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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore: A Reponse

A couple of weeks ago, this article was sweeping social media: Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore. A friend of mine requested my response.

The title of this article was familiar to me. It comes from a book written by Thom and Joani Schultz, who put on workshops with the same name. Some of my church council members actually attended one of these workshops a few months ago.

Reading through the data and ideas, I find little to disagree with. And the title is certainly provocative.

But the title misses the point.

I've been thinking about this for awhile and this is what has made me uneasy:

Saying Nobody Wants to go to Church Anymore assumes the church's biggest problem is antipathy. People are actively opposed to going to church.

Here's why I think that's the wrong tack.

The writer of the article, Steve McSwain, cites a statistic from the Hartford Institute of Religion Research stating that "40 percent of people say they go to church weekly." He then states that only 20 percent are actually in the pews.

Turns out, people overestimate their religious involvement.

In surveys, people tend to overestimate things they'd consider virtues and underestimate things they'd consider vices. For example, "I only have one drink a week and I go to church four times a month," - usually translates to "I have 14 drinks a week and go to church once a month."

Apparently, church is still considered a virtue.

When I talk to people my age, I don't hear much active opposition to religion. Occasionally, yes, someone is a strident atheist. But that's the minority. And frankly it's much easier to engage with a strident atheist than an apathetic Christian.

The problem is not, as McSwain puts it, that nobody wants to go to church anymore. Apparently, 40 percent of people in America want to be seen as weekly churchgoers. Forty percent of around 314 million people isn't exactly nobody, is it?

No, the American church's biggest problem isn't antipathy, it's apathy.

My friends from high school and college, many of whom aren't churchgoers, have generally been very supportive about my entry into ministry. They've listened to my stories, attended a pre-graduation brunch, "liked" my church Facebook page, watched my sermons on YouTube.

This past weekend, two of my best friends from high school visited us in Chicago. They had a great weekend; we went to dinner, they took a river cruise, visited breweries, toured the city.

They didn't come to church.

And as my initial disappointment faded, and I came to terms with their choice, I gained insight into the American landscape today and the challenge for the church.

I thought: "Man, these are some of my best friends. They support me, respect me; I even officiated one of their weddings. If I can't even get them to come to church, how will I convince strangers?"

Of course I was looking at the situation all wrong. This wasn't about our friendship, about any antipathy towards me or towards the church. It was about apathy.

It wasn't about me at all. It was about the disconnect between the general goodwill "the church" has in the minds of most Americans - hey at least 40 percent - and the actual experience most Americans have at church.

The problem is not a resistance to what the church is doing. 
The problem is a perception that the church isn't really doing anything at all.

I expect that when I go to church I will encounter God. And not only that, that I will encounter a suffering, dying God who became human that I might encounter God and through that God have new life.

I expect I'll encounter the embodiment of hope. A community that refuses to accept the status quo of death and despair. A community that operates, in resistance to the culture's law of rewards and punishment, a community that operates according to the Law of Grace. Where we see one another through a loving, forgiving God's eyes. Where just for a moment, a song of praise sweeps us away and we see a glimpse of heaven. Where just for a moment, the Word of God in the Bible is brought to life and we forget ourselves and realize that around the corner is a surprising, unexpected, and grace-filled new life.

If people expected that and got that when they came to church, everybody would want to go to church.

And I think most of my non-church-going peers would agree. Would say that beneath the layers of Sunday hangovers and brunches and other opportunities and ways to spend their time, that their deepest hope is that God in church might respond to their deepest needs; change their life; give them a community filled with grace who understands them, wounds and all.

Steve, I do think you're off here. People want to go to church. Overwhelmingly, though, as you point out: they don't. So what occurs in this gap here between desire and reality?

A lot of people seem to think the church has an image problem. Just polish up our image: Everyone is Welcome! Gay-Friendly! Not-Money-Hungry! Scandal-Free! Loving All! Lots of Kids! -- and our problems will be solved.

But given the above statistics, if 40 percent of people want to be seen as churchgoers - then I don't think image is the church's main problem.

The church doesn't have an image problem. The church has an influence problem.

