Why don’t people go to church?

David L. Hansen writing in The Lutheran finds out why people don’t go to church:

Ask any group in your church: “Why do people not come to worship? What keeps people away from church?” You might hear:

• “We need a better youth program.”

• “We have to have a different style of worship service.”

• “We need to advertise.”

• “If only we had a nursery for young children.”

….

These are the answers that church people give when they try to figure out why people don’t go to church. Friends, we could not be more wrong.

I recently spent a week using social media to “listen” to people who do not go to church — listening to their explanations for why they stay away. I didn’t argue with them. I didn’t defend the church. I just listened. And what I heard broke my heart.

The No. 1 thing that keeps people away from the church is the people who are in the church.

….

It’s not that people outside the church have low expectations of Christians. It’s the opposite. They expect us to actually live out the things we proclaim on Sunday. They expect us to love our neighbor, care for the least of these and love our enemies.

They have high expectations for us, and we have disappointed them. Instead they have been insulted, hurt and broken by us.

Programs are at the bottom of the list for why people don’t come to church.

h/t to Friends of Jake

Category : The Lead

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12 Comments
  1. We don’t go to church because…

    (1) Christianity has become completely identified by the general public with an unacceptable moral and social agenda. Evangelicalism is now the public face of religion, and Episcopalians, now representing less than 1% of the population, are invisible and inaudible. No matter how much we make a fuss about gay rights and other good liberal agendas, no one hears. We’re swamped by the Evangelicals: bad money drives out good.

    (2) Religion is perceived as a system of obligations for belief and action rather than a source of enjoyment through ceremony, stories and art. People regard churches are preaching stations rather than holy places where they can get aesthetic pleasure and a vision of another world–mysticism and metaphysical thrills or, if you will (spirituality).

    (3) There is absolutely no reason why educated people in a “world come of age” should pay attention to the meanderings of clergy or look to them for guidance. We’re as smart and educated as they are, can take care of ourselves. The very idea of a sermon–a didactic talk without even a chance for Q&A is an insult to us.

    (4) For all its pretensions to being liberal and democratic, the Episcopal Church is riddled with clericalism and lay people are not taken seriously. We are, as one priest put it, “pastoral care objects.” We aren’t treated as rational, educated adults: clergy attempt to manipulate us “using psychology.”

    The church is a voluntary organization–now de facto as well as de jure. Why should we go if it doesn’t give us what we want, and patronizes and insults us into the bargain?

  2. As sad and tragic as this is, I believe it is absolutely right! Wake up, Church!

  3. Dale McNeill

    I’ve recently moved from one city to another. I’m quite active in church (I was one of the wardens in my last parish), but I’m finding it difficult to find a new parish that seems worth the effort of attending–and I very much want to. Mostly, people entirely ignore me. And, to be sure, sometimes that feels just right. But when trying to become part of a community, it’s a bit off-putting.

    I also want to say one brief thing to Harriet: the best preachers I’ve heard caused me to think of things in a new way. A book, an essay, a song, none of those things give us the direct opportunity to respond, but they can enrich our lives. And many preachers do give opportunity for discussion during the sermon.

  4. Pam

    I know a lot of people who would never think of going to church, not because they ever had a bad experience but because they see it as somehow childish or naive.

    Other people might vaguely be interested, but their lives are full and they have no reason to make the commitment. It is harder and harder in my community to get people to take the time to go to an interesting lecture or art event. Church every week is even lower on the priority list.

    Where I do agree with the original post is that it is crucial that the church live out its promise to be a caring community. If someone does turn to God and the church when they are in a low point in their life, it is crucial that they find help from the body of Christ.

    [Editor’s note: Thanks for the comment. Please leave your name next time.]

  5. Pat Woolley

    It is becoming more important then ever to look at ‘a church’ in your community rather than ‘the church’ to be a part of the life that Jesus shows us how to live. A person who is looking for that life should try out different churches to see what fits. These blanket statements about the church, clergy, and congregations are unfair.

    Pat Woolley

  6. Bonnie Spivey

    To the list I think we should add: “They want me to believe THAT?” The THAT being issues around human sexuality that exclude our GLBT brothers and sisters in Christ being full members of the body of Christ. They aren’t stepping into or back into those spaces that exclude people.

    I have been doing a little research among my friends, not all Episcopalians, asking them, “What does your ideal church look like?”

    Most people want to be spiritually fed and they don’t want to be charged with throwing anyone under a bus or alternatively being thrown under a bus.

    And I think clergy need to be intentional and specific at all levels as to what their mission is. Sometimes lay persons overstep those boundaries in ways that don’t reflect the community they are trying to build.

  7. Different people want different things. The church has canonized a short list of “appropriate” preferences, ignoring the wants and needs that don’t fit.

