“Spiritual and Religious”

Church Attendance as a Spiritual Discipline

Last week at Brite’s Minister’s Week Diana Butler Bass – the Senior Research Fellow at Virginia Theological Seminary and the author of such books as “Christianity for the Rest of Us” and “A People’s History of Christianity” – was one of the presenters, and while I was not able to hear her myself, I spent an hour this week visiting with a friend who was there and going over the copious notes that she took during Dr. Bass’ talk, and I must say that what she has to say intrigues me.  On her blog at “Beliefnet” Dr. Bass introduced her latest research project — the material that formed the basis of her presentation at Minister’s Week —

I’m busy working on my next book–it doesn’t yet have a title–on how spirituality and religion are changing in the United States.  For instance, did you know that in the last few years nearly every brand-name denomination in North America has experienced numerical decline, including many very conservative churches that some scholars thought resistant to membership erosion?  Were you aware that “none of the above,” atheism, and “spiritual but not religious” are the fastest growing religion identifications?  Or… that attending a weekly religious service is at an all-time low?

It’s that last observation — the one about church attendance — that gets my interest.  You see, church attendance is something that I think about a lot.   In fact, at times in my life it has completely controlled me.  When attendance was good on a Sunday morning, I was good; when attendance was bad, I was bad.  It was a roller-coaster, on week up, the next week down.  But I’ve really worked on that in myself, and I feel like I’ve made some real progress. Since my Sabbatical in 2005 I’ve determined that I’m going to be good no matter how many people are in church on given Sunday morning because I am made in God’s image, redeemed by Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, and indwelt by God’s empowering Holy Spirit.  Physically, emotionally and spiritually I am so much healthier because I have tried to consciously and consistently lash my personal well-being to the unchanging truths of the Gospel rather than to the fleeting vagaries of who’s bothering to get up on Sunday morning to come to church. But that doesn’t mean that I still don’t ponder and pray about church attendance, and often.  And so in my next couple of blogs I want to share with you some of the grist that’s in my mill on the question of church attendance.  I want to invite you to take a look at some of the things that I’ve read about church attendance, from a variety of perspectives, and then join in a process of reflection and conversation.

Let’s begin with Martin Marty’s article from September 26, 2010 –


America’s Decline in Church
Martin E. Marty

Pope Benedict XVI has expressed grave concern over the decline of church participation in Western Europe. His trip to the UK last week provided opportunities for him to address it. Most commentators in religious and secular communications found almost nothing that he said or did which might help reverse the downward trends. The fact that large crowds appeared at several of his appearances did not impress them; throngs line up for popes as celebrities. I’ve asked after each of Pope John Paul’s travels, which often drew masses of young people: did his Pope-mobiled words and gestures, eloquent though they be, lead any young man to enter the seminary ranks with intention to become ordained? Did mass attendance swell a month or a year later? Maybe the answer is yes, but it’s hard to find evidence.

Observation of the North American scene and data gathered by many polling agencies provide a cause for separating this continent’s milder declines from the plot which defines Europe today. So sudden have been the marked trends showing disaffection that leaders have not internalized the evidence. Exceptions? Yes, for now, Latino/a Roman Catholics sign up enough to keep the Catholic rolls deceptively high, if only relatively. For now, some astute, market-oriented mega-churches keep prospering, though even among them opinion-pollers and people-counters see signs which prompt concern.

Those who do care and who set out to address the issue of decline begin in a state of alarm. I was recently on a panel with an official who knew all about weapons of mass destruction, from nukes to germ-warfare capsules. Someone asked, “Knowing all that, how do you sleep?” He answered, “I sleep like a baby—for fifteen minutes, and then I wake up crying.” But sleeping or crying does not help and will not help people who seek to address the issues signified in the trends.

Some graphs and paragraphs in Lovett H. Weems, Jr.’s article in Christian Century show that from 1994 to 2000, two of four studied mainline Protestant church bodies showed modest gains and two others saw only modest losses. But from 2001 to 2008 the “growing” United Methodist Church saw the greatest plunge (-17.86%), and its losses were almost matched in the other three. Disconcerting to church-growth experts was Weems’s note that in the earlier decade, greatest growth was among the largest local churches—but that in the more recent decade, the largest among them suffered most decline.

Some readers may wonder why in columns like this, which are to be about “public religion,” we talk about church and synagogue (etc.) attendance and participation–aren’t their institutions part of “private religion?” Emphatically no. They are the bearers of traditions, the living expositors of sacred texts, the tellers of stories, the troop-suppliers for voluntary activities, the shapers of values fought over in the political realms.

