seem like a team sport. There’s no reason you can’t go to synagogue or church alone. But people don’t.”

Thankfully, this isn’t a temptation for everyone. One commenter said, “We attend a Church that is 40+ miles from our home, passing roughly eight others on our way. It takes up approximately 4-5 hours of any Sunday. It’s where we feel the focus is where it should be and the liturgy is delivered in it’s purest form.”

change_me

When you have the conviction and church allegiance necessary to attend church 40 or 50 miles away, that becomes a salutary and acceptable practice. Geographic and logistical concerns are more important for people who find it difficult to “stick” with a church, and need some extra accountability.

This plays into the “communal” aspect of a church, as well. Fruit is important—as so many commenters pointed out, there are a lot of Christian churches out there that have produced bad fruit, and it’s debilitated or decimated the faith of many. But let’s not forget that church isn’t a social club or humanitarian nonprofit: it is, first and foremost, the church. We should not become so focused on the political or social (or geographical) facets of our faith, that we lose sight of the deeper philosophical and theological truths necessary for a church to thrive. “Church shopping” is symptomatic of someone looking for a laundry list of experiences or services that they think it ought to provide. But church is meant to be more serious, more metaphysical than this: church is meant to delve into the deepest subjects, the ones that have to do not just with this world, but with the next.

Don’t Pick On The Megachurches

One commenter said: “Many megachurches actually do the ‘personal, communal’ thing better that smaller churches by having really good small group ministry. Sunday morning becomes a kind of modern version of big, cathedral Christianity with small groups filling the need for smaller, communal groups (many of which are often geographically-centered) during the week.”

I hadn’t thought of it this way: perhaps the “megachurch” is the best evangelical response to an absence of the awe-inspiring beauty and reverent ethos offered by a cathedral. It gives members that sense of collective solidarity, along with an impression of towering greatness and beauty. That said, it seems that without the ancient, embodied rituals of the cathedral, a megachurch cannot offer the same depth and lasting reverence that a cathedral can. It may be able to foster some emotional goods via its inspiring service, but whether these responses will blossom into lasting devotion and discipleship is difficult to know.

It isn’t fair to disparage all megachurches. But there are some interesting findings worth considering for people who want to worship there: the Hartford Institute for Religious Research reports [3] that people who attend megachurches are most often younger, single, wealthier, and have a higher level of education. Most attending a megachurch have been doing so for five years or less, and 45 percent of the church’s members never volunteer. While social and communal outreach programs exist, the Hartford Institute found that these are largely set up to help members “craft unique, customized spiritual experiences” by providing a “multitude of ministry choices and diverse avenues for involvement.”

These words—a “unique, customized spiritual experience”—are symptomatic of, I would argue, one of the biggest problems with modern Christianity. They’re indicative of a consumer church, one that’s set up more like a Build-a-Bear Workshop than as a body of united and serious believers. Members are likely to fall prey to what Rod Dreher has called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”: asking what their church will do for them, how it will appeal to their needs and wants and desires, and not really committing themselves to the truths of the Gospel or the demands of Christ.

In January, Jonathan Aigner shared some of his reasons [4] for disliking megachurch worship services. Focused on the experiential and personal, he said, they do little to foster the unity of their congregants or the longevity of their faith. Worship, he argued, is “about unity, not choice. It’s about Holy Scripture, not self-help. It’s about theology, not experience. It’s about participation, not consumption. It’s about liturgy, not jesusy entertainment.”

A megachurch that accomplishes the former without falling prey to the latter is defying the stereotypes and tendencies of its brand, and will (hopefully) overcome the difficulties of size and potential alienation to build a strong, healthy membership.

The Damage of Scandal

As one commenter put it,

People who call themselves Christians and publicly proclaim their love for the Lamb of God and Prince of Peace and then treat defenseless kids with stern cruelty are not a good advertisement for their beliefs.

People who spend millions of dollars to make themselves more comfortable for an hour or so each Sunday and no money on local people who might need help are not a good advertisement for their beliefs.

People who act as church leaders and commit crimes or cover up for others who commit them are not a good advertisement for their beliefs. … These people either have never read the Sermon on the Mount or, if they have read it, they have rejected it.

This is so true, and such an enormous problem to face. Rod Dreher has written well [5] on this subject before, as he spent a lot of time researching and writing about the Catholic church’s child sex abuse crisis. He knows firsthand how faith-crushing such horrific evil can be.

