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 . . .

  • Fred Wooden

    You may be right, David but your argument hinges on this assumption, “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.” I hear that attendance is down in churches with contemporary worship as well (very like what we saw some of at GA this past June).

    One could also infer that it is the inconsistency between principle and presentation that sours people on church. In Christian churches it is the variance between what it professed (to walk with Jesus) and what is done (to be part of a church organization). Among UUs, the variance is between principles that are ‘post-Christian’ and presentation of those ideas in churchy forms. There is nothing wrong with being churchy if that is what you promise (Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox for example) but saying one thing and doing another, the familiar definition of hypocrisy and inauthenticity, may be the problem and not the words or forms themselves.

    Purity, of course, is impossible. What makes a church real and authentic is when their mission is palpable and present even as they struggle to achieve it. Honesty is what people want, not consistency – an honesty about our own struggle to make incarnate what we think, to remove the log in our own eye as much as we point to the motes in others, to be what Iraneus called ‘fully alive.’

    At least so it seems to me.

    Fred Wooden
    Read more:

    • David Breeden

      Fred, I think you are right. And it may be that the big-steeple church model–with the resulting high costs of institutional maintenance–is a thing of the past. Jesus had a few things to say about big buildings and institutional maintenance . . .

      • Fred Wooden

        OTOH, larger churches have more resources overall. I serve one now, which has in fact seen declining attendance from 600 to 400, but 400 (in worship, plus 100 some in RE and such) can still make for a solid congregation. If you see institutions as means, not ends (very Jesus I think) larger can be a plus not a minus.

    • Adam Dyer

      What Fred said…:) Authenticity is crucial. I go to many different types of churches and whether its in a store front or an arena, if it is genuine and actually connected to the message being delivered, people are engaged. The other thing to remember is that people are kind of “anti-organization” right now. There are people having “church” and “worship” in their living rooms and in parks a lot more these days and none of that is showing up on the radar. People also don’t have to go to church, it can come to them. Case in point, I regularly listen to the Morning Office of the Episcopal church as a way of staying connected with my Christian roots. About once a month (if that) I make it to Eucharist…but when I do, its important to me.

      • David Breeden

        Adam, Seriously, you are the person all the researchers are searching for. Thomas Moore recently published a book called -A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World.- You’ve already accomplished that. And–the churches are scared.

      • Guest

        It’s true. Church is about a traditional authority structure with rules that have more to do with maintaining that structure than with the spiritual principles advocated by the original Teacher. It doesn’t help when so many who claim to be “Christian” are selfish, greedy, and controlling, more interested in poking their noses into the personal lives of complete strangers than in minding their own not so pure affairs (and, from the number of creepy evangelists in the news over the years, that last word could be taken literally.) The more these people sound off in person, in courts, and on the Internet, the more younger people will stay home and watch football on Sunday. At least that isn’t hurting anyone.

    • Big Text

      It’s all fake. Just more “strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.”

  • Wannamakeadifference

    I do believe people are looking for ” walking the talk”. Over the last 20 years I have evolved into a post-Christian. I still occasionally attend an inclusive United Methodist Church ( joined in l987), and what brought me and kept me there was lots of social action/justice involvement and focus. Over the years, that church has changed into lots of ” talk”, but not a lot of action. And, the UMC certainly has its head in the sand when it comes to full inclusion ( my church and some others are very open, but when a denomination doctrine-wise excludes, it is certainly sending an unwelcoming message). BTW, my church has at most 50 members, with no more than 30 attending on a Sunday morning.

  • Big Text

    The real question is: why DID most people go to church back in the day? I believe it was mostly to establish social acceptance. Attending church used to be one of the primary means of establishing yourself and your family as part of the mainstream norms. That is no longer necessary, and you might as well save your tithes for tickets to the big game. Football has replaced church as the arbiter of normality.