I like Thom Rainer. Dr. Rainer is the President of Lifeway Christian Resources (Yes, that’s the Baptist Bookstore). Dr. Rainer is also a great statistician and always offers interesting insight into church culture and its intersection with secular culture. He’s also written some great books, too. If you see me at the Monroe Athletic Center and I have my headphones in, it’s a pretty good chance I’m listening to a podcast on http://www.thomrainer.com. I enjoy getting his perspective on church/culture issues and leadership.
I came across this article Rainer wrote on church attendance in the United States, it dawned on me something was missing. The information was not necessarily new to me. I’d heard him mention it several times on his podcast. We pastors are always concerned about church attendance and the like. Seriously, we take church attendance as a sign we’re doing at least an adequate job, and pastors like to know we’re doing a good job. Most of us were raised with an appreciation for the good old American work ethic, so any pastor worth his/her salt tracks attendance. The biggest problem I have with Dr. Rainer saying the number one reason for decline in church attendance is changing attendance patterns is it can give pastors the false impression that it’s not my fault. Well, perhaps it isn’t…but, just maybe it is. Let me try to explain myself.
Dr. Rainer writes in the article that “if 200 members attend every week, average attendance is 200. But if one-half of those members miss one out of four weeks, the attendance drops to 175.” I’m not arguing his point. The numbers are correct. I could look at that statement and think, “My attendance is down 12%, and I’ve done nothing different, so it’s not my fault.” I might be only half-right. Perhaps it is my fault because I’ve spent too much time seeking to make church members instead of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Yes, I do believe there is a difference in a church member and a disciple. For one, we live with the mentality in the United States that “membership has its privileges.” The reality is discipleship has its responsibilities, sacrifices and costs. Membership is too easy. Discipleship is hard work.
While Rainer says the number one reason for decline in attendance is changing attendance patterns, he doesn’t unpack the reasons for the changing attendance patterns. Those reasons are myriad and would probably take several more articles (or an entire book) to work through. Among them are:
- Competing allegiances (i.e., sports, work, family commitments, etc.)
- A more mobile culture
- Lack of commitment
I think one reason for the decline in church attendance has to do with the number of Christians dying. Hello! If a church averaging 200 in attendance twenty years ago now averages 100 in attendance, there’s been a 50% decline in attendance. But, what if 100 of those 200 died? There’s your reason for the decline in attendance. Death definitely changes a person’s attendance pattern. A pastor can’t keep people from dying, can we?
I believe the greater issue is a failure in evangelism. While that doesn’t totally lay at the doorstep of the pastor, it’s a pretty good place to start. I have to ask myself the question, “How have I shared Christ with those around me?” Another question I have to ask myself is, “How have I been Christ to those around me?” Still another question I ask is, “How have I helped my church members share Christ with their friends, relatives, associates and neighbors?” The task is to be Christ and share Christ with a hurting world, and invite others to know the Jesus who transforms hearts, and who transforms the world. That’s the starting place for all discipleship, and unless we pastors lead by example, I wonder if we’re not really disciples ourselves (I’m just wondering out loud).
Members pay dues, attend meetings when it’s convenient, connect socially, and expect the benefits of membership. Disciples commit to a life-long transformation process that challenges the core of our being. I’ve offered my core values of a disciple in this blog before. I won’t unpack them again, but I will mention them as a reminder. A disciple of Jesus Christ is a person who:
- Lives evangelistically,
- Studies devotionally,
- Worships regularly (both corporately and privately),
- Serves faithfully, and
- Gives generously.
Attendance should never decline because we should always be reaching out in the power of the Holy Spirit engaging others with the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is as relevant to this culture as it is to any culture before us. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is never irrelevant. My fear is I’ve made it irrelevant because I’ve failed to allow the Holy Spirit to transform me, and to live as a disciple. I fear I’ve spent too much time being a church member and not a disciple, and that I’ve spent far too much time trying to make church members and not nearly enough time trying to make disciples. As good as Thom Rainer is, I think the number one reason for the decline in church attendance is not changing attendance patterns, but rather my lack of discipleship. So, maybe the decline in church attendance is my fault, after all. But, hey? I’m not the perfect pastor, so…
Until next time, keep looking up…