It’s no secret. Weekly church attendance is down. Where did everybody go?
A local pastor gave me two simple answers to the question. He said his “regular attendees” may show up just once every six weeks. That’s the definition of “regular” these days. But that conduct certainly depletes the numbers on any given Sunday.
Answer #2. The pastor said some attendees stay connected between infrequent in-person visits. How? They listen to his sermons online. It’s more convenient, eliminates the need to get the family ready to go to church, and fits anywhere in a busy weekly schedule.
This is one of the major trends affecting congregations today. The digital world of online sermons, preacher podcasts, and streaming worship services are significantly changing how people “do church.” Is that good news or bad news for the church? Well, it depends.
Churches that know how to leverage technology are reaching lots of people regularly. Jason Caston, author of The iChurch Method: Digital Mission Field, urges churches to embrace a 24/7 ministry mentality through their internet presence. He encourages churches to include their people’s digital interactions as a real component of weekly “attendance.” Online access gives people the opportunity to find spiritual help at the time they’re experiencing the need, he says. By the way, Caston will be offering his practical insights (and a free book) at Group’s upcoming Future of the Church summit. Find details on how you can join in here.
There’s a potential downside, however, for the church when more and more people connect primarily through their digital devices. The sense of community, of the Body of Christ coming together, of knowing and caring for one another, can evaporate if people no longer physically gather.
And here’s the sad unanticipated backstory. The contemporary American church has built its model around its weekend services. The budget, the buildings, and the attention revolve around those weekend services. And the admitted main ingredient of those services is the sermon.
The typical sermon is a lengthy lecture, a one-way form of communication, in front of a passive audience. And it’s that very medium that is now easily transferred online. People are discovering that if they want a sermon–a message–they can find it more conveniently on the internet. And they can always find a more polished, nationally renowned speaker online than they’ll find at the local church on the corner.
And that’s the growing danger of banking on the local preacher’s sermon as a church’s ultimate draw.
It’s now time to have a conversation around the true purpose of the local church. What can the gathered people of God do together that is not duplicated or surpassed elsewhere? How can a truly relational ministry offer something that no one-way performance ever could?
Certainly, technology and digital tools can play a significant role in a healthy ministry. But as Jason Caston says in this week’s Holy Soup podcast, these electronic means should supplement, not supplant, a well-rounded local ministry.
Listen to the fascinating conversation with Jason Caston here:
Full disclosure. I was raised as a Baptist in the south, migrated to a sacramental Protestant denomination as an adult, and now worship at a large thriving “non-denominational” church with my family. My primary reason for being there is the quality and orthodoxy of the children’s programs. My primary “complaint” with the typical worship experience is that the Lord’s Supper is treated very casually when we do observe it. Some Pastors seem to be afraid of Jesus’ words—“This is my body…this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” And they avoid them altogether. So without a “sacramental” or holy experience, why would anyone feel it necessary to show up every Sunday; especially when one can watch the sermon online? Make the Lord’s Supper holy and meaningful again, and I’ll bet attendance would increase.
Response to Mark C.
When I was a pastor, the whole service from songs, responsive readings, scripture, and short sermon would all revolve around the table. Why? Because the communion at the end of the service always seemed like an add on instead of the focus it should be.
“The typical sermon is a lengthy lecture, a one-way form of communication, in front of a passive audience.” Yes, all churches are structured this way. If a christian really is serious and personally studies their bible, all those lectures become very boring. I know “who Jesus is, what he did for us, what our duty is.” Do pastors think we are so stupid that we forget the basic message within 15 minutes? I quit going to church because there is nothing to challenge me to study harder. Why not quizzes, tests, submit written essays, stand up and deliver a brief message, etc? No, of course not, might cut in serious television time watching sports, sitcoms, blockbuster movies. As one christian told me, “No, no homework.”
I’d like to encourage you to focus on doing/living the Word and not just knowing it. Those are two different things. I know from experience that doing the word will strengthen your relationship with God.
Thank you for your response. However, you did not lay out any concrete plan for “focus on doing/living the Word.” How about some actual facts and words that can lead to that action. What? Washing others’ feet? Serving in a soup kitchen? Taking responsibility for a semi-homeless person? Sitting in meeting after meeting as a church deacon? Putting a couple of bucks in the Salvation bucket at Christmas time? Okay, been there, done that. On the other hand I have just been viewing some videos of John Piper. He speaks in great, grand, flowing terms but doesn’t say anything. For example, “God loves us by giving us Himself and all that is in Jesus….You are loved by Jesus when Jesus gives all that God is for you in Jesus….God measures his love for you by how much he gives you of Himself, to know and enjoy.” As for practical advice, “learn deep, eternal truths from where ever…Christian television.” Foolish talk like this is common. I want to study the sciences so I can see the workings of God in the affairs of nature and mankind. Not going to happen in church.