    There was a survey in the UK and it turns out that the two kinds of churches that get increasing participation were, predictably, pentecostal megachurches and, surprisingly, cathedrals. Why? Because, first, people are looking for experience: not “teaching,” or information–we’re inundated with that. We want the emotional, aesthetic, even mystical experience which pentecostal churches proved and which cathedrals provide through elaborate ceremonies and high-quality art and music. Secondly, they go to cathedrals and megachurches because they’re large and impersonal–because they can hide behind a pillar, or walk around at the back, and not have to make contact.

    The latter is heresy. We’ve been told over and over that “the church is people” and that “community” is vital. Some people, right, want that. But others, like me, don’t. Even if I might be interested in getting involved in programs or groups, or socializing at coffee hour, I don’t want to make contact at a service, or to be noticed. Occasionally I think of going back to church–which I left over a decade ago. But the prospect of The Peace puts me off. Of course, if I were more motivated I’d deal with it, but being on the cusp, having a vague idea that I might want to go back this is enough to keep me away. For me church is the buildings and the Sunday show–I’m not interested in “community.” And I absolutely want complete impersonality–to avoid all contact and to avoid being noticed.

    The idea that this is wrong-headed drives people away. Why can’t the church recognize, and affirm, and accommodate differences in people’s interests and desires? Megachurches, which are complete garbage, thrive because they’re sensitive to the desires and interests of “seekers.” Because they respond to people’s wants.

  8. Ben

    I attended a recent ordination of someone to the diaconate. The priest, visiting to the Cathederal from the home parish of the postulant was the homilist. I sat totally absorbed in what he preceded to say. He explained that we do, in fact, live, in a post modern/post Christian world. He went on to state that being Christian is now no longer the norm and that the wearing of a clerical collar no longer commands the social status and respect it once did. In essence, he said that to be Christian today is countercultural. He then went on to state in more or less words how convoluted and excruciating the TEC’s process for discernment and recommendation for the ordained ministry was and how he thought perhaps it was more complicated than it should be.

    As I sat there and listened along with everyone else, including the bishop of the diocese, I thought to myself how true. How very, very true.

    Christianity started out as a countercultural movement and here it is again in our postmodern world in the same state it started out in.

    Ignorance fuels the rejection of Christ’s Good News. Bureaucracy stalls the intimacy, and at times, blocks the love of God to others. Many good and worthy people have been turned away, not only from taking Holy Orders, but at the very doors of parishes and shunned at typical “coffee hour” following the average Episcopal mass. Why is this?

    When one discerns for the ordained ministry in TEC, the entirety of one’s life is picked apart, analyzed and judged as being worthy of recommendation to the bishop for ordination. Is it any wonder that those who pass the strictures of said processes often act if they are somehow superior to those not “in the club”? Likewise, those who are rejected are often broken and many even leave the church, permanently. I’m not advocating a doing away with discernment processes etc, etc, as they do have a purpose. I am advocating a return to the simple message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When Jesus passed a fishing boat one day, He said to the men working, “Come. Follow me.” He didn’t say endure the Spanish Inquisition and then maybe I’ll think about letting you follow me.

    I say all this because when I recently asked someone in a position of power on one of these committees where, aside from the empirical evidence gathered, what spiritual means of discernment were being employed for the selection of candidates. The answer I received was at best ambiguous.

    It appears to me that many in the TEC are what one would call the bourgeois of society. Typically, well to do, highly educated, with a nice space of insulation from the broader more real oppression, suffering, hunger and injustice facing our world. Not everyone in TEC, but many.

    If you don’t fit the profile, your ignored. The instances of snobbery and cliquishness I have encountered in a number of parishes in TEC is enough for the average Joe to start running for the nearest exit.

    Often in the Christian church its like the parents eating its own offspring.

    After centuries of harm done in the name of God its time for the healing and reconciling work of Christ to begin. It is by the grace of God, that many faithful remain, putting up with political and religious clichés, feigned spirituality from the church’s ministers and general lack of real meaningful interaction and dialogue between the congregation and clergy.

    Is it any wonder people aren’t beating down our doors to join the church?

    Jump through hoops and then maybe we’ll consider you is not the message of Jesus Christ. The message that I know is come to me ALL who are heavy burdened and I will refresh you.

    Is it any wonder there is such a decline in “mainline” denominations?

    I adjure you remain, you prophets, you who aren’t afraid to be countercultural, you who would stand up in the face of hypocrisy and legalism. God is calling us All to be His body. It is up to us to answer that call.

    Amen.~Ben Miller

  9. Peter Pearson

    I think people don’t go to church because we don’t offer them something worthy of their time, we do not inspire by our words or actions, and our hospitality is not authentically radical or unconditional. I’m pretty sure God weeps for those who wander looking for someone or something to offer a genuine witness to the Good News of God in Jesus Christ as well as for those of us who so often miss the mark.