This is why I did emphasize a loving, serving church in my first post: because we need to see fruit. We need to know that the truth of the Gospel is being acted out, that loving service is happening in the body of Christ. The only way healing can come to those wounded and marred by poor doctrine and cruelty, is by the true, real Gospel being administered to the hurt and wounded.

However, there’s another important point worth mentioning here. No church is perfect, and it’s important that we differentiate between scandalous, evil behavior and the everyday pitfalls and weaknesses of a body that has yet to be sanctified. A worship service that is less than perfect, a message from the pulpit that rubs you the wrong way, a couple of congregants who gossip after church—these are issues that need to be sanctified, but are not necessarily grounds to run away from the church. Here are some thoughts from an article I wrote on this subject a couple years ago:

The truth is, the longer you are part of a church, the more you will begin to notice its dust and dimness, its fake smiles and half hugs. Many have memorized rituals that have no heart or purpose behind them. You will begin to see the church’s flaws, and they may frustrate or even disgust you. But if you seek church (or religious experience) somewhere else—reveling in all its polished “authenticity” and golden sheen—it will not take long before there, too, you will see the fatal flaws, the pretensions. And they may again drive you away, urging you into a “free range” faith that is ever seeking the authentic.

But you can choose to stay and to love this flawed and marred church, still so far from perfection. You can choose to walk amongst the faltering limbs of this body, this ailing bride, because you know that you too are a flawed limb. You know that you, too, have caked makeup over your raw sores, and have attempted to look “normal,” even perhaps “authentic.” You know that you’ve whitewashed your tombs.

Church is not about our perfection or authenticity. There are layers of sin and blindness that we have yet to uncover. But church is about Christ… . It’s about the Gospel. And that truth reaches out to us in our states of inauthenticity, giving us a chance to rise above the facades.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "The Churches We Need, Pt. II"

#1 Comment By Daniel R On August 26, 2016 @ 8:50 am

“One commenter said, “We attend a Church that is 40+ miles from our home, passing roughly eight others on our way. It takes up approximately 4-5 hours of any Sunday.”

That was sort of my experience growing up: church was always about 30-40 miles away, and usually not in the right direction for anything else. Although there are obviously a lot of benefits to going to a church you feel spiritually fulfilled by, there are some drawbacks people don’t think about.

One is that is can become easy to think of church as a massive chore, where the logistics (“is everybody dressed?” “car all packed?” “are we okay on time”) overwhelm the actual church part. This become especially difficult if anything comes up on Sundays, like work or travel. (Even if you try to avoid that sort of thing on Sunday, it can be unavoidable for many). So my youthful church experience, at times, was as much worrying about getting there as actually experiencing grace.

Another issue can be church hopping. We switched churches all the time, and eventually it just felt like the goal of church was more about finding an offensive liturgy and less about building a spiritual community. That, and a lot of judgement of churches that weren’t orthodox enough.

People should definitely find a good church, but sometimes people might take it too far, and there are some pitfalls to that.

#2 Comment By cstrom On August 26, 2016 @ 9:40 am

I think that people may say that they don’t go to church for certain reasons, but the real reason would have to be that they don’t understand the purpose of going to church, or what the Gospel is and/or means. Clearly, going to church is Biblical (we can read about it in the New Testament), and the reasons for its importance are found all in the New Testament. If people don’t understand then either they are at fault or their teacher is at fault: they are spiritual babies in need of guidance. Christ is with us in spirit whenever two or three are gathered in His name. The Holy Spirit is there and through our community and fellowship we share our spiritual gifts with fellow believers. We are edified and taught truth and we help others and share the good news. To not go to church save for some extraordinary reason, is almost to bring into question the belief and commitment that one has to the Truth of Christ. If I’m going to go to a football game rather than enjoy the fellowship, love and edification of believers, then something may be askew, I think. I’m not sure that not being the “right fit” is necessarily a reason to avoid attendance. For example, C.S. Lewis has been called the Christian Tutor to the 20th Century, but he always humbled himself and went to church to listen to whatever the minister (who no doubt could have probably learned much from Lewis) had to say. It was part and parcel of being a Christian. To be sure, teaching must be sound, but the more one isolates from fellowship, the further one is out of fellowship.

#3 Comment By Arthur Sido On August 26, 2016 @ 9:54 am

The conversation on both of these posts would be so much different if we could speak about the church without the cultural baggage of a Sunday morning, ritual centered event. Words like community, fellowship, disciple-making , leadership, worship and even church itself would all take on much broader and I would argue more Biblical meaning. As it is we are left with tinkering around with the details of an essentially uniform set of practices.

