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Instead of focusing on attendance and membership, we should consider engaging people in the joy and life of the local church.

Gone are the days when the majority of church members attended worship 50 out of 52 Sundays, committing themselves to the ministry and membership of their local church.

We’re witnessing a cultural phenomenon in which there are many followers of Jesus who call on the name of their Savior, enjoy the ministry and fellowship of the local church—and are even involved in it—but who simply attend and commit less. There are many reasons for this.

Increasing Affluence

A demographic trend in North America indicates that more and more people in the middle class have more disposable income. One might even argue that the middles class is shrinking, in part because more of the middle class is shifting to the upper class. Personal disposable income is at an all-time high, both in the United States and in Canada. This increase in income also gives people more options for how they choose to spend their time.

Practically speaking, this means that church members, along with the rest of the population, are able to do things they might not have been able to do a decade ago. How many people do you know in your church who have bought a boat or a motorcycle, or who own a cottage on a lake or a cabin outside of town, or who simply like to travel?

With demanding careers and busy lifestyles during the week, people are increasingly choosing to travel or engage in activities they enjoy on the weekend—activities that may compete with a committed engagement to the local church.

Kids’ Activities

Another cultural phenomenon is the growing number of children who play sports or engage in other group activities. Many of these sporting events or extracurricular activities take place on weekends—and more and more parents are choosing their children’s sports and hobbies over church activities.

Studies show that parents get involved in their children’s sporting and hobby activities earlier—by age 5—and extend their involvement longer—until they graduate from high school. Many parents are committed to taking theirs sons and daughters to hockey, soccer, basketball, or dance practices throughout the week and tournaments on weekends. One church that did a survey of its own members found out that it was not uncommon for a family to spend up to 15 to 20 hours weekly on these activities. 

Weekend Work

More of us are working on weekends. An increasing number of North Americans are taking their work home on weekends, trying to meet deadlines or catch up on projects. Some are simply trying to fulfill the heavy requirements of their job description. And depending on where people live and what kind of work they do, it’s not unusual for them to travel out of town for work. Some commute weekly or daily; others are required to work night and weekend shifts.  

All of these situations make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to commit consistently to the local church.

Blended and Single-Parent Families

These days, more and more blended families and single-parent families are represented in church membership. So what’s this got to do with church attendance or commitment to a local congregation? Church leaders and members alike need to realize that when parents share custody of their children, they may see them only 26 Sundays a year.

Transportation is also a factor in this equation. This is true especially in my own context. Most of the single parents in my congregation do not own a vehicle and struggle financially. Adding to this reality, the challenge of taking babies or young children on public transit during long winters is a formidable obstacle. One blogger noted a strange twist: “People who have a car are often not in church because they have a car and choose to do other things. People who want to be in church are not because they don’t have a car.” Some people who want to get to church simply can’t. 

Virtual Church

It is now unusual for a church not to have a website. In fact, countless churches have created a social media presence that includes sermon podcasts and videos. Online materials are readily available. In addition, effective and influential churches are launching online campuses that bring the entire Sunday worship service to your computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Many people agree that there are advantages and disadvantages to these technological tools. But the reality is that churches with a strong online presence have seen it impact their physical attendance. As access to online ministry continues to grow, more and more Protestant Christians in North America are meeting their spiritual needs online. Whether or not we agree that a virtual church experience can or should replace membership in a local congregation, we need to understand that it is here to stay. 

Closely intertwined with this cultural shift is what some call “self-directed spirituality.” People in general, both inside and outside of church, are turning less to churches and clergy to help them grow spiritually. In an age when information and knowledge are ubiquitous, we can search online for just about everything, from shopping and news to health-related items. When my son developed a rash on his skin, the first thing I did was consult an online doctor from the Mayo Clinic. Similarly characteristic of the postmodern mind is a decline in our trust of and reliance on institutionalized religion. Many people attempt to meet their spiritual needs all on their own, apart from the body of Christ. They may fail to see a direct benefit or the value of regularly attending and committing to a local church. 

These trends are the reality churches are facing. How, then, shall we respond?

Defense or Offense?

It seems to me that churches can either play “defense” or “offense.” The former refers to correcting, rebuking, teaching, and training, pointing out to people the benefits of membership in the church and encouraging them to change. The latter tactic acknowledges the cultural trends and finds new and creative ways to make disciples, given the changes in our milieu and out church attendance. Perhaps the Holy Spirit can bring something good in either approach. 

In addition, we might consider the issue of involvement. As pastor and podcaster Carey Nieuwhof has suggested: “People always make time for the things they value most. If they’re not making time for church, that tells you something. Even among people who say they love the church and who say they love your church, if declining attendance is an issue, chances are it’s because they don’t see a direct benefit. They don’t see the value in being there. That could be because there isn’t much value or there is value that they simply don’t see.”

Similarly, author Will Mancini has suggested that instead of focusing on attendance and commitment to membership, we should consider engaging our people in the joy and life of the local church. Isn’t it true that the most engaged people in your church are those who serve, give, invite, and commit themselves in a small or community group, and who are frequent attenders? 

One thing is certain: our culture is shifting seismically. And that shift  is shaping the life of the local church in how we reach out to help people grow as disciples of Jesus Christ and to follow him in a changing world.

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