I feel your pain Louis. Been there, done that. I would recommend a couple of practical books. First, The Connecting Church by Randy Frazee, gave me a deeper understanding of what spiritual community can and should be. Second, Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna identified the ‘traditions’ that were robbing me of the intimacy and community I was longing for. It’s NOT about doing things; it’s about being. Invite your neighbors. Share your vision. Serve one another in Christian love. As you get to know each other, Lifetree Cafe by Group will guide your discussions toward God. As you begin to DO life together (all during the week), serve the rest of your neighbors (who didn’t accept your invitation). Embrace what you have in common as you serve one another. It is a journey my brother, one that will change your life and those around you.
“all churches are structured this way” ~ are you sure about that? As a pastor, I for sure don’t think “my” people are stupid. But I don’t see church as being about knowing more. It’s about being transformed by the Word. In my experience as a student, quizzes and submitted essays never transformed me.
Wait a minute there, you just invoked a churchy platitude to generalize an important concept. It said nothing, this catchy slogan, “being transformed by the Word.” How exactly does this work out? I know the underlining philosophy that if only the preacher can correctly explain the supreme value of the sacrifice of God’s only Son, that the folks sitting in the pews will magically catch the excitement of “falling in love with Jesus.” So after a hour sitting in church on Sunday, the family goes home to watch a Hollywood blockbuster film about cartoon super heroes, as the villains destroy the world and kill millions, only to be stopped by the super heroes. A massive amount of violence, but that has nothing to do with the bible which says,” I will walk within my house in the integrity of my heart. I will set no worthless thing before my eyes;” So, how much time should a Christian spend in the bible compared to the pleasures of modern American culture? One hour to a thousand? Is merely sitting in a weekly Sunday lecture good enough to please the Lord? What’s this verse mean? 1 tim :4 “Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all.” I have never in fifty years heard a pastor preach against christians in their love for movies and sports viewing, no matter how many young men get their brains knocked out in football, for example. We certainly don’t want to become legalistic, but if a christian isn’t working hard to learn how to please the Lord, but rather is immersed in the culture, how in the heck is that person going to be “transformed by the word”?
Churches are struggling to find their place in America… Some are “tradition oriented” find themselves with an aging and shrinking congregation… loyal people with a commitment to their heritage
Others have embraced the new “worship experience” with youth and children’s ministries being the draw for young families… some of these church attendees have a mercurial nature and are changing churches frequently, looking for the next big thing…
I don’t know the answer but I believe that churches will somewhat follow the pattern of retail in America… some megachurches will survive like Walmart and Target while others will falter like Kmart and Sears.
There seem to be too many smaller churches competing for a shrinking church attending population and many will drop out of existence… but I am NOT worried… the Church have lasted through persecution, corruption, good times and bad times… while our methods might change… God remains the same
A U-Tube church life is hardly a realistic expression of a Faith Community. We attend a more informal Anglican faith expression. The Rector delivers a shortish talk and then we open it up for community question and discussion. This can get quite lively!!!! This is the way the original Synagogue operated; also people learn and enter in far more realistically than this obsession about preaching a sermon. Yes we all know that we have fallen short and are evil at heart but do we need that every Sabbath/Sunday????? The SD Adventists have a lively discussion style adult bible study as well and people look forward to this. A lot of Preachers I find are just plain narcissistic and just want to be up there “preaching” at you because it fills some issue about themselves. Who needs it??? One Anglican church of about 20 people went on about their On – Line community!!! What on earth. We are supposed to interact on meaningful level not via texting or U-tube. If people are too busy it might be worth looking at what you spend your time on.
Acts 2:46 – With one accord they continued to meet daily in the temple courts and to break bread from house to house, sharing their meals with gladness and sincerity of heart, and the next verse is the mind blower; praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Enjoying the favor of ALL people? They were a bunch of upstarts going against the ‘church’ establishment (Judaism) in Jerusalem, but still found favor from ALL people because of the way they were living out their love for one another. That’s how we edify the body and build the Church. It’s not a Sunday performance or online presence. It’s Christian community. I don’t see how you can have that from an hour a week of a computer screen.
Well Stated Terry Kyle!!!
Orthodox Christianity was created by and for people who want to be in a community or who want to manage and control others. But not everyone today wants that. I don’t need to be ‘served’, but I would appreciate hearing new and interesting and informed insights pulled from text, history, or scholarship. But I find church to be formulaic and platitudes and moralistic harangues, not very interesting. I attend once a month to hear good music on the organ, an instrument I don’t encounter elsewhere.