Could we just get a few things straight about the state of the church in America today? There are some myths and misunderstandings floating around that seem plausible but upon further scrutiny just don’t hold up. Let’s name some of them here and see if we might all move forward into reality.
Sunday school attendance is no longer an accurate metric. Particularly among old-school Southern Baptists, there has been no more sacred measure of the success of a church than weekly Sunday school attendance. This has been the gold standard metric for years, more important than weekly offerings given or the number of people who brought their Bibles to church.
But here’s the truth bomb: If your church’s weekly Sunday school attendance today is smaller than it was 30 years ago, that does not necessarily mean your church is in decline. Across the nation and across denominational lines, church attendance patterns are changing dramatically. Even “regular” attenders are present at church less frequently than in the past because of a variety of reasons: sports, travel, business, children.
Others have written about this as well, but the message just isn’t getting through. In America today, in most of our Protestant churches, the “average,” “faithful” member attends church about twice a month. In the largest nondenominational churches, the attendance percentage reported is even lower, often approaching once a month. This is a dramatic shift from 30 years ago, when faithful members might have missed three or four weeks a year.
The bottom line is that it takes twice as many active members today to generate the same Sunday school attendance you had 30 years ago. A more accurate measure of participation today is the number of unique individuals who are present over the course of a year. The micro view of weekly attendance tells little; the macro view of monthly, quarterly or annual attendance tells much more. And if you don’t believe me, stop and think about your own attendance at church today versus 30 years ago.
Singles ministry is dead. As much as we might like to revive the glory days of singles ministry from the 1970s and ’80s, it’s just not going to happen in most churches. There was a unique moment in time several decades ago when Baptist churches in particular exploded with specialized ministry to single adults. Keep in mind that this happened just as the Baby Boomers were becoming young adults — delaying marriage, establishing careers, reshaping American demographics in their wake.
Most single adults today don’t want to be “singled out” from the rest of the congregation. There are few places in society other than church where this kind of separation happens. Is there a separate section at your workplace for single adults apart from married adults?
The one place single adult ministry still works is in a select few megachurches that are so large they are able to provide the critical mass to gather singles in such a way that they aren’t singled out. Even most large cities cannot support more than a few large churches with this kind of appeal. Unless you’re one of those select megachurches, stop wasting your effort trying to recreate singles ministry from a bygone era. A more helpful approach today is to welcome single and married adults into your fellowship together and to treat both as adults.
Not every church should be a megachurch. Much has been written about the growth and success of megachurches in America. That’s partly because the proliferation of super-sized churches is a relatively new phenomenon. Researchers tell us that most of today’s megachurches have been founded since 1955. And particularly from the 1980s forward, these congregations with more than 2,000 in weekly attendance have mushroomed. By one estimate, the number of megachurches grows by 5 percent annually.
But that doesn’t mean your church must be a megachurch to be successful. The body of Christ needs variety. While many people find comfort in very large congregations, other people get lost there. What we need today is a variety of congregations, not a single type of congregation. And yet the message pastors and lay leaders hear these days is that unless you grow a megachurch, you must be doing something wrong.
The alternative to megachurches is what I call “boutique” churches. Megachurches must attempt to be all things to all people. Boutique churches figure out what they can specialize in and strive to do that really well.
Young adults are still coming to churches, even to traditional churches. Much handwringing has occurred over the loss of young adults from America’s churches. The conventional wisdom is that only conservative evangelical megachurches are reaching young adults today. A related myth says only contemporary worship will attract young adults today. Both things are not true.
Here are two challenges: First, when considering the success of your nearest big-box megachurch, look at the proportion of young adults to adults of other ages. Megachurches attract a lot of young adults because they attract a lot of people. Only a few such churches are built solely on young adults; and that approach is a house of cards that cannot be sustained.
Second, look at the demographics of the young adults flocking to the largest churches. Most of the time you will not find the full spectrum of political, theological and social identity that exists in your community. Most megachurches are successful in reaching a certain homogenous segment of the young adult population that is perhaps more inclined to attend church and more drawn to a certain ideology.
The opportunity for the rest of us is to reach the other young adults — the ones who don’t conform to the mass appeal of the big box. This is where even traditional-worship churches are seeing success today. Stop worrying about all the young adults going to the megachurch down the street and instead focus on the young adults who won’t go to the megachurch.
Church today takes more hooks, not bigger hooks. One of the silliest bits of advice going around these days is that every church needs to simplify, to focus on one or two things and to stop trying to do so much. That’s a nice thought, and it sounds good. But it doesn’t work in most churches with more than 300 members.
In the old days, churches could put on a few big, all-church events each year and be successful. Those were the days of broad appeals, not only in churches but in corporations and other community organizations. Broad appeals don’t work today; instead, people are engaged by smaller, more specialized appeals.
Here’s an example: People used to come back to church on Sunday nights for large-group worship and Training Union. And they used to come to midweek Bible studies or prayer meetings on Wednesday nights. Most places, these old-time staples of the Baptist church are dying or on life support. But people will come to a short-term study group on Sunday night or Wednesday night. And they will come to be trained as Stephen Ministers or missions volunteers. Some people will be drawn to one event, and some people will be drawn to another event. Engaging 40 people in three small groups is better than engaging 15 people in one “big” group.
I like to think of this from what I learned from my grandfather, who was a farmer in far southern Oklahoma, near the Red River. Sometimes he could go fishing with a net, catching a lot of fish all at once. But more often, he fished with what’s called a “trotline.” That’s a line that runs from shore to shore, across the flowing river. On that line were hung fish hooks at various intervals, allowing him to catch fish not just from one section of the river but from all across the river.
If you’re going to follow Jesus’ admonition to become a “fisher of people,” successful church today is more like trotline fishing than net fishing. Growing and sustaining a church takes multiple hooks in the water not just one big net.