When Going to Church Gets Hard
Attendance statistics only tell part of the story.
Why are so many Christians staying home?
by Bob Smietana | July 24, 2017
A few years ago I sat down with our pastor for coffee. We’d been going to the church off and on for a few years and were finally ready to join and jump fully into the congregational life. Before we did, however, I wanted to ask the pastor a favor. “Please don’t do anything stupid,” I said.
I know that might sound flippant or downright rude, but at the time I was the religion writer for the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, and I had covered a number of stories on churches and pastors behaving badly. The last thing I wanted to see was our church on the front page of the paper.
The pastor laughed graciously and told me not to worry. The church was relatively healthy and he planned on keeping it that way.
He kept his word. We joined the church, got involved in a small group, volunteered in the nursery, and became part of the community.
And then it all imploded.
It’s an ugly story. The gist of it is this: The pastor was preparing to retire and he wanted his son-in-law to succeed him. The church council said no, so he quit. Then he decided not to quit and instead tried to oust the church council and suspend the church’s constitution during an impromptu Sunday morning church meeting. When that failed—the meeting was invalid—he quit again, leaving everyone’s heads spinning.
A few months later, the church decided to merge with another congregation that was led by a former youth pastor. Though we called it a merger, it was really more of an acquisition—by the other congregation. The church changed its name, all the pastors and ministry leaders were replaced, and the new pastor kept inviting us to join “our church”—by which he meant the church he and the other new leaders ran.
A bunch of new folks joined. Everyone we knew—including all the folks in our small group—left. Alone in a place we no longer recognized, we left too. And for a while—like at least half of Americans—we became people who slept in on Sundays.
About half of Americans go to church on a regular basis—at least once a month—while the other half rarely or never go.
Churchgoing in the U.S. is complicated. About half of Americans are claimed as members of a congregation, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census, compiled by denominational statisticians. About a third of Americans (36 percent) say they’ve gone to church in the past week, according to Gallup’s polling. Other studies put the number closer to 20 percent. Pew Research, on the other hand, says that about half of Americans go to church on a regular basis—defined as at least once a month—while the other half rarely or never go.
And the number of churchgoers is constantly in flux. About a quarter (27 percent) of Americans go to church more than they used to, according to Pew Research. Twenty-two percent go less than they used to. Among that 22 percent are folks who sociologist Josh Packard at the University of Northern Colorado has nicknamed “the Dones”—former active church members and leaders who have lost faith in the institutional church.
To make things even more complicated, about three in ten Americans (29 percent) and a third of Protestants have looked for a new church in the past five years. Overall, half of Americans have looked for a new church at some point.
Protestants in particular seem to be constantly switching. Sixty-two percent of Protestants overall and two-thirds of evangelicals (67 percent) have looked
for a new church at some point. Most did so because of a move.
While most folks find a new church with relative ease, about a quarter have a harder time finding a congregation where they fit in, according to Pew.
Since we moved to Nashville about a decade ago, that’s been our family. Ironically, when we decided to move here, the one thing we never worried about was finding a church.
One of the first things I did, after getting the offer in 2007 to join the staff at the Tennessean, was to call the pastor of a Covenant church plant in the city. The church was a few years old and by all accounts was doing well. We had a great talk and I was convinced we’d found a new church home. But by the time we moved, things had changed. The church plant lost its lease, which caused it to stall, and it closed not long
after we arrived.
That sent us off on a search for a new church. It was harder than we thought.
We’d been members of Covenant churches for decades and there were now none here. We were also Yankees deep in the Bible belt, and in the midst of making adjustments to the cultural differences of work, school, and neighborhood, we were looking for a sense of familiarity in our church, something that felt like home.
Our search started poorly. The first congregation we visited, a lovely church, was friendly and welcoming, but the pastor turned out to have some significant personal issues and left. The next pastor went off topic from the text and ranted for more than an hour about the evils of Oprah. We found other churches that we loved but they were either too far away or didn’t have programs for our three kids.
None seemed to fit. That’s in part because we weren’t just looking for a new church. We were shopping for a new family. Church wasn’t just a place to go on Sunday to hear about God and to experience God’s presence. It was also a community—filled with friends we could laugh, love, weep, and serve with. Friends we could pray with, worship with, and commit ourselves to.
We were looking for what the Apostle’s Creed calls “the communion of saints.”
Congregations, we found, think a lot about presentation. That’s important—most people who go to church do so for the sermon, according to a new poll from Gallup. And the quality of the sermons, according to Pew, is one of main factors in how people choose a new church.
Outreach ministries matter, as do kids’ programs. And a smile and a handshake at the door doesn’t hurt.
But fewer congregations think about how to welcome people into their community. They’re glad to have folks show up on Sunday and they’re grateful for people
who volunteer for church ministries, but they don’t always know how to turn people from visitors to part of the family.
We eventually settled at the church our neighbors attended. When things went south, we weren’t quite done with church. Instead, we were stuck without one.
