Skipping church: Why are some Americans staying home on Sunday?
(June 16, 2002)
By John W. Kennedy
On Sunday mornings, Steve*, a 28-year-old father of two in Missouri,
says he can usually be found in one of two places: a city park playing
with his children or on his couch in front of the television set
"I work in a high-stress job five days a week and have home
maintenance things to do on Saturdays," Steve says. "Its
hard to want to spend my Sunday mornings at church. My weekends
are precious, so I use Sundays to relax and spend time with my children."
Steve used to be a regular attendee at an evangelical church. But
as he reached adulthood he says he "grew wiser," and became
skeptical of leaders and laypeople at his church.
"Some people need emotional rest and they get it at church,
but some of us dont," Steve says. So, four years ago,
he stopped going to church and says he has never looked back.
Indeed, most Americans have attended church at some point in their
lives. More than 80 percent of Americans, according to findings
published last month by U.S. News and World Report, claim
to be Christian. A poll published by the magazine indicated that
64 percent of Americans say religion is "very important"
in their lives.
Yet Gallup polls published in the past 60 years show that weekly
religious attendance has remained fairly constant. In a March Gallup
poll, 44 percent said they had attended in the past seven days.
A generation ago, even non-Christians viewed Sunday morning as
a time reserved for church activities. No more. Those who dont
go now find a host of alternative Sunday morning activities in an
increasingly secularized society, from baseball and soccer games
to shopping at the mall.
But theres more to it than that. Church growth expert Lyle
Schaller, 59, of Naperville, Ill., says pastors must compete for
attention in an increasingly technologically savvy age. "The
message frequently needs to be extraordinarily well delivered in
communication skills or wrapped in entertainment," he says.
"People born after 1960 in particular are not so much looking
for worship services as much as worship experiences."
In addition, many mainline churches have lost members who no longer
see the denomination as being consistent in teaching biblical truths.
Several denominations have lost members due to ambiguous or liberal
stances on issues such as ordaining homosexual clergy.
In Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Are Leaving
the Church, William D. Hendricks interviewed three dozen disillusioned
people who had stopped attending services at mainline Protestant,
Reformed, independent and charismatic churches.
"The one element that the church brings that no other institution
in society can bring, of course, is God," says Hendricks, 47,
founder of The Hendricks Group, a Dallas-based consulting firm.
"Underneath it all, while they may be attracted to a particular
worship format or youth program, the reason people go is because
of an insatiable hunger for God. If they dont find that expectation
satisfied in the church or if God is talked about in ways that dont
make sense to them, sooner or later they become disillusioned and
look for an excuse to leave."
Of the three dozen he interviewed only one rejected God outright.
The rest described a spiritual faith void when not meeting with
Gods people. They continued searching for ways to meet that
need, whether that meant ordering tapes from a parachurch ministry
or watching an evangelist on television.
Hendricks says churches may create an expectation that can be difficult
to deliver, such as publicizing that a sense of community or family
is available to all churchgoers. He cites one case study in which
an attendee spent six months hospitalized and, despite repeated
requests, no one from the church visited him. Once people drop out,
they often will sit by the phone for weeks waiting for a call telling
them they are missed, Hendricks says.
"There are enormous expenses and efforts that go into evangelism
and outreach to bring people in the front door, yet in some churches
when someone goes out the back door they dont receive a phone
call," Hendricks says.
Sometimes people bring unrealistic expectations of what church
is about. To be a part of a church means people must do more than
sit back as spectators waiting for their wants to be met, Hendricks
says. Those who leave permanently usually never took the first step
to find out how they could exercise their spiritual gifts in the
body, he says.
According to Hendricks, relationship and responsibility are the
key factors to staying in church. For instance, participating is
becoming part of a small group. Volunteering is carrying out some
regular function, such as bus ministry or nursery worker. "If
I know someone is counting on me and I can see that my efforts are
making a difference in whats going on, its difficult
to walk away," Hendricks says.
In large part because of dwindling rural populations, there are
fewer churches from which to choose. There are 319,000 houses of
worship in the United States and Canada, 40,000 less than a decade
ago according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.
And the average congregation size is dwindling, down to 90 from
102 a decade ago, according to Barna Research Group.
Steve says the only reason he would consider attending church again
is if his children expressed an interest. "If my kids had a
good experience that would allow them to make their own decision
about their faith, Id be open to that," he says.
The challenge for churches in America, according to experts, is
to find a way to convince persons like Steve that going to a Sunday
morning service is not just something to consider if theres
nothing better to do its integral to a cogent relationship