#4 Comment By cstrom On August 26, 2016 @ 9:59 am

I think, also, that C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters was one the great books I’ve read – even the NY Times gave it good reviews when it was written I understand. Thinking about old Screwtape and Wormwood, I would say that if one is in a Church environment and finds oneself thinking of the faltering church, or the pretensions, then watch out because something is either desperately wrong with that church or the other fellow is desperately trying to hang on to you.

#5 Comment By Oakinhou On August 26, 2016 @ 11:04 am

“This is true to some extent: don’t go to a heretical church, even if it’s just across the street. Don’t abandon doctrine or orthodoxy in your efforts to connect with a body of believers. When referring to “denominational difference” in the original piece, I was referring more to minor issues of worship or layout than core doctrinal considerations. If we’re considering two churches that are both Bible-preaching and doctrinally sound, then choosing between them becomes a matter of other, more gray issues: such as location, size, and communal integration.”

This is core to my main issue. What is an heretical church? What does Bible preaching and doctrinally sound mean?

Are Lutheran churches heretical? Are Calvinist ones? Is Catholicism the “Whore of Babylon”? Or is not important any more? Is the Real Presence real? Or just a superstition, like rosaries and images?

When did all this stopped being important? My Protestant in-laws, beautiful people in their 80s otherwise, would not walk into a Catholic church, not even to look at it as tourists, because it’s Popish nonsense and superstition. But nowadays it seems that the definition of a Bible preaching and sound doctrine moved from doctrine to what Rod Dreher calls the Condensed Symbol. What is your attitude towards the Sexual Revolution in general, and LGBT issues in particular?

If you have the correct attitude, then you are o-orthodox, and you are of sound doctrine. If not, then, sorry, you are a heretic. All the rest is immaterial. Believe in the real presence or not, that’s superficial to o-orthodoxs.

I think religion was stronger when doctrinal differences mattered. That’s when people, like my in-laws, learned about what they believe, and why it is important. But the o-orthodox denominations decided that fighting the secular Culture Wars was more important than asserting their own culture and their own religious identity.

If the message is “Everybody is in the correct side of God as long as they Confess that they believe in I Romans and I Timothy”, then there’s a very small step from there to “Everybody is in the correct side of God”, and I don’t need to do anything more.

Washing out centuries of doctrinal differences that heavily impacted the understanding of salvation just to put a united front in the Culture War was a bad deal for the Churches. It gave the message that nothing that had been said in the last 500 years was really important. And if nothing said since 1519 has a bearing on our salvation, why should people believe anything said prior, or today, does. Thats an invitation for people to conclude that Church is irrelevant, to salvation and to our lives here. MTD was born here.

#6 Comment By R.S. Rogers On August 26, 2016 @ 11:05 am

Just as the earlier post’s blanket rejection of “megachurches” was misguided, apparently innocently due to the author’s ignorance of how megachurches generally organize themselves, so too is this post’s use of “church shopping” as an unmodified pejorative mistaken. Last year I moved from Virginia, where I had been a longtime member of a congregation, to Wisconsin. In the almost exactly 52 weeks since then, I’ve been doing what the author would no doubt call “church shopping,” in that I’ve attended worship and some mission events and Bible study at various congregations representing a number of denominations near my new home.

At least in my case, “church shopping” is the means by which I am trying to make precisely the sort of commitment that the author regards as essential. While my long attendance at my church in Virginia leaves me with the basic handicap that any difference in liturgy or atmosphere or mission activities feels sort of “wrong” purely by dint of being new to me, the bottom line is that if a church doesn’t feel like a comfortable spiritual home, I’m likely to drift away from it. Now, by “comfortable spiritual home” I don’t mean a place where I am comforted; on the contrary, I find that I cannot motivate myself to return to a church when the Sunday preaching doesn’t challenge and convict me. In my church shopping, I’ve found too many pastors who preach pat-ourselves-on-the-back-for-getting-things-right sermons. I’ve found way too much organ music – a beautiful instrument to hear a few times a year, but for me absolutely intolerable every week. I’d rather have bagpipes every Sunday. And I’ve found very few churches whose members make any effort at all to welcome a stranger to worship and community. Even the most vibrant congregation from my prior denomination here is very inward-focused and distantly polite, at best, to a newcomer.

