A couple of weeks ago our church community rallied together on the church front lawn to support National Back to Church Sunday and to register our youth for Sunday School. It was a blessing to see new faces and to see the smiles of the faces of people who have been a part of our congregation for a while come back to church. Seeing our congregation and community come together in that way was encouraging. It did, however, remind me of the many people in our community who need a place to belong.
Recently, LifeWay Research conducted a survey of formerly churched adults in America, hoping to uncover certain trends about why people have stopped attending church. It’s no surprise that the U.S. Church is in a general state of decline. The magnitude of the decline, however, is staggering. Of the 300 million people in the United States, fewer than 20% regularly attend church. And our research suggests that close to 7.9 million people may be leaving churches annually. Crunch the numbers, and you realize that our churches are probably seeing more than 150,000 people walk away each week!
The LifeWay study revealed several common themes as to why such a sizable segment of the local church body is choosing the exit door. They report that, almost 60% of people said that some adjustment to their lives is the primary reason why they no longer attend church. Specifically, one-third of the formerly churched believe they are simply too busy for church. To them, life changes—often family or home needs—are as important as or more important than attending a local church. Several people reported that family responsibilities were causing them to feel too busy to attend church. And women (64%) are more likely than men (51%) to feel this increased pressure from home responsibilities. About 28% of those reporting lifestyle changes said that a move to a new location caused them to stay away from the Church. 37% say this disillusionment is one of the primary reasons for leaving. Of the formerly churched who expressed disillusionment, 45% said that they felt the church was unloving.
Without a doubt, the American Church has a major problem as millions of people leave each year. But we think there’s a reason to remain optimistic. The second portion of our research focused on how the Church can bring these people back into a local body. What we uncovered were some simple, yet exciting factors that could help people return to the Church. First and foremost, a considerable number of those who left the church said they’re willing to come back. While many are not actively seeking a church now, a large majority (62%) is open to the idea of returning. Conversely, only a small minority (28%) of the formerly churched is unlikely to consider returning in the foreseeable future. So these findings should be a huge encouragement to you. The question is what specifically can we do to see them return?
The overwhelming numbers of this exodus have motivated many denominations to discover the reasons behind it. Clergy from churches across the country are meeting to figure out what they can do about it. This past weekend clergy and lay leaders in the Long Island Presbytery gathered to find ways to reinvigorate our churches and to find ways that we can collaborate in ministry. I believe that by coming together to discuss and discern new ways to be the church and to do ministry, we are finding the answer to our questions. One answer is that we have discovered that for far too long we have existed as isolated communities. The irony and the paradox of the combination of the words, “isolated community” underscores our need to reexamine what it means to be a church community.
It is discouraging for pastors and congregations to see dwindling populations which often leads to a sense of apathy. But as we come together and partners with others in the local church we a) recognize that we are all in the same boat b) that we can help each other to shore if we start rowing in the same direction. We have more power together than we have apart and we have more power than we think. One thing that stands out from the research is that41% of the formerly churched said that they would return to the local church if a friend or acquaintance invited them. Younger adults are even more influenced by the power of the invitation. Approximately 60% of those 18–35 would consider returning to church if someone they knew asked them to come back.
Perhaps one of the most underestimated reasons people return to the Church is that someone simply invited them back. Perhaps, a simple, invitation is all it may take to prompt someone to come back to church? When someone strays from the church, friends and family should be there to encourage him or her to return. Let them know that they are missed and most importantly that they are loved.
The present reality is that too many people are walking away from our churches. But I pray that we can remain hopeful and optimistic about the future. Our church motto is meet God and friends here. If in fact God is here shouldn’t we share that good news with those close to us? Invite someone this week, this month to come back to church.
Yours in Christ,
Reverend Terri Ofori