Sunday, May 29, 2011

Declining Sunday Attendance

May 28, 2011

In October 2010, Lovett Weems published an article in The Christian Century under the heading “No Shows”. Dr. Weems charted declining attendance in mainline denominations and concluded that even churches such a ours with larger attendance have been showing declining numbers since a turning point of sorts in 2000. Smaller churches have shown a decline in attendance for rather longer. This has certainly been true at All Saints’, Atlanta where our average weekend attendance has declined by well over 100 people per week since 2000. This statistical shift is something we have in common with many other churches across denominations. A few years ago the great Willow Creek church in Barrington, Illinois, looked at their attendance figures and began closing for the summer months altogether, saving money in order to “reach more people for Christ during the school year”.

This trend appears to affect attendance, but not other indicators of church life such as membership or numbers of households making regular financial gifts. These statistics appear to be holding steady or are on the increase across the board. I have friends and colleagues who are trying to measure ‘average weekly contact’ or ‘average weekly touch’ as a new measure of church life and health.

Pundits and commentators point to increased wealth making for more opportunities than in the past. It seems to have become an expectation and norm that families will travel away for spring and fall breaks in the school schedule. For us that means about six Sundays in the spring on which we cannot expect to have children or youth choirs at full complement. The same is true for volunteer Sunday School teachers and the like. Children’s sports, school trips and a host of other things are being scheduled on Sundays. Attendance at worship is becoming, or has become, something we do when we don’t have anything better claiming our attention. There are still some families who make a clear commitment to weekly attendance and for them that might mean five out of eight weeks. For many people one Sunday in five or six might seem pretty good.

This seems to work OK for those families who have a weekly commitment that builds faith and community along the way: choir practices, small groups, bible studies and the like. Children who grow up in our choirs and their families have a significantly different experience overall from those who do not make that commitment. Some churches seem to accomplish this kind of investment in community through church sports leagues and other such things.

All well and good, but I continue to wonder about worship. It seems to me that worship is our ‘core activity’. It is what we do. If we did not worship, I do not think we could call ourselves a church. Worship is where we hear and enact the story that shapes out lives. It is in telling and in some sense enacting the story that we are ‘oriented or turned (metanoia) toward that which is of ultimate worth’ (my rather technical definition of worship that people at All Saints’ hear about from time to time.) If we are not in worship on a pretty regular basis, then how are we being formed as people of faith? Where are we learning to put our whole trust in God’s grace and love such that it makes a difference in the way we live?

Should we be looking at how to offer significant worship whenever we gather for any purpose, and how might we do that so that it is integral rather than ‘extra’ to whatever is going on?

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