I have one more church to visit for a few Sundays, where two Protestant congregations have separate sanctuaries but shared office space and generally shared mission activities, and where both congregations have recently installed new pastors. But so far, my church shopping has led me to lean toward becoming a member at a Lutheran church that happens to be the closest church to my home, just beyond walking distance, even though I’ve never been part of a Lutheran church before. In fact, I’ve never previously been part of any church with an episcopal polity. I’ve met others who have landed at this congregation by dint of “church shopping” as well, mainly young parents who found that their previous Lutheran churches didn’t offer sufficient programming for their new children. Point being, the only way to find a church that meets the standards the author recommends is to visit and worship with several churches – to church shop. Church shopping certainly is not always a good thing, but it is a necessary thing.

#7 Comment By Scott Miller On August 26, 2016 @ 11:28 am

“if you seek church (or religious experience) somewhere else—reveling in all its polished ‘authenticity” and golden sheen—it will not take long before there, too, you will see the fatal flaws, the pretensions.”

Hmm … wonder if that applies to anyone here.

“The grass is always greener” ain’t just for cows seeking new pastures

#8 Comment By Fallen away On August 26, 2016 @ 11:30 am

Arthur Sido writes: “The conversation on both of these posts would be so much different if we could speak about the church without the cultural baggage of a Sunday morning, ritual centered event. Words like community, fellowship, disciple-making , leadership, worship and even church itself would all take on much broader and I would argue more Biblical meaning.”

I wonder if this from the Sermon on the Mount makes Arthur’s point:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

#9 Comment By c matt On August 26, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

Just my opinion, but this discussion seems to be a bit off the mark. Before figuring out what to do about attendance, or what church we need, you have to answer the fundamental question of what is the Church for? What is it’s purpose? Why does (or should) it even exist? Traditionally, the Church is the divinely ordained institution to guide our souls to heaven (and avoid hell). If particular Americans believe it serves some other purpose (glorified NGO, community building, etc.) then they will look for churches that fill that need, or find something else that fills it. The local pro, college or even high school football team can provide as much “community” building, if not more for many. This is not really unexpected in a culture that ignores the final things as much as possible (death, judgment, heaven and hell). Until the culture in general refocuses on these, church will be seen as basically irrelevant to a large portion of society. And while we are relatively fat and happy, it is hard to focus on these things.

#10 Comment By DH On August 26, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

We now attend what would be classed a megachurch in the same denomination we attended at a local church. While not willing to slight my old little local church by any means, could I add that the campus pastor from the new megachurch has texted, called, and visited us in the last couple hairy weeks more than my previous pastor has in the last couple years? He came and prayed over my child, with my mother’s Methodist Associate Pastor who happened to be a female, putting him outside of his own denomination’s comfort. He didn’t make it an issue, he prayed and she prayed erecting a very holy prayer bulwark over my sick son.

We drive 35-40 minutes out of town to visit this church where we aren’t even yet members. While I definitely see the flaws of the megachurch, sometimes it gets a bad wrap. I know small town churches with very similar failings as well. I appreciate that you’re more attuned to this Gracy.

For the record, I take my family to a more contemporary church, something my small town is lacking. I don’t view it as better, but merely as something I know my wife and children relate to and where they are fed on Sundays and connected otherwise. One of the greatest things that no Protestant will tell you is that we ultimately believe in a sacramental reading of the Word, and to some extent a sacramental participation. This can be glimpsed even in sterile contemporary settings like a hospital in a little prayer service or in a loud auditorium.

I simply believe a lot of us and a lot of our churches simply have forgotten to look up to whose banner we are to display at all times. All of this is in the paradoxical tension of the already and not yet. Too many are looking just to be “authentic” or “missional” or “catechized” and miss the holy forest for the trees. Buzzwords lurk in traditional spaces as well at times.

Just greatly enjoying this series, please keep it up! You’re cutting deep into something we all need to realize. This is why I love TAC, because even the comments grow me.

#11 Comment By gk On August 26, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

Very good timing, Gracy, given tomorrow, and what Monica wanted for her kid:

From Augustine—

‘For in the Catholic Church, not to speak of the purest wisdom, to the knowledge of which a few spiritual men attain in this life, so as to know it, in the scantiest measure, indeed, because they are but men, still without any uncertainty (since the rest of the multitude derive their entire security not from acuteness of intellect, but from simplicity of faith,)— not to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house. Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church, as it is right they should, though from the slowness of our understanding, or the small attainment of our life, the truth may not yet fully disclose itself. But with you, where there is none of these things to attract or keep me, the promise of truth is the only thing that comes into play. Now if the truth is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the Catholic Church; but if there is only a promise without any fulfillment, no one shall move me from the faith which binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian religion.’

