Slumping church attendance is not a new trend for a majority of North American churches. The conventional wisdom may be to blame the previous decade’s slips on the younger generations, but in reality, the North American exodus from church is not limited to any specific age demographic. Millions of North American Christians, from young professionals to retirees, have been slowly but steadily trickling out of churches for years.
These declines may not be new, but research is beginning to emerge suggesting the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the trend. Some researchers now suggest that when churches fully reopen again, one-third or more of all pre-COVID church attendees won’t be there to see it. In 2020, the slow trickle away from church attendance has become a rushing torrent.
In the pandemic’s early days, online attendance surged. Churches reported engaging more people through social media than they ever could have in-person before COVID. Since Easter, however, the surge has become a slump. A recent Barna survey found 48% of regular pre-COVID churchgoers hadn’t watched a single service online in the past four weeks.
As the pandemic drags on, people are becoming increasingly disconnected from their former spiritual habits. For the first time in their lives, millions have gone months without attending a service in person, and research is beginning to suggest that many aren’t missing it.
To be sure, some avoid the online experience because it is just not the same as in-person worship. According to Barna, however, nearly a third of them have no plans to go back any time soon, if ever.
For church leaders, statistics like these can feel like a gut punch. A reality check like this is always painful, but it can be beneficial, depending on how we respond to it.
We could shift blame, explaining this new reality away. It might make us feel better to see these emerging trends as a symptom of the shortcomings of the former churchgoers. Perhaps they never were really committed in the first place. Shifting blame might make us feel better for a moment, but it’s not going to change reality.
“Whatever justifications we use to soften the blow, the fact is that we will likely never again see thousands who used to sit in our pews every Sunday.”
Whatever justifications we use to soften the blow, the fact is that we will likely never again see thousands who used to sit in our pews every Sunday. They have no plans to come back to church, and they’re probably not going to miss it.
As painful as this truth is, however, there is another way. Instead of blaming those who are leaving, we could step back and take a long, agonizing look at the expressions of faith they’re leaving behind. Why don’t they miss it? What about the way we do church falls so flat that committed Christians just don’t see the point anymore? Is it possible this exodus is not a culling of the churchgoers who are walking away, but an indictment against the expressions of faith they’re walking away from?
This is, by far, the more painful approach, but it can be the most beneficial. This approach forces us to confront sobering statistics like a recent Barna report revealing that while nearly 70% of pastors believe they are meaningfully engaging their congregations on issues of social responsibility, only 30% of 18- to 35-year-olds see it the same way.
It holds our eyelids open as we stare down unpleasant realities, forcing us to consider difficult questions.
If most people still go to church to grow closer to God, is it possible that they’re leaving, not because of their lack of faithfulness, but because of ours? Do they see leaders who have commoditized spirituality? Have we trained churchgoers to view their faith like they view an e-commerce app? And now that they’re deleting the app, don’t we have a responsibility not to look away?
Dealing with raw reality is rarely pleasant, but it is necessary for those called to lead. Exploring the depths of our past unfaithfulness and seeking more meaningful expressions of spirituality is the only healthy way forward.
It isn’t going to be easy, but we owe it to the people under our watch to be honest with ourselves about what we’ve done and where we stand.
Jason Koon is an ordained Baptist minister who writes at the intersection of faith and politics. He lives in Western North Carolina with his wife and two teenage daughters. His “Almost Exvangelical” blog is at www.jason-koon.com.