Behind the decline in Church attendance 

antony barraclough
Behind the decline in Church attendance  image

We recently shared an article on the significant drop in attendance in Churches over the last decades. Now, we go deeper. What is causing this drop? 

The world has changed

There is no doubt the world has changed since the ’50s and ’60s, when the only thing to do on a Sunday was go to church or a church-run event. A number of our older parishes would have cupboards full of sporting trophies from the days when church organised the Saturday tennis comp, the cricket matches and so on. 

Back in the day church was the only social organiser. But with the mass availability of the car and TV, things began to change. Now there are alternatives, now there is competition to church. Today, in a post-Christian climate, people gather at the modern temples: shopping centres, beach, fun runs, restaurants…

People gather at the modern temples 

However, the change in society is deeper than the accessibility of alternatives to church.

Sociologists and commentators have pointed to the influence of radical individualism since the sexual revolution. We are swimming in a culture which preaches “be true to yourself”. In his book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes us as living in the Age of Authenticity while Glynn Harrison, in A Better Story, says that this age of “freedom [is] for the sake of authenticity and becoming your true self. This moral quest isn’t simply being honest about your inner feelings and thoughts. It is saying that when you express these inner realities truly, authentically, you work with the grain of who you really are. Expressing your inner self in this way, being who you really are, is about being fully human. It is your moral duty”. 

So, when nominal Christians began to live “authentically” they left the church! Of course! They weren’t committed to Jesus. But when committed Christians breathed in the second-hand smoke of the same authentic/individualistic culture we changed our attendance frequency. We tried to keep up with the non-Christian Joneses. To an extent, we filled our lives with what they fill their lives with, but without stopping church altogether and got exceedingly busy in the process. Something has to give. 

"We tried to keep up with the non-Christian Joneses" 

Meanwhile, in an attempt to clarify the gospel against spiritual forms of works-righteousness we taught from our pulpits that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. True, but the message received was “Great, I don’t have to be at church every Sunday”. Conclusion: “I can be true to myself, fit it all in without compromising my commitment to Jesus”. Result: we attend church, on average, at 67 per cent of all possible opportunities but think we go more often. 

What's to be done? 

It’s actually quite hard to be at church every week in the modern world. If I have four weeks’ leave a year (which is usually taken away from home these days), and am sick for, say, two Sundays a year, have just one work trip on a Sunday each year, have just one family event on a Sunday and then throw in one more Sunday taken out for some other reason, then that’s nine missed opportunities to be at church in that year – or 17 per cent of possible opportunities. 

On average we are missing much more than that. We have not taken into account long weekends, nor the fact that we have more than one family birthday party to attend, nor that – in my neck of the woods at least, business trips are more frequent. There’s also the fun run(s), never mind the reality that there are some Sundays when I’m simply too tired to go to church. It is really hard to be regular at church, even for a committed believer. Ministers need to appreciate this as they care with gentleness for their flock.

Yet we must pause and ask what is at the heart underneath these difficulties to get to church more consistently. Is it that the world has crowded in and it is just impossible to get to church consistently any more? Or is it that we have a problem with our devotion to Jesus that expresses itself in poor Sunday church attendance? Is the spiritual battle “out there” with a secular world or is the problem in my heart? What is the nature of the Sunday wars? 

The answer is that it’s very likely a mixture of both – that the world has changed and that my heart is “prone to wander”. We’ve seen that the failure to fight this battle has spiritual implications. This is where the book of Hebrews ministers to us.

What the Bible has to say 

Hebrews was written to a congregation that was sorely tempted to give up its faith in Jesus. Members were tempted to retreat to the safety and acceptability of the synagogue. They were not giving up their belief in God, just their commitment to Jesus. If, for us, the reason for giving up meeting together is a mixture of individualism and busyness, for them the reason was persecution. Either way, like them the outcome is to give up meeting together. So, Hebrews was written as an exhortation to keep going in the faith of Christ (Heb 13:22). The author exhorts his congregation with a series of encouragements, mixed with warnings of what it would mean should they retreat from Jesus. 

As Peter O’Brien says in his commentary: “The function of the [exhortations] is to challenge the listeners to right action. By encouraging words, stern warnings as well as positive and negative examples the author hammers home the importance of faithful endurance in order to reach the eternal rest in the heavenly city”. 

The issue is a spiritual battle! One of Hebrews’ strongest warnings (Hebrews 10:24ff) urges believers to continue meeting together. This is one of the main means of grace to keep travelling well in the faith. Peter O’Brien explains this is a strong statement – that “they must not stop meeting together regularly. The admonition is put strongly. The failure of some to continue attending the gatherings of the community is cast not simply as neglect but as wrongful abandonment”. 

We need to recover a deep desire to be with our Lord and each other, otherwise our prayers become insipid: “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek, a fulfilled, healthy and happy life”.

Hebrews 10 also has the Christian look forward. The return of Christ (the approaching Day) should spur us, drive us, to church. Eschatology drives the urgency for us to meet. So, Christians have a mutual obligation to encourage one another in the face of pressure to give up the faith. Our task is to specifically “spur one another on towards love and good deeds”, to struggle against the habit of some – which is not to meet together – and to “encourage one another”. 

Earlier in Hebrews (3:13) this ministry of encouragement is urged to be a daily one. We need to take up this ministry with fresh vigour, for the spiritual consequences are dire.