Not so long ago, pastors and congregational leaders would secretly hold out hope during the summer months of empty pews by telling themselves that the crowds would return the Sunday after Labor Day. Like the trusting farmer awaiting the arrival of replenishing rains to water parched ground, patient pastors accepted lowered summer church attendance as a temporary aberration.
Not so any more. Gerald F. Seib of the Wall Street Journal cites a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll (without giving a date) indicating only 29% of Americans attend religious services once a week or more, down a whopping 12% in two decades.
The rhythm of a 3-month summertime decline followed by nine months of fuller congregations is, I’m convinced, no longer operative. The WSJ/NBC poll will come as no surprise to those who stand in pulpits and face increasingly emptier pews. What used to be confined largely to the summer months is now a 12-month phenomenon: beach weekends, football weekends, trips to the mountains, weddings, ski trips, scuba diving trips, etc. have decimated many congregations. Some families are out of town every weekend with children who play in premier sports leagues. Easter, Christmas and Mother’s Day now stand out in many congregations as the only Sundays with comfortably filled sanctuaries.
People have always absented themselves from worship. I’m currently reading the sermons of English priest and poet John Donne from the 1600s. He was decrying spotty attendance back then. But it is very small comfort to know that long before people owned pontoon boats and condos, they still skipped worship.
Seib goes further in his 6/25/19 WSJ article. He writes that almost 26% of Americans never attend religious services. Never. One fourth of Americans now never worship, representing almost a 100% increase over the percentage of never-shows (14%) in 2000. If that’s not sobering enough, consider this: 36% of 18-34-year old persons report never attending a religious service.
Last Sunday, while visiting grandchildren in Columbus, Ohio, my wife and I attended a Lutheran Church where my granddaughter attends pre-school. The worship service was very finely crafted, the sermon was both scriptural and compelling. The pastors were winsome. But the crowd was disappointing.
Attendance that Sunday probably hovered somewhere around 125 in a sanctuary that could hold three-four times that many people. Furthermore, most of the worshipers looked a lot like me: aging baby boomers. If that Sunday’s worship attendance — in fairness, the congregation was also offered two other morning worship services — was typical, this church, housed in a beautiful building on a major thoroughfare, will cease to exist in a few decades.
Major league professional athletes hate playing in stadiums with few fans. They agree that it’s much easier to play well in front of a crowd. Worship works similarly. It’s demoralizing to worship when so few are present.
There is very little debate over the accuracy of these statistics. Most religious organizations are experiencing these numbers. What is more debatable, however, is what is causing the decline and how to reverse it. That’s another column.