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Church Leaders Speak Up: 10 Honest Thoughts on Church Attendance Decline

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You’ve heard the numbers:

  • Only about a quarter of young people ages 23 to 37 attend church
  • For every new church that opens, four close
  • Nearly 60% of Millennials who grew up going to church have stopped

There’s no question that church attendance is declining and has been for quite some time now.

But what are you supposed to do with this information?

We’ve written in the past about how church software can help you track attendance and advertise your church effectively.

But this time around, we’re talking to those people who spend more time thinking about church attendance decline than anyone else: the church leaders themselves.

What do leaders think about church attendance decline?

I put out the call on social media to see what church leaders have to say about church attendance decline, and the response was resounding and varied, with thoughts on technology, generational differences, the relevancy of the church in modern society, and more. Here’s what they had to say.

1. Church attendance decline is a generational thing

Statistics show that many millennials are leaving the church en masse, while others have gone the opposite route, and started churches of their own. However, they’re finding that their own ideals don’t necessarily match up with those of their parents, who had the idea of church attendance force fed to them, and are reversing course as a result.

“Our generation was especially susceptible to the ‘You don’t have to go to church to be saved’ narrative. While the statement is true, what it unintentionally did for an entire generation is de-value the importance of being faithful to a local body because they didn’t want to be ‘religious’…We have to learn how to communicate the value without making it a religious rule, because so many are missing out on the true family that the church can be.”

– Grant Braaten, pastor and founder, Reality House Church, Kansas City

In other words, attending church just isn’t seen as important to younger generations like it was for their parents.

In fact, Braaten says some of his members even consider rec softball practice a higher priority than going to church. If this is a problem at your church, you could focus more energy on alternatives to traditional service such as live streaming or small church groups.

2. Too many options has led to church attendance decline

Braaten goes on to compare choosing a church to dating on an app such as Tinder. People used to attend the church that they grew up going to, he says, but now people will drive long distances every Sunday in an ongoing quest to find the “coolest” church around. Why settle for one church when you have hundreds of other options around the corner?

“I have watched as people join by the droves churches that already have 3-5 services because they are the coolest church in town. It really appeals to the Millennial desire to be a part of something bigger than them, to belong to a movement.”

If this is a problem at your church, don’t worry; you don’t need a megachurch budget to attract new members. Braaten goes on to underscore the value young people find in attending a growing church because of “the impact they could have at an everyday church instead of just attending the biggest one.”

3. The issue of church attendance decline is exaggerated

Some church leaders say, “Church attendance decline? What church attendance decline?”

“I’ve been a member of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Milwaukee for about 30 years. I’ve been an ordained deacon for three. Like many churches, our attendance was down, but now it’s on the upswing. There was a dedicated effort to get young couples with children to become members. It has worked!”

– Deacon Gary Nosacek, Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Milwaukee

In other words, a proven way to counteract church attendance decline is to attract young, growing families. That way, you’re not only be addressing the issue for right now, but for generations to come.

4. Some Millennials have become cynical toward church

Next, we’ll hear from a professor of religious studies who has watched her students move away from traditional religion for almost two decades.

“A majority [of students] are secular, spiritual, or nonpracticing. I know several outreach pastors who cite Millennials as desiring a connection to traditions…Yet, I find that even with this desire, the modern generations are coming in with inappropriate assumptions of religions: That religions are uber-political, cause wars, and cause social disparity.”

– Brandy Stark, Ph.D., professor of religious studies and humanities, St. Petersburg College, Florida

What do you think about Stark’s theory that modern generations have become not only indifferent, but cynical toward church and religion, and what can be done about it? Leave a comment below, or tweet me @CapterraAC with your thoughts.

5. Church has been replaced by other social activities

Some would suggest that church attendance has declined because people now come together in other ways, such as after-school activities and children’s sports practices, as they start families of their own and contribute to the community in their own way.

“We all seem to be looking for our tribe. A focus on smaller gatherings and more community outreach as opposed to recitation and analysis of religious texts may draw in more people…As people find others that share a similar worldview or have common interests, they can gather together locally to do good in the world. The world needs less discussion and more compassion in action.”

