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Chris Thompson: Research underscores deeper church attendance issues

Chris Thompson

It comes as no surprise to religion watchers that church attendance continues to decline.

This week the Barna Group released "Americans Divided on the Importance of Church." When asked what helped them grow in faith, "people offered a variety of answers -- prayer, family or friends, reading the Bible, having children -- but church did not even crack the Top 10 list."

Sadly, half of Americans say attending church is "somewhat" or "very" important vs. half that say it's "not too" or "not at all" important, according to the Barna Group study.

The report notes that the "divide between the religiously active and those resistant to churchgoing affects American culture, morality, politics and religion."

I've witnessed dramatic declines in attendance over the 10-plus years I've attended church services in Anchorage. Some churches appear to have lost at least half of their attendees. Clearly Alaska mirrors the national trend. Although some churches appear to be experiencing attendance increases, on the whole declines are the norm in Alaska.

The Barna study asked unchurched Americans why they didn't attend church. The top two reasons given were "I find God elsewhere" (40 percent) and "Church is not relevant to me personally" (35 percent). Regardless of age, denomination or background, the major reason (43 percent) people give for going to church is "to be closer to God."

Being closer to God is a nebulous quest. The report cautions, "Although people cite their primary reasons for attending church as growing closer to God and learning more about Him, Barna Group finds such closeness is a rare occurrence. Fewer than two of 10 churchgoers feel close to God on even a monthly basis.

Additionally, while almost two-thirds of those who value church attendance go to learn more about God, fewer than one in 10 (6 percent) who have ever been to church say they learned something about God or Jesus the last time they attended. In fact, the majority of people (61 percent) say they did not gain any significant or new insights regarding faith when they last attended.

In other words, although people are seeking God or new faith insights, they're not finding Him or them. During the past seven years, while blogging my church visits, I rarely sense particular churches offering attendees new information or leading worshipers to connect with God. After church, I often feel downright depressed by the experience. That's not to say it's all bad, but it suggests this may be an issue.

A report last year by the Pew Forum asked religiously affiliated respondents what kept them out of the pews.

The report found that among religiously affiliated Americans who say that religion is at least somewhat important in their lives, but who attend worship services no more than a few times a year, 24 percent cite personal priorities -- including 16 percent who say they are too busy -- as reasons they do not attend more often. Another 24 percent mention practical difficulties, including work conflicts, health problems or transportation difficulties.

"Nearly four in 10 (37 percent) point to an issue directly related to religion or church itself. The most common religion-related responses include disagreements with the beliefs of the religion or their church leaders, or beliefs that attending worship services is not important. Meanwhile, almost one in 10 (9 percent) do not attribute their lack of attendance at religious services to anything in particular."

The Barna Group discovered only four in 10 Americans said they'd gone to church in the past week. Disturbingly, this latest study shows a dichotomy among American seekers. "The data shows two trends, often at crosscurrents. Adults are aware of their very real spiritual needs, yet they are increasingly dissatisfied with the church's attempt to meet those spiritual needs and are turning elsewhere," the report said. This is where Americans say they're spiritual, not religious.

In the Barna Frames project a New York City pastor, Jon Tyson, observed that Americans have virtually every spiritual resource available, including Bibles, electronic access to incredible teachings, and media galore.

Going further Tyson says, "How could the early church capture the imagination of the Roman empire while we, with all our resources and rigor, are slowly losing influence in our culture?

"The early church leaders didn't have the things we now consider essential for our faith. They didn't have official church buildings, vision statements or core values. They had no social media, radio broadcasts or celebrity pastors. They didn't even have the completed New Testament. Christ followers were often deeply misunderstood, persecuted and some gave their lives for their faith. Yet they loved and they served, and they prayed and they blessed -- and slowly, over hundreds of years, they brought the empire to its knees. They did it through love."

I believe our individual and cultural narcissism has to give way to allow this to happen again. We're looking at the wrong person.

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
Anchorage