It’s hard to fully grasp just how much different American’s behavior is around church attendance today versus fifty years ago. The General Social Survey (GSS) is the gold standard for measuring religious changes in the United States. It has been asking the same questions with the same response options since 1972. In the very first administration of the GSS, only 9 percent of respondents said they never attended religious services. Another 8 percent said their attendance was less than once a year. Compare that to 2021, when 31 percent of Americans described their attendance as “never” and another 15 percent said they attended less than yearly. Seventeen percent of people were less than yearly attenders in 1972, but that’s nearly half of the population today.
At the same time, the percentage of people who described their attendance as nearly every week or more was 41 percent in 1972. In 2021 that had dropped to just 24 percent. Consider this: In 2021 a person was twice as likely to say their church attendance was less than once a year than they were to report that they attended religious services nearly every week or more. Among those ages 18 to 30, 55 percent attended less than yearly while only 18 percent attended nearly every week.
Speaking from a purely statistical perspective, the future of the American church looks bleak. In the 1970s, pastors and denominational leaders could look across the pews on a Sunday morning and see a lot of young families because nearly a third of young people were faithfully attending. That share has been cut in half now. It won’t happen all at once, but slowly over time there will be a few more empty seats every Easter, and the parking lot won’t be as packed on Christmas Eve. This will lead church leaders to completely rethink things like budgets, buildings, and staffing levels to adjust to the smaller congregations they are serving.
Davis, Jim, Michael Graham, Ryan P. Burge, and Collin Hansen. 2023. The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
What will it take to bring them back?
I suggest a long-term perspective. We didn’t get here in a day and it will take more than a day to get out. I’d suggest a three-year approach. It took roughly three years for Jesus to make his followers into fishers of men. It may take us at least that.
While most churches are struggling, many churches are not. The churches that are not struggling are doing evangelism differently. They don’t do Sunday School. They don’t do VBS. They don’t do revivals. What do they do? Here is a good summary of how many of them are doing evangelism:
If I had to summarize what the research and my experience told me about what those around us are looking for, I could do it in one word: friend!
The research confirms it. What else would you call someone who listens without judgment, offers you wise counsel but helps you make your own decision, and loves you no matter what? That’s a friend!
Friend /frend/ (noun)—a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection
It’s that simple. It’s also that challenging. People are looking for you to be a friend. They are looking for a friend who will live the good news, be good news, and then share the good news in the form of their own story. In that order! Wow! It was that simple “Aha!” that brought me back to the Bible and opened my eyes to see that this is exactly how Jesus did it.
“Friend of Sinners”
Do you know what Jesus’s nickname was? It was “Friend” (Matthew 11:16–19 NIV). More specifically, “Friend of Sinners.”
Who gave Jesus that nickname? Religious leaders who watched how He lived His life and didn’t like it. But apparently Jesus liked it so much that He kept it!
It was easy for “Friend of Sinners” to stick because everywhere Jesus went, He befriended people and was a blessing to them. His entire life and ministry were a rhythm of befriending and blessing. Jesus blessed every person and every place He encountered. — BLESS: 5 Everyday Ways to Love Your Neighbor and Change the World, Dave Ferguson
Simple as this is, I think it will take a while to get there. Here is what I suggest. Every year, starting in January or August, do a church-wide study of evangelism. (You might consider a sermon series to go along with the study.)
- Year #1, Study BLESS: 5 Everyday Ways to Love Your Neighbor and Change the World, Dave Ferguson
- Year #2: How to Talk about Jesus (Without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World by Sam Chan.
- Year #3: Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People by Michael frost
Each of these studies is about six weeks and are available on Amazon or as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription system. www.MyBibleStudyLessons.com
During the rest of the year, I recommend you spend five or ten minutes each week in each group talking about such questions as:
- Who are you praying for that is far from God?
- Who have you had the opportunity to listen to this week about their walk with God? What have we learned about why people are leaving church?
- Did you share a meal with anyone this week who was far from God?
- What service project could we do to “let our light so shine before others that they would see our good works and glorify our father in Heaven”?
In addition, I’d encourage each group to host a fellowship every month and invite every member and every prospect. For more on this, see https://www.YouCanDouble.com/
I close with a quote from the last book above:
As should be obvious by now, I’m not merely promoting these five practices as a one-off program. I want you to make a habit of them. I want you to inculcate these habits as a central rhythm of your life. You see, doing a short-term project, like Forty Days of Purpose, is great. But missional effectiveness grows exponentially the longer we embrace these habits and the deeper we go with them. — Frost, Michael. 2016. Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.