  10. Rev Nawny

    The Episcopal Church, along with all of Christendom, is undergoing a process where the old outdated software, programming, is being cleaned up and we are now being downloaded with a new template…this is both the good news and the bad news. One outdated program that needs to go is the idea that we go to church to meet our needs, to have a chaplain at our disposal, to engage our social connections, and then return home to our lives…as if they are two separate realities. The new download says that going to church is about being equipped to be a force of Light (ie carry the LIght of Christ) in a dark world. We have everything and everyone we (the church) needs NOW to make this happen. The mindset that we are lacking (in people, money, or resources) is an illusion and ignores the work God has done and is about doing. What if we engaged the new download (thank you Holy Spirit) and see the abundance available to bring Love, Peace, Joy, Freedom, Unity…to the world NOW…not some future time when we will feel ready? The time is now…

    Tammy Lewis Wooliver

  11. Stephanie Brail

    I believe Harriet’s post above exemplifies why the Episcopal Church isn’t doing better…elitism and being a bit out of touch with what real people want. I’ll touch on a few of her points (her words are in quotes):

    “(1) Christianity has become completely identified by the general public with an unacceptable moral and social agenda…No matter how much we make a fuss about gay rights and other good liberal agendas, no one hears.”

    First off, I have friends who are socially conservative Evangelicals and Catholics, and they are super nice people who simply believe marriage should be between a man and a woman. And the fact is, a large number of Americans (including Hispanic immigrants, who tend to be Catholic) still feel that way. Personally, I approve of the inclusion of gays into the Episcopal Church, but I am concerned the church has now become a vehicle for “liberal agendas” and I don’t want politics mixed with my religion.

    I’m a former Democrat (now libertarian with a small L) and if the Episcopal Church becomes a place where only Obama-supporting Democrats are welcomed, then I’ll stop going. Besides, many conservative Episcopalians still exist (including some in my family). If you want to be truly inclusive, you can’t merge the Episcopal Church with the Democratic party. The Episcopal Church will not do well if it becomes overtly political. I think there are a lot of mainstream people that maybe don’t have strong opinions one way or the other about certain issues, and they don’t want to go to church and get pressured to join some sort of far-left radical political movement.

    “(2) Religion is perceived as a system of obligations for belief and action rather than a source of enjoyment through ceremony, stories and art. People regard churches are preaching stations rather than holy places where they can get aesthetic pleasure and a vision of another world–mysticism and metaphysical thrills or, if you will (spirituality).”

    I’ll agree with this up to a certain point, but if you haven’t stepped into an evangelical service just to check it out, you should. The old-style liturgical service simply cannot compete with the fun rock band services evangelicals provide.

    “(3) There is absolutely no reason why educated people in a “world come of age” should pay attention to the meanderings of clergy or look to them for guidance. We’re as smart and educated as they are, can take care of ourselves. The very idea of a sermon–a didactic talk without even a chance for Q&A is an insult to us.”

    Speak for yourself, Harriet. And frankly, seeing that you are a professor and yet have so little respect for the teachings of others concerns me. I go to church in part because of the sermons, and if the priest/pastor is good, then the sermons are often the best part of the service. Once again, I will also direct you to take a look at what the evangelicals are doing, because the main part of their service is simply the sermon (no readings)…and the best evangelical pastors have mastered the art of public speaking and are quite engaging, which is why they are so popular.

    “(4) For all its pretensions to being liberal and democratic, the Episcopal Church is riddled with clericalism and lay people are not taken seriously. We are, as one priest put it, “pastoral care objects.” We aren’t treated as rational, educated adults: clergy attempt to manipulate us “using psychology.””

    I think this is one of your personal buttons again and not representative. Your desire to be treated like a “rational, educated adult” misses the point of why *most* people want to go to church – for a feeling of connection with God.

    The bottom line is that the Episcopal Church needs to not look its nose down on the very effective methods that evangelical churches have used to get loyal members – a simple, direct message; excellent, inspiring modern music; a streamlined service; and polished, inspiring pastors who excel at public speaking.

    Do I think the Episcopal Church needs to do away entirely with the liturgy? No. But it needs in addition to the traditional liturgy a modern service that can compete with the evangelicals.

    I no longer go to the Sunday morning service at the Episcopal church I first got involved with when I moved here, because a) I’m not a morning person and b) the choir music is so bad that it’s painful to me. Instead, I either go to short, evening contemplative service at another Episcopal Church near me, or once in a while I go to the “rock band” service at a non-denominational evangelical church nearby. Or I go to yoga class and meditate.

    And that’s the other thing. You’re also competing with yoga and the New Age. If you focus solely on attracting liberals with a social agenda…well, those folks are often either atheistic/agnostic, or if they are doing spirituality, they are doing yoga or Buddhism or Wicca or New Thought. So I’d tone down the politics and make the Episcopal Church open to people of all different political stripes and get some better services. Don’t make the Episcopal Church the “liberal church.” It will die out if you do.

  12. alan church

    I attend church to try and keep the fourth commandment.

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