#12 Comment By Christopher Landrum On August 26, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

The truth is, the longer you are part of a church, the more you will begin to notice its dust and dimness, its fake smiles and half hugs. Many have memorized rituals that have no heart or purpose behind them. You will begin to see the church’s flaws, and they may frustrate or even disgust you. But if you seek church (or religious experience) somewhere else—reveling in all its polished “authenticity” and golden sheen—it will not take long before there, too, you will see the fatal flaws, the pretensions.

The intent is sincere, the picture almost beautiful, but the argument behind it sounds like: in order to eat, one must learn to love the taste of hardtack. It sounds like we must learn to settle for mediocrity. Sounds an awful lot like Lori Gottlieb’s piece from a few years back “The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.”

[6]

#13 Comment By Roland P. On August 26, 2016 @ 3:11 pm

I can’t help but remember when I was a child well I dislike to go to church there wasn’t much else to do due to what are known as Blue Laws. Many, many businesses were not allowed to be open on Sunday. Mostly the only things open where movie theaters in restaurants and the occasional ballgame.. even the local grocery stores were closed… other than that there was nothing else to do.

Contrast that with today almost no businesses are closed perhaps with the exception of Chick-fil-A so one reason most people don’t go to church is they are scheduled to work.

#14 Comment By Hound of Ulster On August 26, 2016 @ 4:16 pm

The problem of American Christanity today is consumerism and obsession with novelty. The ancient hymns survived for a reason, as did ancient liturgies. I would also point out that many Pentacostal churches in particular have high turnover rates with membership, which is masked in the data by the rapid growth these churches experience overall. They get converts, but they don’t keep them. Doctrine is also a mess in American Christanity. Ask what, say Methodists, believe in terms of salvation and ecclesiology and you will get as many answers as people you talk to. A church can’t really claim to be one if doctrine changes with ministerial change or board election. It all comes off as incoherent and muddled, which is why millienials leave their birth churches in droves. They sense the incoherence, the hypocrisy, and doctrinal muddle, and they want no part of it.

#15 Comment By mrscracker On August 26, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

The Damage of Scandal

As one commenter put it,

“People who call themselves Christians and publicly proclaim their love for the Lamb of God and Prince of Peace and then treat defenseless kids with stern cruelty are not a good advertisement for their beliefs.”
*************************
I agree it’s a lousy advertisement, not to mention a terrible scandal, but it shouldn’t be a stumbling block as far as faith.
While that sort of behavior profoundly saddens me, it wouldn’t make me switch denominations or bail from church attendance.
A faith is bigger than its failed members. Or even failed leaders. I don’t stop being who I am or believing in what I believe because of stuff like that.

#16 Comment By OMM 0910 On August 27, 2016 @ 4:45 am

There’s something to be said for staying home on Sunday.

#17 Comment By Mia On August 29, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

“Washing out centuries of doctrinal differences that heavily impacted the understanding of salvation just to put a united front in the Culture War was a bad deal for the Churches.”

On the contrary, there may be very good reasons to downgrade denominational differences at this point in church history where we’re in a more missionary mode in the west. If you look at the experience of Japan, for example, when Christianity first appeared there a few centuries ago, the locals were enchanted with the new religion, and one reason was that they were only exposed to one denomination at the time that seemed like heaven in contrast with the infighting among the various Buddhist sects. And then another church group arrived, and the locals were introduced to the sniping denominational warfare in Christianity, and the glow wore off quickly.

At that point, it was the church’s emphasis on romantic love called “free marriage” instead of arranged marriages, women’s education and equality of the various classes that held the interest of converts. To my knowledge, a specific form of worship or architecture was not really among the major reasons people converted.

#18 Comment By Steve McQueen On August 29, 2016 @ 11:20 pm

People attend church for two one of two reasons: (1) because they believe the Gospel message or (2) because it benefits them materially.

The days when putting on the appearance of being a Christian benefited one have drawn to a close. Nowadays, many people whose opinion matters don’t like Christians. Church attendance is down, and will likely continue to decline, because fewer people benefit materially from attending.

This is not a bad thing.