House on Fire: Church Attendance in the US

There it is, yet another study indicating that the number of American Christians who attend churches regularly has dropped yet again. (see link below) Currently the number of those who attend church once a month or more has dropped to something on the order of eighteen percent, less than half of the number who claim to have attended church within the past month.

Pastors themselves report that roughly half of the members on their congregational rolls show up only on holidays, if then.

If current trends continue, by 2050 the number of Americans attending church at least once a month will be something on the order of ten percent.

The new studies, by separating the facts from the fiction of attendance, show that attendance numbers in the US track closely with the downward trend in church attendance in Europe.

The difference lies in the percentage of the population who claim to be Christian. In Europe, more of those who don’t attend church also drop the identification as Christian (Europeans also tell the truth about their church attendance). In the US, this is not as of yet the case.

Why don’t most Christians go to church? There are many and sundry reasons, but I suspect most of them boil down to one essential: most American Christians no longer find church compelling. Churches are not providing what people need.

Yes, the building is on fire.

Bread and Circuses and Beyond

What do the people want and need? The usual answer—bread and circuses—is partially true. The greatest loss in attendance has occurred in congregations of between 100-299 members. Since the median size of a US congregation is 125, this is bad news for those average or below.

Larger congregations provide more in the way of bread and circuses.

Younger people, however, are asking for more than a good show. Many say they hanker for a “deeper relationship with Jesus.” If I’m reading between the lines correctly, this is, at least in part, a dismissal of the liturgical styles that have been practiced—more or less unchanged—for years.

Indeed, nearly twenty-five percent of the people who attend church anywhere near regularly meet in some permutation of a small group. Let’s read that as “I need connection.”

Beyond this, many congregations are reaching out into the communities where they find themselves. Apparently many people today find that a “deeper relationship with Jesus” has to do with healing their local communities. This “walking the walk” is a sea change in American religious practice.

Christianity and Beyond

All this said, I am the minister of an overtly and predominantly humanist congregation. Some of the people who gather in my congregation seek a deeper relationship with Jesus, but most think that’s about as likely as a deeper relationship with Albert Einstein. The people who come to my congregation are largely post-Christian.

They are, however, part of this change in thinking in the larger society. Humanists are looking for exactly the same thing as those seeking out cutting edge Christian congregations: more connection and more service.

We humanists are able, however, to go a step further, jettisoning the tired language of liturgy altogether. “Benediction” is a very odd word, isn’t it? It’s barely English and it has meaning mostly from its churchy trappings. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations hold to these words, sometimes called the “language of reverence,” tenaciously. The numbers tell us that’s a bad idea.

Why do congregations that are purportedly open the ideas outside Christendom using old Christian language? I suspect it’s because the people who care enough about their congregations to become leaders have a warm and fuzzy connection to such language. They are, in other words, inherently conservative.

But the numbers don’t lie: most Americans, even the Christian ones, don’t find liturgical language compelling enough to put down the newspaper or the joystick long enough to attend church.

People today are looking for connection and service. They want to gather together and heal our broken world. The don’t want the same ‘ol same ‘ol.

The building is burning. Even those who remain Christian are fleeing. And those who wish to explore other paths?

Well, I can send you the address of my church . . .

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