Most folks who drop out of church do so in part because the thought of starting over can be overwhelming.
Going to Church Is Hard
Finding a new congregation can be difficult, says Packard, who has been studying the so-called “Dones” for years. Most folks who drop out of church, he says,
do so in part because the thought of starting over can be overwhelming. “They’re looking for a place to belong, but it often doesn’t work out for them,” he says.
In some ways, churches face the same problems that other institutions in American society face, says Packard. Americans want to do things on their own, rather than turning to an institution like a church, nonprofit, or local government. And many institutions have lost the knack of helping people build relationships with one another.
“Institutions used to be good at creating community,” Packard says. “They are not anymore.”
There’s also a gap between how churches operate and what they teach. Most Protestant churches—especially evangelical ones—focus on people having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” That often includes praying and listening for God’s direction for your life, says Packard. But many churches have become more rigid in what they do—there are only a few, predetermined places where people can fit in. They can sing in the choir or serve on a committee, teach Sunday school or raise funds for a new building, says Packard. But too often if they try to start a new program or ministry—based on what they feel God is leading them to do—they meet resistance since it doesn’t fit the church’s program or strategy.
If people look for a new church they face other challenges. After being highly involved at one church, they’re not sure how to start over, says Packard. They
feel out of place in a new congregation, not knowing exactly where they fit.
That was the case for my friend Jill, who stopped going to church after her marriage ended. She’d been married to a pastor, and in that role, she had been seen as valuable. Now as a single parent, she felt out of place. And she had questions of her own about God and didn’t feel those questions were welcome.
Now in her early fifties, Jill is reconsidering church. She’s found a congregation she likes and has visited a few times. But she’s not ready to dive in yet. One reason is she’s an introvert and it takes time for her to connect with new people. She’d rather observe for a while first.
“I tend to keep everyone at an arm’s length,” she says.
For my friend Kimberly, politics—both church politics and national politics—keep her out of church. For the most part she enjoyed being part of a church; then discussions about political and social issues began to grow heated. Kimberly was troubled by the tone of the arguments and she felt like there was no space for her voice to be heard or her perspective to be respected.
And so she left.
As for our family, we’re about to start visiting new churches, in hopes of finding a new home. There’s a small Presbyterian church nearby that seems promising.
We’ve also realized that we can’t go back to where we used to be. Part of our struggle has been that every church we visit isn’t a Covenant church. So we’ve often looked at a new church and thought, “This doesn’t measure up to our old church.” And that’s kept us from diving in to the community. In some ways, we’ve been holding back—as if we could only find God in the Covenant.
We’re ready to dive in and see what happens.
Wish us luck.
Helping your unchurched neighbors find a home
Here are some tips on how to help them get connected.
Remember that going to church is harder than it looks.
Joining a new church can be like going on a date or finding someone to marry. It’s not easy to find the right match. Finding a church home may take months, and the search can be time-consuming, frustrating, and lonely.
About half of Americans can be considered unchurched—they haven’t attended services for more than six months. Many might be interested in talking about God but have no connection to a local church.
Be friendly, but not pushy.
Unchurched visitors want to be acknowledged but not overwhelmed. Feel free to smile or say hello. But be careful when pressing for details or asking for more information. That can be a big turnoff.
And don’t try to befriend people as a missionary tactic, says Josh Packard, professor of sociology at the University of Northern Colorado.
“If you want to have dinner, have dinner with me,” he says. “If you want to invite me to church,
invite me to church. But don’t invite me to dinner so you can invite me to church.”
It’s not about you.
When people come to a church for the first time, they bring their whole life history with them. Perhaps they’ve moved
and are grieving their old church or missing friends. Or they feel out of place because the songs and style of services are different.
They may have had bad experiences with church in the past and are skittish about getting involved. Those who have never been to church in their lives may feel the whole experience is awkward. It may take some time for unchurched guests to feel comfortable.
Make it easy for new people to connect.
Think about creating low-key, easy entry points for newcomers, especially those who have been away from church for a while. A study from Nashville-based LifeWay Research found that many unchurched Americans are open to taking part in a community service event (51 percent), sports or exercise program (46 percent), or neighborhood get-together.
Fewer (35 percent) are interested in attending worship services. But don’t give up on inviting people to church. About half of the unchurched people in LifeWay Research’s survey say they’d be open to a personal invitation to church from a family member or friend.
Unchurched folks often believe in Jesus.
Don’t assume folks who skip church are unbelievers. Only about a third of the folks in LifeWay Research’s unchurched study said they weren’t interested in religion.
Many of the unchurched may be Christians who needed a break from church due to life circumstances. Or they could be so-called “Dones”—those who believe in Jesus but have left the church because of past frustrations.
Their issue may not be about believing in Jesus.
Instead, they may need time to restore their faith in the institutional church. So give them time and space. And if they show up at your door, welcome them with open arms.