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No one reason explains church-going habits

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

Last week I cited a study revealing that church attendance is declining across the board in United States churches. Everything beyond the bare statistics is probably speculation, because it is notoriously difficult to discover why people don't attend worship. The answers they give may be only partially "true."

Take Sally Frontpew, who has had a very personal argument with Chester Churchgoer who accused her children of being Sunday school miscreants. The argument was nasty enough that Sally no longer attends church, but when quizzed about her absence, offers "busy-ness" and travel as reasons for her absence.

Liberal theology is a convenient and perennial whipping boy in conservative quarters for declining church attendance, but that argument has some drawbacks. If our nation is growing more conservative and if conservative Christians worship more regularly, then church attendance should be on the rise, but it is not.

The study indicated that the fastest-growing answer in the 25-34 age category is: "I have no religion." This could indicate that a functional atheism is taking root in our nation. But other studies indicate that young adults are very receptive to spirituality. Many congregations are attracting young adults.

Does the aging of our nation make it harder for some to attend worship? Does the fact that many adults spend weekends at a second home or a football game add to the decline?

Some speculation cancels itself out. Take the weather, for instance. If attendance is low on a wintry January day, everybody says, "It's the weather." But if attendance is lousy on a beautiful spring day, everybody says, "It's the weather."

It can't always be the weather!

My own hunch is that analyzing church attendance is akin to the political adage that "all politics is local politics." Instead of looking to large national trends we should be examining what is happening in any given locality.

If you were to survey the average person (who is that?) as to their reasons for attending or avoiding church, most of their answers would reflect very local conditions:

1. The pastor is interesting (or boring).

2. The music (instrumental or vocal) is excellent (or atrocious).

3. I want my children to learn faith at an early age.

4. There are no (fill in the blank) young adults, children, people like me...

5. They talk about money too much.

6. I don't like the (fill in the blank) parking lot, Sunday school, praise band ...

7. The sermon is always about hell.

8. The church is right around the corner.

9. I missed for four weeks and nobody called me.

10. My mother made me go when I was a child.

11. We travel on the weekends.

12. I like (fill in the blank) the children, youth program ...

None of these answers are sophisticated or expressed theologically. But they come the closest to explaining why attendance waxes or wanes.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.