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The Churches We Need

Why aren’t people going to church? It could have more to do with the car drive than with philosophical agnosticism or disillusionment. Emma Green considers a new Pew survey on religious participation and church attendance over at The Atlantic:

While Americans on the whole are still going to church and other worship services less than they used to, many people are actually going more—and those who are skipping out aren’t necessarily doing it for reasons of belief.

… First, people who report going to worship services less frequently now than they used to overwhelmingly say the logistics of getting there are the biggest obstacle. Second, a significant number of people who said they’re not part of any particular religion expressed mistrust of religious institutions, suggesting these organizations’ reputations have something to do with why people are dropping out of public religious participation.

… While it’s easy to empathize with the hassle of trying to wake up and rally kids to go sit still for several hours every Sunday morning, this explanation is interesting for a slightly different reason: It suggests that many people view religious services as optional in a way they might not have in the past. Fifty or 60 years ago, churches, in particular, were a center of social and cultural life in America. For many people, that’s still the case, but the survey suggests that many people may be creating their social lives outside of a religious context—or perhaps forgoing that kind of social connection altogether.

To some degree, these findings are indicative of a society in which churches increasingly sit on the sidelines of cultural life. Geographically, they’re distanced from the actual places where people live and work (a consequence, some might argue, of suburban sprawl or consumer-centric urban planning). Culturally, they’ve grown increasingly segregated from the dominant political and artistic voices of our time. Communally, many churches have invested less in the needy and destitute than in building bigger church buildings or organizing short-term mission trips overseas (not to denigrate international ministry—but it does seem that many churches invest more internationally than they do locally).

It’s also true that people’s lives have become increasingly career-centric: with Americans working more hours than ever before, weekends have become a time to “veg” and relax—not wake up early and drive to church. Sunday is the one day we don’t want to commute or rush out the door in a frenzy.

But there are ways to combat these tendencies—and most of them have to do with where we choose to attend church. Consider these questions:

  • Are you more likely to attend a church a half mile from your home—close enough to walk on a cool morning—or a 30-minute drive away?
  • In which scenario are you more likely to skip church:
    1) There are 700 people there on a given morning, and you’ll never be missed.
    2) There are only 100 to 150 people there on a given morning, and you know almost all of them by name.
  • Which are you more likely to attend:
    1) A church that only offers a Sunday service
    2) A church that does various outreach and community activities during the week (not just youth get-togethers and cookouts, but also ministry-geared events like soup kitchens and clothing drives)

My guess is that most people prefer the church that’s closest to them, the church full of familiar faces, and the church that’s eagerly serving its community. People will attend a church that is local, personal, and communal.

People will not attend a church that is distant, giant, and solitary.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to find a church that fulfills all three of these requirements equally. Depending on where we live and our own personal proclivities and weaknesses, many of us have to determine which of the three above attributes are most important—and most likely to keep us at church.

For those who feel drained and tired on Sunday mornings (not a tendency to be ignored or sneered at in today’s workaholic world), it may be salutary to find a church that is in or extremely close to one’s own neighborhood. If church is less than a couple miles away, it lessens the logistical and personal burden necessary to get from one’s front door to the church pew.

This does mean, however, that the local churchgoer may have to overcome some denominational and personal biases in order to embrace what’s nearby. Many Americans have gotten used to “church shopping,” hopping from pew to pew until they find a congregation that “fits” them best. Unfortunately, this can either disincentivize our church attendance altogether, or put enough miles between us and the church doors to decrease our chances of regular attendance. Committing to the local church requires an ability to overlook these rather consumerist tendencies, choosing a church in spite of its weaknesses.

That said, it could be that the nearest church is a giant megachurch, with thousands of members and four to five services on a given weekend. Stepping in the front doors, you immediately feel like a lost face in the crowd. No one greets you by name; no one knows your children. There may be donuts and artisan coffee in the foyer, but social and emotional connection is scarce.

In this case, it makes sense to move further afield to find a church that is more personal and communal—a space in which members know each other, proffering both fellowship and accountability. Some seem to find great value in the megachurch, arguing that such “seeker churches” have an important mission. But in practice, it seems that a church characterized merely by emotive worship music and a finishing altar call will have little lasting impact on the “seekers” who visit its doors—because there is no potential for lasting, deep fellowship or accountability amidst the sea of faces that drift to and from the worship hall.

A church that is personal should also be communal: focusing its resources and attention not merely inward, but also displaying an eagerness to find and address needs in one’s local community. Many American communities are broken and hurting, dealing with the deleterious effects of poverty, drug use, and family breakdown. This is where the church can and should work—and a church that is deeply involved in its local community will both attract and keep members, because it gives them a purpose beyond mere self-absorption and back-patting.

This is also one of the most powerful ways to combat the widespread distaste for “organized religion” mentioned in the Pew poll and Green’s article: “Among people who were raised religiously and who fell away from religion in adult life, roughly one-fifth said their dislike of organized religion was the reason,” Green writes. “Insofar as the decline in U.S. religious affiliation is an intellectual or philosophical story, it seems to be this: Fewer people are willing to sign on with the rules and reputations of institutions that promote faith.”

“Organized religion” can often connote a corrupt and insensitive institution, a group that is both callous and shady in its everyday work. Many Americans have been hurt by a church or other religious body at some point, and they’ve seen firsthand the damage that results from corrupt leadership or a wayward pastor.

But a church that truly roots itself in its community, loving and serving its neighbors unconditionally, can combat some of these judgments. It can help demonstrate the goods that flow from a religious group that is investing its resources in helping the needy.

Ultimately, a lot will have to change to draw record-breaking numbers back to the church. But combating some of the apathy felt toward America’s churches may be as simple as proffering options that are local, personal, and communal: showing people that the joyful fellowship and service they find at church on Sunday morning is worth getting out of bed for.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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