Attendance Down, Participation Up

For the entire 20th century, worship was the centerpiece of congregational life in the United States.  As the first decade of the 21st century nears its end, this is no longer true.  Experiential learning is the “new” worship in many mainline churches, with service to others hot on its heels.

For the past few months I have been researching participation trends in United Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches — perusing websites, talking to denominational leaders, as well as looking at current research from Gallup, Princeton, and Hartford seminary.  Almost across the board, worship attendance has declined, but in our healthiest churches, participation is up.  While weekly worship attendance no longer motivates the majority, interactive discussion groups and outreach/service opportunities are attracting newcomers and revitalizing the old guard.

Does this mean that worship is not viewed as important?  Not at all.  Instead, worship is more organic, flowing from the ground up — not something you “attend,” but something that emerges from the context and character of the groups you’re a part of.  Study and discussion groups pray, sing, read scripture, and give God thanks, as do service and outreach groups.  It isn’t that worship is less important — if anything it is more important.  The integrity of worship is tied into the deep commitment of participants to their faith group.  They still attend corporate worship, but not as frequently.  Rick, a 30 year old Presbyterian says,

I absolutely will not miss a communion service or a baptism, but my “church” is the study group I meet with twice each week.  We have been working to grow in our spirituality, and that is much easier to do together than alone.  There are eleven of us, and it is extremely rare that anyone ever misses a group time who isn’t sick or traveling.  We take part in a service project every month, and some of us work in a soup kitchen/shelter every week.  I grew up in the (United Methodist) church and attended worship ‘religiously,’ if you pardon the pun, but I have never known God before the way I do now.  This is really what church is all about.

For a growing population, the Christian journey is about both the vertical relationship with God as well as the horizontal relationship with fellow travellers on the way.  The most attractive small group experiences appear to be those that have three clear components — prayer, discussion and exploration grounded in spiritual growth and development, and some form of service to the larger church or surrounding community.

Another significant shift is from monologue to dialogue.  Worship, the way many churches present it, is fundamentally monological — the messages move one direction, from the front to the back.  Much music is performed “at” the congregation, rather than with it.  Scriptures are read “to” the congregation.  Sermons are “delivered.”  All one way experiences.  In the modern world of social networking and immediate connectivity, dialogue is the wave of the future (and the wave of the now).

United Methodist congregations in all five jurisdictions report signs of this phenomena.  Carol, a pastor on the west coast reports,

I have a really hard time getting people to come to our worship services, but we have no trouble getting people to work on our mission projects.  And it is these projects that people invite their friends to join.  We have taken in a dozen members or so in the past year, but they have all come to us through our mission ministries.

There is also evidence that people’s expectations about the church are changing.  A century ago, it was safe to assume that most people entering a church understood something about its history, beliefs, and story.  Christianity was a given — going to church a habit.  Many attended church because it was a good thing to do, the “right” thing to do, and it affirmed wholesome beliefs.  However, there has been a pivotal shift in our American worldview.  As cynicism, skepticism, and the distrust of power escalate, people are looking less for truth than they are for meaning.  People want their lives to matter — they want to make a difference.  A large population want to be relevant, and they want to take part in organizations that are relevant.  We are seeing a Jamesian shift — people want to be do-ers of the Word, not hearers only.

The shift is difficult for many churches leaders to comprehend, let alone address.  Marvin, a lay leader in the Atlanta area notes,

We sunk a ton of effort and money in worship.  We expanded our sanctuary.  We put in big screens.  We have got a kick-ass band that can play any kind of music you can think of.  We got concert-hall quality sound and mics for our preachers and worship leaders.  We’ve been programmed to put all our eggs in the worship basket.  Now, we see that ain’t working.  At first we tried harder.  Now we’re smarter.  Now we know it’s all about relationships, baby.

As with every major trend or shift, it doesn’t happen all at once.  Evidence of its early beginning was fairly widespread in the late 90s, but the transformation moves slowly.  What was exceptional a decade ago is becoming commonplace.  A decade from now it will be normal, and who knows, fifty years from now the migration may lead back to the sanctuary.  Some churches may not experience this for quite some time.  There is a huge segment of people in our mainline churches for whom worship is the most important church-related experience.  That won’t change for these people, but others are seeking more.  The danger is that our “worship-centric” churches that do not balance worship with integrated spiritual formation, learning, and service options may find that people are not just staying home from worship, but that they’re leaving the church as well.

How will we respond to this shift?  Will we deny it?  Will we resist it?  Or will we take it seriously and seek new and meaningful ways to balance our worship life with experiential learning and service opportunities that attract and connect an ever growing population of Christian believers to the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ?

3 replies

  1. thanks for another great blog post. i think those old time prophets like amos and micah were right–God doesn’t really care about our worship services God wants us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly! And people respond to that.

  2. The key question is how do we get Clergy to empower lay to create and nurture small groups? There are a lot of informal groups that meet within a community that could become empowered more through the act of simple worship.

    On a more worldly side. If groups are worship then many churches are undercounting their true worship totals. We may also be missing people within our communities who are active in informal groups but for whom the church does not have a relationship.

    Do DS’s and Bishops get this? Can they get this? What about the conservative and liberal factions for whom their vested interests are maintained through the current worship centric system? In many cases these participants will not play ‘ball’.

    An example is a group of guys who play cribbage. Every Sunday morning, at every funeral luncheon or any other event there they are. These guys also do the Sunday Morning Breakfast, they also serve and or prepare Wednesday night supper, and some do bell choir. They are the ones who fix the parsonage and man the grills for annual fundraiser. One only comes to play and leaves shortly BEFORE service! Yet we don’t count this as service. We don’t help lay leaders to put this in context or equip them in basc ministry and worship practices to adapt to their group. Nor do we count them in our worship counts. But they are probably the most active group in Church. It annoys some members of leadership because they don’t ‘fit’ the norm and considered ‘closed’. They aren’t though they have folks join who like cribbage. But really this is the model of creating a micro community that is engaged in intense fellowship.

  3. This exactly summarizes the experience that I am having as the planting pastor of a new congregation. We are growing through service events and small group ministries. When our weekly worship services begin this fall, they will be highly interactive.

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