Those of us who are concerned about declining church attendance in America are well aware that it’s been steadily declining for over 60 years. A particularly troublesome footnote in this decline is that the younger generation no longer has a strong presence in church. This is a serious problem and poses difficult questions, such as; why is it that most of the younger generation is staying away from church? Why don’t they have the same compelling reason to attend church that the older generation has? Did the older generation fail to pass on their reason for going or did they simply pass on their permission to stay away? But most importantly, how can we rebuild our community of faith?
While accurate statistics are hard to come by, it’s well accepted that in the 1950’s, 99% of Americans said that they believed in God, as compared to today where only 66% say that they believe in God. It's also well accepted that in the 1950’s, only 2% identified themselves as “non-religious” while today the number is closer to 20%. The result of these and other trends is that now less than 20% of Americans attend church on a regular basis (that is, two or more times a month). Whatever the exact statistics are, it’s clear that there has been a significant shift away from a belief in, and worship of, God over the last 60 years.
Why is it that most of the younger generation is staying away from church? Some say that “reason” tells them that there’s no God, so why should they go to a church? Others say that church is a place where people go to get lectured about how sinful they are. Still others say that their pastors are boring speakers who talk about dull, and useless topics. While some of the answers given for not going to church may have a kernel of truth in them, the combined effect is that most of the younger generation no longer has a compelling reason to believe that there’s a God, to accept a lecture on their sinful lives, and to sit through a boring sermon.
Our spiritual leaders have been aware of this decline for a long time and in an attempt to increase attendance, they have modified their messages to either make people think that their eternal judgment is close at hand (so they would continue to come and pay attention), or to be less threatening to, and more confirming of, those who are listening. Obviously, people are more apt to pay attention when they are afraid that something bad is about to happen to them or when something nice is being said about them. Both messages likely had in mind the idea that you can’t change the heart of someone who isn’t paying attention.
It’s true that those who were afraid of their imminent eternal judgment paid more attention, and those who felt better about themselves returned to church to hear more. However, those who were worried about their impending eternal judgment soon came to wonder about the “immediacy” of the problem and began to take the necessity of church a little less seriously. And those who heard the less condemning message came to believe that they are not as sinful as they first thought, and that everything is actually okay between themselves and God.
It’s no wonder that people began to ask themselves questions like; “If my eternal judgment isn’t going to be for a while, why can’t I worry about it a little later?” and “Why do I need a church to tell me how to be good when I already know how?” and "If I'm already a good person, why do I need organized religion to guide me?" and “If I’m already in God’s graces, why do I need to ask Him for forgiveness and mercy?” All of these are difficult questions and, left unanswered, they will continue to lead more and more of us away our churches and away from God.
Unfortunately, instead of trying to answer these questions, many (perhaps most) of our spiritual leaders have simply persisted with the message that God loves us as we are and that He won’t condemn us as long as we try to be good (that is, “good” by our own definition). Predictably, their “feel good” message is continuing to make the problem worse because instead of leading us back to God as our merciful judge, it’s giving us permission to be our own arbiter of right and wrong. It’s leading people to see less and less of a need for their immediate repentance and forgiveness. And it’s making it more difficult to answer one of the more basic questions, “If I can decide what’s right and wrong, then why do I need a church?”
So how can we rebuild our community of faith when the overarching problem seems to be that many of us have become comfortable with our relationship with God and don’t want to give up being in charge of our moral lives? The answer lies in first understanding why the older generation still attends church, why they still consider themselves sinners, and why they are willing to sit through boring sermons. It lies in the understanding that there is a God, that everyone is subject to His infinite Justice, and that we are always in need of repentance. And most importantly, it lies in the everyday expression of that understanding and faith in the lives of our spiritual leaders.
The second, and more difficult, step in the process of rebuilding our community of faith is in the passing on that understanding and expression of faith to the rest of us. Our spiritual leaders need to demonstrate that faith in their lives and, at the same time, pass on that understanding and faith to the rest of us. They need to convince us that there is a God and that it’s not us. They need to convince us that God is the final arbiter of our moral lives, and that we need to submit ourselves and be held accountable to God’s standard, not our own standard. They need to convince us that we are all sinners and that we need to pray for God’s Mercy. Finally, they need to do all of this, not only through an exemplary life, but also through captivating and compelling sermons.
No one said it would be easy.