Have you noticed how church attendance fluctuates from Sunday to Sunday? Perhaps it’s just my church, but I have my strong suspicions that a trend is emerging across conservative evangelical churches that is a cause for genuine concern. Several local church surveys done in different states show rather similar results, and suggest that the “new normal” attendance across the congregation for people who consider themselves “regular attenders” averages out at roughly 2.5 services per month, or slightly better than 60% attendance. When you consider that some people, mainly the older generation, rarely miss church, the statistic becomes even more worrying.
Why is it Happening?
There are many possible explanations for this occurrence, not least being the increasing secularisation of the world around us. Inevitably we are affected by its encroachment. Weekend sport, children’s parties, school events, shopping, work commitments, study commitments, general fatigue …. sickness in the family, weekends away, family events, visits to other churches …. then throw in the general chaos of many people’s lives and some spiritual slackness, and in no time 20 Sundays of the year are gone! For most of these people such absences are entirely justifiable. And particularly for those who are younger, or have young families, the idea of being in church faithfully every Sunday is no longer seen as a realistic or reasonable expectation.
The Changing Church Culture
To one who grew up attending services twice each Sunday, this comes as quite a shock. Is it legalistic to expect regular attendance these days? If so, what is “regular”? If not—and if the current trend continues—what will this mean for our churches over the next 5, 10 or 20 years? Could it be that listening to the podcast of the previous week’s sermon (or John Piper’s) will become standard practice? And catching up with friends at home group or the local coffee shop (perhaps on Sunday morning!) will provide enough fellowship to tick that box? As for the weekly gathering of the body of Christ, who knows? Does it really matter?
Well, there are good reasons why the writer to the Hebrews challenged Christians to “meet together” regularly (Hebrews 10:24-25); and why the early churches had been taught to gather on the first day of each week (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). And neglecting this habit has a significant downside. For example:
- Loss of the “spurring-on effect” of regular interaction with other believers
- Gaps in the continuity of systematic Bible teaching
- Inability to commit to serving in Sunday ministries, especially children’s programmes
- Impact on children who miss the regularity of involvement in their weekly Sunday groups
- Increase in the workload on the “committed core” who are faithfully there week by week
- General discouragement of the rest of the church family who miss out on the fellowship of friends
- Poor example to children and less mature Christians
- General devaluation of the Lord’s Day
- Weakening of overall connection with and commitment to the local church family, and enhancing the privatizing of faith
One could easily get the impression that church attendance is an optional thing, and even secondary to anything else that might compete for our time on the weekend. And so, an exhausting week or a late Saturday night are good enough reasons not to get up in time for the Sunday morning service, and that’s regarded as okay because “life’s busy …. you can’t do everything …. I’ll be there next week ….. maybe?”
Should We Worry?
So how do we respond to this creeping complacency of church absenteeism? Some would say it’s not a big deal. In the faster-paced, digital world we need to find more creative ways of expressing our fellowship and unity in Christ. Being physically connected to 50 or 500 other people each week isn’t that important.
Personally, I’m not comfortable with this line of thinking. In some mysterious way Christ is present among His people when they gather together (Matt 18:20) and there is a special unity when the body of Christ functions well together and we increasingly become “members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5). Anything that fosters this closeness will enrich the whole church family, deepen its fellowship, and allow us to put into practice what it truly means to love one another (1 John 3:11-24). Regular attendance in church is a good spiritual habit, but it’s much more than that. It’s an important opportunity for the whole body of Christ to worship together and to grow spiritually, both personally and in our relationships with one another. We really do need each other in this increasingly de-personalised world.
A Pastoral Response
Ultimately it’s a pastoral issue. And for some of us it’s time to muster the courage to take some action. Here are some suggestions:
- Remind people from the pulpit of the positives of regular attendance, including its impact on others in the church family
- Preach relevant passages that reinforce commitment to the local church, and also the harm caused by absenteeism
- Ask yourself whether there are good reasons why people can’t be in church regularly e.g. Does the time of the service need to be more family friendly? Is the preaching boring?
- Make a note of people who are irregular attenders and speak personally (and gently) with them about it. Some might have good reasons for their irregularity. (This obviously requires some form of record keeping.)
- Use elders, small group leaders and pastoral carers in this process
- Work at building fellowship within the church family e.g. meals, hospitality, creating a space for mingling after services
For most of us there is some discomfort approaching people about their attendance record. But it’s not all bad. My experience suggests that it’s well worthwhile and often results in a positive outcome. One man said to me: “Thanks for checking on me, Pastor. I’ve got no excuses. I’ve been lazy. I’ll see you on Sunday.” And he’s been much more regular in church over the past nine months. Hopefully his relationships with the Lord and the church family have benefitted also!