The trend is practically universal: fewer people are attending church every year.
You might have even asked the question yourself. Why bother?
There are many reasons why that’s happening (I outline 10 here), but I think it’s increasingly evident that it no longer makes sense to attend church.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of the church. But I get why more and more people have simply stopped attending. Let me explain.
In the fall of 2015, I transitioned out of the lead pastor role at our church and into a Founding and Teaching Pastor role (Here’s a piece on why and how I did it). I still carry about 30 Sundays a year of teaching and work on some senior level projects, but that leaves me much freer than I’ve ever been on a Sunday morning. Sure, sometimes I host the service or have other roles, but more often than I’ve ever experienced before, I’m free on a Sunday. Which means I’m often an attender. So I feel what the culture is feeling more than ever before.
And on those Sundays when I have no official role, I’m plagued with the question “Why go to church?”
After all, our church streams our services live online. I could literally watch live on any device I own anywhere. Plus we share the services on demand, so I could watch or listen any time during the week via our website or catch the message for free via podcast.
If your church doesn’t have a great online experience, no worries, about a million others do. You can access almost any church you want, anywhere, anytime. Free.
Which brings us back to the question: Why attend church?
Increasingly, I’m convinced there’s no point to merely attending. You drive all the way in to connect with three or four songs, hear the message and then head home. All of that you could almost do by yourself in a much more convenient way.
Slip on Spotify and grab the message via podcast or on demand and boom, you’re covered.
Drowning in Options
I wonder if in large measure that’s why the era of attending church is dying. Think about it.
Generations ago, the church was a social and cultural hub as well as a missional hub. In addition to faith reasons, people loved going to church because it was one of a handful of options available in a community as well as the main way (other than personal devotions) you connect with God.
We now live in a culture that’s drowning in options and has 24/7 access to anything Christian.
In fact, I can think of only two compelling reasons to go to church anymore.
You Don’t Attend Church. You Are the Church.
The main reason I gather with the church is because I am the church.
You don’t attend church. You are the church.
Merely attending church doesn’t make you much of a church because sitting in a back row consuming church doesn’t make you very good at being the church.
I think being the church has something to do with living your life for Christ, demonstrating God’s love by serving others and sharing your faith with people. That’s very different than consuming church in a back row, which you can just as easily do on your back deck.
The reason you would go to church today is that you’ve moved from being a consumer to being a contributor. You don’t just go to be served, you go to serve. There’s something deeply scriptural about that.
And before you think that you can do whatever you need to do as a Christian in the world without other Christians or without the church, here are a couple of reasons I would disagree.
First, gathering together was Jesus’ idea, not ours. I outline that (and much more) here.
Second, listen to what this young mom had to say about her experience when she started skipping church because of the demands of parenting. Fascinating.
You are the church. Remember that. And the church is at it’s best when we engage in the mission God has given us.
An Experience For the Sake of Those Not Yet in The Room
The second compelling reason to attend a Sunday morning gathering is that you’re bringing a friend with you or because you yourself are exploring Christianity.
I love being part of a church that is constantly designing experiences with those who are not yet in the room in mind.
One of the most exciting things about many growing churches today is they’ve become great at hosting experiences that unchurched people can access and ultimately love to attend. That’s what our church does well, and I love both bringing friends into it for the first time and being there to connect with other people that bring their friends.
Spiritual maturity, after all, isn’t about how much you know. It’s about how much you love. And love that doesn’t flow out into the lives of other people isn’t love.
A Dividing Line
So that’s it. Two good reasons to keep attending church.
First, you are the church, which means you’re engaged in the mission in some meaningful way.
And second, you’re creating space where everybody (regardless of their background) can hear and experience the news of Christ’s love for them.
But that also means we live in an age where attending church for attendance’s sake is dying. Fast.
And maybe that’s what we see happening around us. People who aren’t engaged in the mission are leaving the mission.
And while that’s sad, you can’t build the future of the church on passionless, disengaged people. Nor can you build it on consumers.
The future will be built on Christians who want to serve, share and engage the mission of the local church.
Stop Pandering to the Consumers
As a church leader, what do you do in the midst of this?
Well first, stop pandering to the consumers—those who merely attend and won’t engage. Too many leaders spend their time trying to please people who complain much and contribute little.
They have enough options. And you will never be able to please everyone. So stop trying.
As my friend Reggie Joiner says, focus on who you want to reach, not who you want to keep.
Raise The Level of Engagement
Second, focus on engaging people in the mission of the church. Nothing is more exciting. Nothing will change the world more powerfully than the love of Christ shared with a world that so desperately needs it.
And if you want to raise engagement, here are 7 ways to get people more engaged in the mission of your church, so they make the move from merely attending church to being the church.
Keep Unchurched People Front and Center
Third, make sure your church is optimally positioned to accomplish its mission: reaching unchurched people with the love and hope of Christ.
That means everything you do needs to work in a way unchurched people can access. The best churches assume that every Sunday is someone’s first Sunday. We even have that saying mounted on a giant logo on the wall.
One good way to check whether your church is ready to reach the unchurched is to see if teenagers love your church services. Not your alternative service. Your main-open-the-doors-wide service.
If teenagers hate your church service, so will unchurched people.
Not sure if your church is truly positioned to reach unchurched people? These 9 signs will tell you.
Maybe it’s not a bad thing in the end that the era of attending church is dying.
Please hear me, we need more churches. We need more, healthy churches. And we need churches that are doing a fantastic job at reaching people.
What we don’t need more of is churches where people merely attend and never engage.
Got any thoughts on what’s happening?
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