Thursday, August 30, 2012

Is Attendance Declining and Why?

This past Sunday I rounded off the past three months of Sunday School lessons by talking about the importance of teaching children. I don’t actually teach children. I teach the adult class, speaking every other week on a topic assigned in a quarterly teacher’s manual. This past quarter’s theme had been built around the stories of children in the Bible and ended with a lesson on the importance of children to the Church.

Of course one of the points was protecting our kids from worldly influence. “Do it for the children!” It’s a popular theme, one that’s been so overused that it could even be described as burnt over. Fortunately I am given a lot of discretion in how I present the week’s topic. You see, children and worldly influences are a problem, but it’s not because evil, secular humanists are targeting them. It is because children, like their parents, are in the world. We are all in the world and the values and principles of our culture touch all of us, regardless of age.

So, how are these values effecting our churches? Its a complicated question. Church attendance is down, but it isn’t. Religiosity is down, but it isn’t--except where it is. In North America approximately 40 percent of Americans and 20 percent of Canadians tell pollsters they’ve been to a church service in the last week. Studies of actual attendance levels, however, show that half of them are lying. Only about 20 percent of Americans attend church on a weekly basis. The others believe that weekly attendance is a ‘perceived good,’ so they claim to do it even though they go much less frequently, if at all. I don’t know how many Canadians are lying. I don’t have the numbers. On the one hand, our cultures are very similar, so it’s possible that half of them are lying. On the other hand, religiosity isn’t as valued in modern Canada as it is in the States, so its possible that fewer see it as a perceived value. The number of people who attend weekly services has been remarkable stable for decades. It has resisted the great many social changes that have occurred, whether its the sexual revolution, the 60s radicalism, the Me decade, the rise of the religious right. You name it. What has changed is the number of people who identify with organized religion or who think attendance has a perceived value, and that does reflect the great changes in our society.

What is driving these changes? Is it multiculturalism and the influx of immigration. No. Absolutely not. The number of immigrants who are not Christians is tiny. The combined Jewish and Muslim populations, for example, in both Canada and the US are approximately 4 percent of the total population and about thirty percent of Muslims and more than half the Jews don’t even consider themselves to be religious. Large numbers of minority groups are Christian. Blacks and Latinos, obviously, but the number of Christians in other groups, such as Chinese and Indian, is also higher within the immigrant groups here than it is in their countries of origin.

Some churches are losing numbers. Mainstream Protestant groups, such as the Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Church of Canada, for example. These churches actually lost large numbers in the mid-20th century and are seeing another decline as many of the members they held onto reach their senior years. Another form of this kind of systemic decline can be seen in Evangelical mega-churches. When they decline it can often be because they are built around the ministry of a single man, but it can also reflect demographic shifts. They begin by buying large properties on the outskirts of urban areas. Where new families are building homes. They fill up with these families, providing them with a wide range of services and recreation. These are costly and depend on a growing and generous membership. But when the next generation looks to become homeowners, they move to the newer development areas, its cheaper, and they find a church there. The mega-churches can’t follow them. They are stuck in their original locations and will decline as the area ages, with fewer new families and more people on fixed incomes.

Yet, the number of actual attendees remains consistent. Its the people who perceive a value in lying about their attendance who have declined. Why? Why do fewer people perceive any value in weekly attendance? In researching the lesson, I paid particular attention to kids, but I found something applicable to our culture generally: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This term was coined by researchers Smith and Denton, working with the National Study of Youth and Religion. Its focus was the young people of America, but from my experience and observation I am sure it can be applied more generally to our culture. Children do not grow up in a vacuum. Their values reflect the society around them and if they appear different from their parents it’s usually because they are not carry the same cultural and historical baggage. Smith and Denton define Moralistic Therapeutic Deism by these five values:

1.A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

2.God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3.The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4.God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

5.Good people go to heaven when they die.

I would replace ‘moralistic’ with ‘consumer,’ but apart from that I think this reflects the values of a lot people today. And, as these researcher point out, these values exist both within and without Christianity. These are the broad religious values of our society.

For much of the last decade there has been a lot of media attention on the rise of atheism, but their numbers are tiny and I don’t believe the shift in religious values is a reflection of their influence. Rather it is the warm and fuzzy deism characterized by people like Oprah Winfrey that is diluting Western religious precepts. No, I am not laying the blame at Oprah’s feet. What she has done is captured a zeitgeist, not created one. She is as successful as she is because she both shares and intuits her viewer’s beliefs. Would churches be more successful if they did the same? No, and its not hard to see why. If churches began to teach that all God wants is for peple to be happy, to feel good about themselves, that God’s place in their lives is determined by their level of need at any given time, how would this foster any level of commitment? Why go to church? Why commit to a given community of saints if its all about you and your happiness?

What I anticipate happening over the next few years (actually, more than a few years, as these things are often generational) is that the number of people who identify themselves as regular attendees will continue to decline even as the number of actual attendees sees little or no change. On the surface that might not seem like a problem. It might even seem an improvement. As those who are less committed drop off, the core membership will be stronger. But stronger for what purpose? The Church is supposed to big a city on a hill top, drawing the world to Christ. I am opposed to direct political activity, but that’s not the same thing as being a social influence. If the Church wants to check this trend it needs to remember is that what offers, what no one else can offer, is a relationship to Jesus Christ and to His Body, the Church. The first strength in weathering life’s storms is knowing who you are. Know who Jesus is. Learn how to explain your relationship to HIm and to teach others about it. It’s one of those things that is so simple, people often assume there must be more, but anything more is only an addition to this foundation. Without the foundation, whatever else you build won’t stand.

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