Why are they declining? Certainly not because a few atheists write best-sellers. I always look for the simplest causes, such as rejection of drab and conflicted congregations and denominations. Or changes in habits. I watch the ten thousands running past in Sunday marathons or heading to the kids’ soccer games and recall that their grandparents and parents kept the key weekend times and places open for sacred encounters. Oh, and “being spiritual” is not going to help keep the stories, the language of ethics, and the pool of volunteers thriving. Their disappearance has consequences.


Lovett H. Weems, Jr. “No Shows: The Decline in Worship Attendance.” The Christian Century, September 22, 2010.

Martin E. Marty’s biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at http://www.illuminos.com/.


And since he quoted it, let’s also take a look at Lovett Weem’s article “No Shows” from the Christian Century (9/22/10) –


No shows: The decline in worship attendance
Lovett H. Weems Jr.

attendance-chartMany people assume that there has been a steady decline in worship attendance for all the mainline denominations since the mid-1960s—the era when most of them began to see their memberships decline. But trends in attendance—usually thought to be a better indicator of church vitality than trends in membership—have actually followed their own patterns.

For example, the Episcopal Church re­ported higher attendance in 2000 than in any year since 1991, the year the denomination began recording attendance figures. The United Methodist Church re­ported worship attendance figures in 2000 that were higher than those in the mid-1980s. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had relatively flat attendance rates in the years before 2001, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the 1990s had several years showing modest gains in attendance.

But the years following 2001 have shown a deep recession in worship attendance (see graph below). The losses in worshipers year after year were more dramatic than what data from the previous decade would have predicted.

David A. Roozen, reporting on the findings of the 2008 Faith Communities Today survey of American congregations of all types, points out that the “erosion of vitality” holds not only for “oldline” Protestants but also for evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox and “other world religions.” The new century has brought a “retreat for America’s congregations,” according to Roozen.

One feature of the recent downturn in attendance is the changing pattern in large churches. In the United Methodist Church, large churches (those averaging 350 or more in attendance) showed steady attendance growth during the 1980s and significant growth during the 1990s, reaching a high point in 2001. Their decline in attendance began in 2002 and has continued every year since. If the large churches had held their attendance numbers at previous levels, there would still have been de-nom­inational decline, but much less. In essence, the smaller churches con­tinued and somewhat accelerated their decades-long decline while the large churches for the first time joined the decline.

There is one exception to the trend: churches averaging 1,000 or more in worship are still showing growth in most years, with 2008 marking their largest attendance figures ever. For the past four years, the only tier of United Methodist churches in which at least half of the churches showed an attendance increase is the group of churches averaging 1,000 or more in worship during the previous year.

No one knows the reason for the overall attendance drop, but three possible explanations are:

Worshipers attend less frequently. In addition to tracking weekly attendance numbers, some churches are tracking who actually worships during a month. Many pastors sense that the same individuals are worshiping throughout the year, but that they worship less often.

This impression gets some confirmation from the General Social Survey 2008 conducted by the National Opinion Center. It traced according to frequency the percentage of the adult population who attend worship. While the percentage of people who report attending church more than once a week has stayed steady over the years, the percentage saying they attend once a week has steadily gone down. Some pastors have observed that many members of their congregation identify themselves as regular church­goers even though they may attend only twice a month or less. In earlier times, being a regular churchgoer meant coming to worship almost every Sunday.

Aging constituencies. Mainline churches have a disproportionate number of mem­bers age 65 and older. This proportion will only grow more pronounced as the first of the baby boomers reach 65 in 2011. While it does not appear that death rates are changing dramatically in the mainline churches from year to year, many older members may not be attending as often—for health or other reasons.

The other side of this dilemma is the failure of churches to reach younger persons. This is particularly true for the smaller churches that constitute a large part of mainline denominations.

Lack of interest in religion. Adding to the challenge of reaching younger people is the fact that the age group in which self-identified adherents of “no religion” are found most is 25-34. Additional indicators of decreasing interest in church life are found in the General Social Survey 2008: fewer people report going to church “several times a year” and more people report going “once a year.” Fewer report going “less than once a year” while many more report going “never.” In fact, the attendance category that has grown the most since 1990 is “never.”

Church attendance patterns are subject to greater fluctuation, at least in the short term, than membership figures. The relatively strong attendance of the 1990s did not carry over through the next decade. A renewed interest by denominations in reaching beyond traditional racial and class constituencies and in reaching younger people may lead to an increase in worshipers. But it’s also possible that these denominations are approaching a tipping point: with fewer and increasingly older members, the shrinking attendance will make many congregations unsustainable. In the 21st century mainline churches will face perhaps their greatest challenge since they faced the American frontier of the 19th century.


So, what do you think?



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