– Candyce Walti, former church administrator and founder of The Path to NowHere

What do you think of Walti’s idea that church attendance decline is not necessarily a bad thing, because people are finding spiritual communities and doing good together in new places? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, or you can tweet me @CapterraAC.

6. Church attendance decline is a result of complacency

Whatever the approach, reversing church attendance decline will be a painful, difficult process that requires breaking out of a comfort zone. Humans have a natural tendency to glorify the good old days. But nostalgia, while comforting, can distort reality and prevent progress.

“If we focus on people already there and our church doesn’t disciple people who’s hearts break for the community and who reach out to their neighbors, we are just a religious country club looking to keep people comfortable.”

– Cameron Pedicord, High School Ministry Director at Centerpoint Community Church

Do you think Pedicord is right, and if so, what can we do to keep church from becoming a “religious country club”? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter @CapterraAC.

7. Church attendance decline is OK, if people are participating in other ways

What if people aren’t attending church because they’re out serving the community in other ways? For example, meeting at a park, interacting with locals, then inviting them back to the church as guests for a potluck supper and conversation. If that’s the case, could church attendance decline be a good thing?

“I want our congregation OUT in the community BEING the church, not being IN a church. This is a dream of mine, that we take at least one Sunday a month (hoping to start within the youth group) and go do church OUT and about…This is the decline I want to see in the church. Less of us sitting comfortable in a building on a Sunday and more of us living out the gospel, being a bit uncomfortable.”

– Tara Phillips, Download Youth Ministry Facebook group

It’s an intriguing idea, for sure. Could this be the future of the modern church?

8. The key to church attendance decline is engagement

It’s easy to point the finger at “the outside world” as the cause for church attendance decline, but perhaps this is the wrong way to go about things.

“Churches that engage people in the community will see attendance grow if their mission is clear and compelling to everyone who mentions that church’s name. If your church is known in the community as a place that is *for* the community, you’ll attract more people.”

– Jared Willey, director of communications at Grace Chapel

The question, then, becomes: How does the church regain its place in the community instead of being seen as an insulated relic?

9. Church attendance decline is a symptom of an ineffective, outdated institution

Church is happening everyday, but attendance continues to decline. This tells us, quite simply, that people are not having their needs met by going to church. The question is, why isn’t church a solution for people who are in pain and looking for relief?

“Because ‘church’ wasn’t meant to be. My advice is not to put all the effort to get them back into church. My advice is to be the church by ministering to people. And to do that first involves a deep level of listening and understanding. People are hurting—and are glad to talk about the hurt—the problem is that no one is listening. And the formal ‘church’ isn’t structured to listen, it’s structured to talk. People aren’t being heard. I would hear them.”

– Sam Stevens, Humble Pie Solutions

Tough words to hear, but maybe necessary. The good thing is, it’s easy to start listening to people. But you have to be available where they’re ready to talk.

How do you do that? A great way to start is by making your church available on social media and starting the conversation on those channels.

10. Remember to pay attention to those who never left

It’s easy to point to church attendance decline and respond by advertising, recruiting, multiplying, and trying to keep up with the new church across town.

But there are still millions of people who attend their local church every week, and will continue coming every week as long as you value their presence, hear their voices, and speak from the heart.

“You have to keep the people you have before you can worry much about new converts coming in. In attempt to stay relevant the church has become powerless, it is a show and a laughing stock to most intelligent people. You have to present a powerful, life-changing gospel, not simply your dogmas and beliefs…In short, you must give a gospel that is worth converting to and living everyday, which is what the real gospel is.”

– Ray Vaughn, Independent Minister

In other words, keep listening, keep learning, and keep seeking the good, and good things will follow.

Here is some additional reading to get you thinking:

Your thoughts?

What are your thoughts on church attendance decline? Is this an epidemic that needs to be addressed, or just a natural evolution of spirituality? Keep the discussion going in the comments, and subscribe to our church management newsletter to keep up with the latest news in church technology!

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About the Author

Andrew Conrad

Andrew is a content writer for Capterra, specializing in church management and project management software. When he’s not striving for the perfect balance of information and entertainment, Andrew enjoys the great outdoors and the wide world of sports. Follow him on Twitter @CapterraAC.

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