One of the trends that quite a few people have noticed in recent years has been the change in definition of what it means to attend church regularly. To those of us in church leadership, who have been Christians for some time, regular attendance tends to mean “at least once a week.” However, the reality is for many that once or twice a month counts as regular. These are not people that are just visiting occasionally but people who would consider themselves professing believers who belong to a local church.
There are all sorts of reasons why we might not consider this a good thing. The two primary ones are:
- For the sake of the mission of the church and the church family. The less frequently I attend, the less likely I am to be involved in serving others through welcoming them, through getting to know them, through serving in different areas of ministry from music, through to coffee through to children’s work.
- For the sake of the person not attending so regularly. They are losing the benefit of sequential teaching, of fellowship of good spiritual habits.
So, what might be causing this? Here are a few thoughts. First there are some practical hurdles that make it difficult for some families to attend regularly
- Work shift patterns for police, care workers, medics, factory and transport workers mean that they are often on the rota to work Sundays. Of course this has often been the case but there has been an increase of commercial activity on Sundays due to liberalisation of past restrictions.
- Family life, particularly the challenge of split families where children may be moving between parents on Sunday. This can also have a psychological affect on a parent feeling that sense of loss and discomfort when they attend without the kids because they are without dad or mum and the anxiety about potential questions.
- Responsibilities for caring for elderly parents including visits to care homes. As life expectancy increases this becomes more and more a natural part of life for the over 50s.
Alongside this, I think that there is also a sense of general busyness for people. Despite there being official limits on working hours, people are in many respects busier than ever, the pace of life is increasing and so people make choices about what they will and won’t attend. This may also mean that they are choosing to prioritise one church activity per week. Rather than attending a Sunday morning service, Sunday evening, a midweek meeting/home group and committing to at least one ministry, they are choosing one of these and it may be different each week. They feel that time is precious and rationed so they ration church time.
We also have to recognise that there is pressure in terms of the culture. There may be practical pressures for some but we cannot ignore an increasing consumer mentality in wider society and that feeds into church life too. This may appear to start with younger generations but it feeds into the older, longer established generations too in the same way that COVID-19 gets transmitted amongst the younger generations through school, university, work and social events and then starts to feed through into older generations. Of course this is a sad reversal of what is meant to happen spiritually where godliness is meant to flow through the generations as we teach our children and our children’s children and those children honour and obey their parents.
This is coupled with our tendency to hear mercy to others as something that we should be able to claim as of right. So, understandably, church leaders are gentle in excusing the infrequent attendance of those with commitments and two things happen. First, others think “well if they can have a Sunday or two off church, then why not me?” Secondly those who have legitimate reasons for missing then become slack about gathering when they are able to. Of course, knowing whether a person is missing because of a shift commitment, a family crisis, holiday or just because they decided to watch the Andrew Marr show and head down the allotment instead is near impossible, so we hold back from saying anything. The big danger then is that after a while a person begins to believe that no-one cares too much whether or not they are there, this gets shortened to “no-one cares” and infrequent attendance leads to non-attendance.
As I mentioned above, for previous generations, regular wasn’t just once on Sunday but 2-3 times followed by at least one midweek event, a prayer meeting with possibly another Bible study on a different night and then a ministry such as a youth Bible class where they might be serving. At times, it seemed that the aim was to keep the church family together and away from the dangers of the world. Attendance became associated with the drudgery of a certain kind of duty and legalism. People have begun to react against legalism, not least as they’ve spotted hypocrisy and sin. Additionally, we’ve intentionally sought to correct that legalism and actively encouraged Christians to be out there with non-believing friends and family.
My gut feel is that the pandemic will have accelerated such trends. There is a temptation now to see the convenience of knowing that the service is available on YouTube for me to watch whenever I want. All too often when we have the comfort of knowing something is there and available for when we need it, we become less and less likely to access it. I fear that those saying “It’s good that I know I don’t have to be up to watch the service on YouTube at 10am on Sunday, I can pick It up in the afternoon or even on Monday evening” will increasingly not be watching later.
The point about legalistic drudgery and duty means that before we complain too bitterly about consumerism, we need to reflect that elders have a responsibility to provide and protect, and that worship is meant to be about glorifying and enjoying God. If people are drifting because they don’t sense that, then we need to take responsibility. It may also be uncomfortable to hear but we also need to listen to the voices of those who have experienced toxic culture and abuse in the context of church. There are some for whom attending church is so, so painful Even the visual imagery of a building or the music of a particular hymn can trigger memories of severe trauma.
How do we respond to these trends? There are perhaps three temptations here:
- To pretend that it isn’t happening and just continue as we always have done.
- To rail against it, preaching and writing against this terrible sign of apostacy
- To attempt to adapt church life to meet changing habits.
I believe that a better option is to lovingly and graciously challenge the trend. We want to understand and provide for those who have little choice, some adaption is necessary. We also need to hear the heart cry of those whose infrequency is a reaction to horrific experiences. However, we also do want to come back to the point that we are called to gather to worship and to not forsake this not least because this is for our benefit and its how we show love to one another.
What this means as that we need to convey the message that gathering weekly and spending serious time together as God’s people is neither consumer choice nor legalistic drudgery. Rather, it is meant to be, should be and can be a joyful expression of our life as family together, gathering to spend time together in the presence of our saviour, feeding on him through his word.