How do we respond to slumping church attendance?

Guilting people back into the pews won’t work.

By Marv Knox

Americans are kidding themselves — or maybe kidding each other — about church.

The Public Religion Research Institute asked Americans how often they attend church. Is it “weekly or more,” “occasionally” or “seldom or never”?

The answer depends upon how the question is asked.

The survey asked Americans identical questions about church attendance. One group received the survey over the phone; the other took the survey online.

Phone participants — who actually talked to another human being — reported higher rates of attendance. By phone, 36 percent said they go to church at least once a week. But in the online poll, that number dropped to 31 percent.

At the other end of the spectrum, the percentages flipped. Thirty percent of respondents told telephone surveyors they rarely or never go to church, but online, 43 percent confessed they seldom darken a church door.

The researchers think the online participants came closer to telling the truth.

“The preponderance of evidence suggests the traditional survey questions that measure religious service attendance produce inflated rates of religious participation,” researchers Daniel Cox, Robert P. Jones and Juhem Navarro-Rivera reported.

Such behavior can be explained by “social desirability bias,” they said. “Because religious behaviors such as religious service attendance are widely regarded as positive, self-reported behavior is susceptible to exaggeration.”

This tendency is strongest “when respondents believe they are sharing the information publicly, such as when questions are posed directly by an interviewer,” they added.

So, the bad news is Americans are not as attentive to their spiritual needs as they typically claim. But the good news is perhaps they actually want to be.

“Some of the people who aren’t at church might actually like to be there,” The Christian Century theorized. “They aren’t necessarily opposed or indifferent to worship; they’re just not prioritizing it, for whatever reason.”

This echoes observations ministers have been making for several years.

“It’s not that fewer total members attend church. They just don’t attend as often,” explained an associate pastor of a church where attendance has dipped.

This phenomenon reflects a change in what Christians mean when they say they’re “regular” church attenders. Not long ago, that meant attending church three or four times a month, and certainly half the time. Now, it can mean showing up once a month or even once every six weeks.

This poses multiple challenges for churches.

The deepest is spiritual growth. That’s not to say a Christian cannot mature spiritually on her own. But as with other disciplines, Christians excel in the company of others. When church members skip Bible study and worship, they miss out on opportunities to be challenged and inspired — and mutually encouraged.

The writer of Hebrews provides wise counsel: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another …” (10:23-25).

Other challenges are practical: Many Christians do not give when they do not attend, so budgets suffer when folks skip church. Also, churches run on volunteers, and when members don’t attend, operating vital programs and ministries is difficult, if not impossible. And don’t forget morale. Empty pews are depressing.

Members miss church for myriad reasons. You know them. They range from kids’ sports, to work, to aging parents’ health, to the lure of leisure. But the bottom line is assembling together at church isn’t the priority it once was.

So, what do we do?

Guilting people back into the pews won’t work. In fact, it’s more likely to drive them further away.

Entertaining them isn’t the answer, either. If attendance depends upon entertainment, then it will slide faster. Even excellent preachers can’t compete with sports and Hollywood and resorts and musicians.

Several approaches come to mind:

• Feed aspirations. The reason many people say they attend church more often than they actually do is because they want to attend more often. Affirm that aspiration. Call people to a higher spiritual plane — not because you want them there, but because God has placed that desire in their hearts. Help them see their longing is God’s way of loving them, drawing them close.

• Think outside the (Sunday morning) box. Provide other options for “being” church besides parking in the same lot and converging on the same building for one or two hours every Sunday. Create and bless other times and places and opportunities for church members to assemble to study the Bible, pray, fellowship, worship and minister.

• Harness technology. Chances are, practically every member of your church age 13 and older carries a personal connector with them wherever they go. It’s a smart phone, and it can provide bountiful spiritual applications. Brad Russell, senior editor of Baptist Standard Publishing’s FaithVillage.com, has written a fascinating paper “tracing the trends and issues that inform how the church can leverage new technology.”

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.