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Chris Thompson: Welcoming churches can reverse attendance slump

Chris Thompson

The article, "Eight Reasons It's Easier Not to Attend Church Today" on the blog of noted church consultant Thom Rainer, caught my eye. In Alaska, it's no secret we're leading a national trend in low church attendance.

A recent Gallop study showed Alaska near the bottom in the attendance column, with sixth lowest numbers at 33 percent (along with Hawaii and Oregon). That's half the attendance rate of the top church attendance state, Mississippi, which has a 63 percent church attendance rate.

Rainer outlines several points, and I'll address his reasons from my own observations based on over 10 years of experience in the Anchorage church community. These eight reasons impact the unchurched in many cases, and the churched as well.

It's often not culturally expected for persons to attend church

When I grew up, churchgoing in our family was not an option. Neither was it an option for most households in my neighborhood. Now, Sunday or Saturday is often a family day. Most people take it easier and do family-oriented activities. The weekends, for many people, have a slower pace with less frenetic activity than during the week.

Alaska is a huge outdoor-activity state, and many living here migrate to it for that purpose. That's best seen in the summer, when churches trim services radically. However, the strong encouraging words of the apostle Paul say, "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is," Hebrews 10:25.

Congregational expectations of members' attendance are lower

Church congregations no longer seem to notice which members are missing. In years past, a missing member or family might get a call, visit or note if they didn't attend. People make other choices and are rarely missed. Maybe it's a trip to the cabin, fishing or just taking a break. I've also seen this pattern in the service club I belong to. But to most of today's churches, it's no big deal.

Unchurched persons are often very demanding about the perceived quality of services

The focus of my writing for the past eight years has been this very issue. Most churches have one or two shots at attracting the unchurched. Unfriendly, inhospitable, entertainment-oriented churches clearly doing "church" for themselves turn away these seekers.

Many church members are less friendly to guests today

There are many Anchorage churches I've attended that didn't greet me. I've even returned two or three times to the same result. These behaviors do not go unnoticed by guests. Today's generation is more "me" oriented. After all, isn't it "all about me"? This "me" attitude affects church members' ability to reach out to others.

Churches do not emphasize involvement in groups as much as they used to

A few churches make groups a priority, but many have little to do with them. Groups bring people together and keep them together. It may be a men's or women's Bible study group, a Christian book or film group, or shape note singing group. It becomes a kind of cultural glue.

A teacher colleague attends ChangePoint, Alaska's largest church. I asked her how she and her husband dealt with its bigness. Laughing, she told me they discovered that sitting in the same area of the church each week they began to make friends with people in the same area. They are now a "church within a church."

Most churches have no clear purpose

I see this often in Anchorage. Many of these churches are inwardly focused, satisfying themselves with musical entertainment, a comfortable liturgy and a nice fellowship experience aided by good coffee and palatable food. Heaven forbid an uncomfortable sermon is delivered.

Local community work to fulfill the commands of Jesus goes sorely lacking.

Some members and pastors love to support expensive, short-term mission trips to foreign lands while local Alaska needs go unaddressed. In my local service group, members who love this kind of dynamic are called "knife and forkers."

Most churches have no clear plan of discipleship

Training disciples should be the work of churches, but many don't have this view. Jesus' ministry really began when he selected his disciples. He trained them, gave them practical experience and sent them out to do his work.

Forward-thinking churches do the same. It's the tried and true "form, storm, norm and perform" approach to successful ventures. Everyone from soldiers to CEOs and successful pastors have been using this approach for centuries. It is by no means dated.

The typical church in America is a low-expectation church

When churches expect little, they usually achieve it. Many set low expectations. They have poorly maintained facilities, hard-to-read signs, inadequate parking, untrained greeters and bulletin passers and do not practice an inclusive service that purposely puts arms around members and guests. Last year I attended a service where the pastor, and the pastor only, was on the podium from the first song to the last song. I was not made to feel welcome, and when I asked him about it I was brusquely told, "That's the way it is and will not change."

All these issues can be addressed, and should be. There are many "best practice" churches out there that are succeeding in doing so. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Anchorage became known for reversing these trends and setting an example for the rest of the nation?

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.

 


By CHRIS THOMPSON
Church Visits