“And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Why go to church? That’s a question not a few folks have wrestled with over the years. Young people think it’s boring. Working folks think it’s irrelevant. Smart folks think it’s beneath them. Cultured folks think it’s uncouth. Others think it’s just a waste of time. So, why bother? The world was recently given a very good reason and by a Harvard researcher of all people. Let’s check this out.
A few weeks ago, the Gallup Organization made a bit of a news splash by announcing the results of their recent survey on church membership in the country. They have been doing this same survey since 1937. They found that 47% of the country reports being a member of a church, synagogue, or mosque. The same survey in 2018 found 50% of the country reporting membership in some sort of house of worship. That’s a 3% decline over the span of 3 years. That’s not an earthshattering drop, but the trend of 1% per year certainly doesn’t bode well for the future. Those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Since 1937, this was the first time religious membership was reported to be below 50% of the country. In other words, churchgoers are officially in the minority in this nation for the first time perhaps in our entire history. The real trouble, though, is the decline has been happening at about the pace for more than 20 years. In 1999, 70% of the country claimed membership in a religious congregation. That same percentage had held steady since 1937. In other words again, for more than 60 years religious participation in the United States held steady. Then, with the turn of the millennium it began to decline and hasn’t stopped since.
There will no doubt be much ink spilled analyzing this trend and what it portends for our nation. Much ink has already been spilled to that end. That sense you have that people just don’t go to church anymore is fairly accurate. On average, more of the people around you don’t go than do. Now, just how significantly you may be impacted by the trend depends on where you live. In some parts of the country, church membership has been incredibly low for years. In some parts, it has hardly taken a hit. On the whole, though, the trend is not a positive one if you think the church matters; if you think religious participation generally matters.
That all being said, it’s tough to convince people to care much about church these days. There are some folks who are still at least willing to give church attendance a bit of lip service. A greater number, though, don’t even bother with that. They don’t pretend to go and don’t really care about it anyway. Sundays are simply an extra weekend day to spend at the lake or in the woods or on the slopes or at the beach or anywhere else they didn’t get to go on Saturday. That’s the case even in my neck of the woods where we are still pretty sheltered from some of the more negative national trends when it comes to culture and religion.
There’s still more. When it comes to the folks who are actually going to church, trends have changed there as well. I don’t have specific data to point to off hand to back up this particular observation, but the definition of what counts as “regular” church attendance has changed in recent years as well. Used to be, a “regular” churchgoer was in the building at least weekly. Growing up we were there every single Sunday and Wednesday we were in town and we didn’t leave town much. That was the expectation as well. If someone came less than that it was a clear indication that their commitment to Christ wasn’t what it needed to be, and that there may be something spiritual or moral with which they were struggling. That is, it was an indicator that something was wrong.
Today, the faithful churchgoer is in the building perhaps only once or twice in a given month. There are several reasons for that. We are busier today as a people than we were a generation ago. Work is more demanding. Kids sports – in particular the blight of travel ball – have no respect for Sundays as they used to have. And while churchgoing parents whose kids are in travel ball may complain about that, they still make sure they don’t miss any out of town events in favor of more consistent church attendance. Then there are the recreational activities we pursue as a people.
Now, if you are someone who considers churchgoing a thing worth pursuing and encouraging (as I do), what can we do about this trend? How do we get people back in church? What kinds of encouragements and challenges will do the trick? We can perhaps use a bit of holy guilt for professed followers of Jesus who seem to be able to consistently find somewhere else to be on the weekends – the words of the writer of Hebrews here can help with this end – but for the growing majority who don’t claim such an identity, that’s not going to accomplish anything.
What other options do we have? We’ve tried making church cool, “seeker friendly,” and while that worked for a little bit, people tended to come for the cool factor and the show that came along with it more so than for a relationship with Jesus. Yes, some came for the show and stayed because of the relationship, but not most. And now the cool factor has fairly well worn off. We could invite people in for the community in a season when people are hungrier for real community than they’ve been in a long time, but so many churches don’t get community right that this is a harder sell than perhaps it should be. What else is there?
How about data.
Data? How is data going to get someone in the door? Like this: The last eighteen months have been hard, yes? On that point we are all in agreement. One of the themes that has come out of COVID is the damage it did to the nation’s mental health. Being cooped up at home and prevented from seeing loved ones – or any ones really – hurt. It hurt a lot more than we expected it to hurt. And the hurt is not going away as quickly as we thought it would.
How is that data supposed to get someone to come to church? Like this: Did you know there was actually a group of people whose mental health assessment reporting actually went up during the COVID season? It was 42% before COVID and 46% afterwards. Every other group and category of people saw their mental health assessment decline…sometimes a great deal. But not this group. Any guesses as to what group it is. Churchgoers. But not just any churchgoers. Folks who reported attending church at least once a week during the pandemic saw their mental health quality increase.
Now, was this just a fluke related to the pandemic? Perhaps. But active involvement in a church community meant having a community through one of the hardest times our nation has faced in more than a century. Where other folks endured forced isolation painfully, we thrived because even separated physically, we stayed connected in other ways. Take my own congregation as an example. Early on, at the incredibly wise encouragement of my bride, I set our deacons on contacting all the active members of our congregation on a rotating weekly basis. That means everyone involved in our church got a phone call each week and from a new person every two weeks. With staff phone calls, there were two calls in most cases. A phone call may not seem like much, but when it’s the only real contact with someone you’re having, it’s like gold. I can tell you that our core stayed more firmly intact than what many churches experienced. And when it came time to get back together, we had more folks than most come back. We’re quickly approaching pre-COVID attendance levels again. We’re growing to boot. Our folks are healthy, strong, and faithful. That’s the grace of God, to be sure, but it’s where we are. Folks who don’t have a church didn’t experience anything like that. In short: the church matters.
More than that, psychiatrists – not a group known for their warm and fuzzy feelings toward religion in general – are finding that addressing spiritual matters with patients and even encouraging engagement in a religious community is resulting in better mental health outcomes than when those elements are not included. Don’t believe me? Fine, but perhaps you’ll believe associate professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the McLean Hospital Spirituality and Mental Health Program, Dr. David H. Rosmarin. Here’s his article. It’s worth your time to read it. When science derives data to back up the claims of faith, we should probably pay attention. They don’t carry any more weight, but when the two agree, we should take note.
Church matters. Nowadays it seems to matter a lot. If you know someone who is struggling, plugging into a church community is one of the very best things they can do to navigate those struggles in a way that leads back to life and flourishing. That’s not just the rantings of a preacher. It’s the data resulting from careful research. If you’re a part of a community, rejoice. You’re in the best place you could be. If you’re not, it’s time to consider changing that. But meager, occasional attendance won’t do. You need to be an active part of the community, taking active steps to put that community ahead of other things you’re doing that might take you elsewhere on a regular basis. Trust me on this one: You’ll be glad you did.