According to The Atlantic, over the past 25 years, 40 million Americans have stopped attending church.
Professor Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University states that 45% of members of Generation Z (persons born in the 1990s or later) have no religious affiliation. On the basis of this fact and of other data, Professor Burge asserts that nearly one-third of America’s 350,000 churches are “‘on the brink of extinction’” and that thousands of churches will close in the next few decades.
Writer Carey Nieuwhof asserts that “the conversation about momentum and shifting attendance trends is happening at every level of the church, including some of the largest and fastest-growing churches in North America.” Writer Jake Meador adds, “This change [is] bad news for America as a whole: Participation in a religious community generally correlates with better health outcomes and longer life, higher financial generosity, and more stable families—all of which are desperately needed in a nation with rising rates of loneliness, mental illness, and alcohol and drug dependency.”
Rather than dwelling on these sobering facts and predictions, we would like to ask a provocative question: Why? Why are so many Americans—including Americans who have some type of faith experience or religious observance in their backgrounds—opting out of church participation?
Writers such as Jake Meador, Carey Nieuwhof, and others have offered some possible answers to the question of why many Americans have opted out of church attendance in recent years. While some of those answers (for example, placing excessive emphasis on one’s career to the exclusion of church commitments) may point to problematic attitudes on the part of persons who choose not to attend church, others point to problems within churches themselves. Here are a few:
- Bad experiences/spiritual abuse. So long as churches contain fallible, flawed human beings, people will sometimes have negative experiences in churches. Those experiences may range from relatively minor slights to outright mistreatment. Christians, let us not be afraid to ask ourselves tough questions. How do we treat each other at my church? Would visitors and members say that my church is characterized by kindness and Christian charity? How is conflict resolved within my church body? Has anyone ever left my church because of a sin that was committed against them? Have I failed to confess any sins I have committed against my brothers and sisters in Christ?
- Hypocrisy/moral failure. In Matthew 23:2-3, Jesus said, “‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.’” In the gospels, Jesus unflinchingly confronted hypocrisy. Both Christians and unbelievers find hypocrisy distasteful. However, every Christian is guilty of hypocrisy because we all fall short of conducting ourselves according to Christ’s teachings and example (see Romans 3:23; Romans 7:19). Do the leaders in my church display the godly character that the Lord requires? Does my church practice what it preaches? Do I?
- No room for doubts. After Christ rose from the dead, He appeared to His disciples. However, the Apostle Thomas was not present at the time. Accordingly, Thomas stated that he would not believe that Christ had risen unless he touched His hands and side. When Jesus again appeared to the disciples, He invited Thomas to touch His hands and side and to let go of his doubts (see John 20). Jesus did not reject Thomas for having or expressing doubts. Does my church follow His example?
- Disagreement with church positions on political and social issues. It is important to be clear here. Sometimes, a person may disagree with a church’s Biblically-based teachings, whether because that person has adopted worldly perspectives or because he simply does not wish to conform his behavior to the teachings of Scripture. Ultimately, in these situations, repentance is needed. However, there are other possibilities to consider. Does my church display harshness in our teachings on controversial topics, or do we show mercy and compassion? Does my church align itself with a political party? A political figure? Do the people in my church assume or expect that everyone in the pews shares the same political perspective or affiliation? Might a person feel unwelcome in my church if he does not share that perspective?
- Not finding community. In May 2023, the Surgeon General of the United States asserted that our nation has a loneliness epidemic. One would hope that churches would help to serve as part of the remedy for loneliness, and would be places where everyone is loved and accepted. In John 13:35, Jesus said, “‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’” I Peter 1:22b instructs believers to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” Is this type of love present in my church? Is every person welcome at my church, or are some people—whether because of appearance, wealth, or other factors—more welcome than others? Do we have cliques at my church? Do I welcome newcomers at my church? Are all kinds of people welcome at my church, or do we favor people of certain ancestry or ethnic background? Do we love each other deeply, or do we settle for shallow, surface relationships?
Whatever the reasons for the disconnect, Christians should commit ourselves to being part of the solution.