People with increasingly packed schedules want to be involved in something that shows results, that has influence. Young parents make sacrifices to get their kids involved in sports, or tutoring, or music - because they recognize the influence those activities will have as their children grow into adulthood.

Same thing with other activities. A friend of mine dedicated a great deal of her time to a charity program called Room to Read, because she believed that the time and money she spent would directly impact the world, by helping give children around the world tools to learn to read.

Same with exercise: thousands of studies have documented the influence of exercise in longtime health, so people make time to go to the gym, to run triathlons.

Today many people think of the church like a kindly elderly great aunt or uncle. Senile at times, out of touch, kind, benign. You'll visit your great-aunt in the hospital at a moment of crisis - probably attend her funeral. But she doesn't seem to have much real influence in your life.

For thousands of years the church has taken its influence for granted. In the 1960s the church was a driver of the Civil Rights movement. During the Civil War churches served as safe houses for runaway slaves. In Medieval times the church was a provider of basic services and one of the only sources of education.

We took our influence for granted.

The church stopped telling its story. Stopped explaining what difference it made. The church faded into the background. Our services became enmeshed in culture: we became like a civic organization, like a social club. No one wanted to say anything offensive. The church became a place where lives were sustained, not changed. Religion became a private matter.

"Nobody wants to go to church anymore" is an oversimplification. It attempts to say that the church stands for something, and everybody is against that.

Instead, the overwhelming problem is that in many peoples' minds: the church doesn't stand for anything.

So maybe once a year; they'll drag themselves to church. Maybe you're reading this and that's you: maybe once a year, you'll drag yourself to church.

And you get there. There's some nice music. Good coffee. A swell nursery. Friendly people.

They'll invite you to their barbecue or sewing circle or Bible study or service project.

The pastor offers some vague prayers and an esoteric sermon about an esoteric text.

You can't remember much except some stupid story she told with that maddeningly slow voice, an attempt to relate that didn't make any sense to you at all.

It seemed like a nice place. You didn't mind going there. Maybe, in another year, you might come back.

But deep inside, you still wanted to go to church.

You wanted to go to a church that met, in resistance to a competitive culture, you wanted to go to a church that met in cooperation. Where lives were changed. Where maybe, just maybe, 2,000 years ago, a dead man might be raised.

We've got a damn good legacy.

A "damn good," if you will, God.

Everybody's wandering around looking for their life meaning, their raison d'etre - mission statements - statements of purpose - and a guy walks into a church, looks at the cross, shrugs: "I think this'll work."

I always laugh when churches talk about mission statements. Because, I mean, it's a good thing to clarify your particular purpose. But what, raising a dead man to life and spreading his story so that all people might be raised from the dead, that wasn't good enough?

Eternal life? No, I think we're gonna go with "Reaching All Families through Loving Support and Godly Eyes," or something sufficiently catchy and meaningless.

Anyway, there it is. Steve McSwain, I think you're wrong. Everybody wants to go to church. It's just that, most of the time, when they get there, they don't get church. They don't get Jesus. They don't get the cross. They don't get anything that matters.

So one by one let's start it. If you do go to church - even if it's once in awhile - ask yourself: Why do I do this? How do I experience God at church? Where do I see Jesus in church?

Get it down to a story in your head. A story that matters; something you'd give your life for, even.

Then share it. Change our churches with it. Get back to the church of the martyrs.

Be real. Be honest. Be up-to-date. Take risks. Before you invite your neighbors to church, invite Jesus back into your church - not to the back pew - but as President of the Board.

Don't make decisions without consulting Jesus.

One he's there - and in charge - every Sunday, all those people who wanted to go to His church will be knocking at your door.


  1. Hi Angela,
    I found you through your post at Sojourner's. When I visited your blog, I read your words on Baltimore and Hozier and, now, this one on church. Your thoughts really resonate with me. I'm so glad that you're a pastor and that it's your job to tell people about the incredible love of this "overwhelming Jesus." I am a writer, and the wife of a pastor of a small church in Santa Monica. Thanks for writing. Peace to you and to your congregation. --katie savage

    1. Thank you Katie, and to you as well! I look forward to reading your work. I have accepted a new call in Orange County and we will be moving to Southern California this summer. Would be great to connect!