Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid

“Young Adults, Authenticity, and the Future of the Church.” This was the title of our proposal for three years of study when we applied for an ICE grant. In recent days, an article by Rachel Held Evans has created a flurry of replies about the same topic. Here are some of them, compiled by my friend Rachel Gonia:

My favorite (somewhat curmudgeonly) response is from Anthony Bradley: United Methodists Wearing A Millennial Evangelical Face. He says that really, the United Methodist Church addresses all of Rachel’s examples of millennial dissatisfaction. I, too, want to stand on the rooftops, wave my hands and say, “Hey, all you disillusioned evangelicals and spiritually-minded skeptics! We’ve got what you’re looking for right over here!”

Except that I believe all of the discussion about theology and mission is largely irrelevant to Protestant decline. It’s important stuff, certainly, and worthy of discussion. I’m just skeptical that it has much to do with the growth or decline of the church. Our churches have been beating ourselves up about our theology and mission and so on for thirty-some-odd years, and while there may be some insightful critiques in all the hand-wringing, I believe the decline of participation in both evangelical and mainline churches has more to do with two things: money and birthrates.

I know, we’d rather blame our theological and denominational bugaboos. We’re not missional enough, or evangelical enough, or socially-conscious enough, or orthodox enough, or envelope-pushing enough, or slick enough, or simple enough, or radical enough. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when evangelical inde-bapti-costal churches were growing and mainliners were shrinking, conservatives gleefully blamed weak liberal theology (and the wrath of God) for our decline. Now that it’s hitting the conservatives, too, we (slightly more) liberal mainliners can blame their bad theology. Or whatever theology and practices we dislike. Some people like the idea of shrinkage, because it demonstrates how countercultural the gospel is—only those of us authentically Christian enough will really get it. Okay, sure, I like being in the moral minority, too.

Robert Wuthnow is one of few researchers pointing to sociological causes, and his book After the Baby Boomers completely changed the way I think about these issues. To wrap your head around the various causes of decline in church membership, remember this fact: The best predictor of church attendance is if someone a) is married and b) has children. I’m not saying that this should be the case. I’m not saying that married people with kids are the only people in church or the only people who count. I’m just describing empirically-verifiable data.

Instead of theological or worship or marketing issues, I believe a more likely explanation for the decline in attendance at mainline Protestant churches over the last several decades is simply that people tend to marry later (if at all) and have fewer babies. Although our mission is to make disciples, most denominations have grown not by converting unbelievers, but by breeding more Christians. Since the best predictor of church attendance is “settling down” and investing in a local community like your parents did, slowing marriage and reproduction rates means fewer generations in a given church. As evangelical churches began catching up with mainline Protestants in education and income patterns (which delay marriage), their growth slowed and reversed as well. Sure, Christians still make converts and baptize new believers—just not faster than they are dying off.

The trend has only been accelerating. Because of economic pressure on the middle class, marriage itself is becoming a less-attainable goal (compare and contrast with this article about urbanization and the family from 1969). When people have to work two full-time jobs to raise a family, they don’t have time to go to a worship service on the weekend. Speaking of jobs, Wuthnow pointed out that it is less likely that anyone will be employed by the same employer in the same place for more than a few years. With all that job-and-place-changing, people don’t settle down anywhere, nor do their children get habituated to church attendance. At a recent church-planter training, Jim Griffith pointed out to us that since people can’t afford to take two-week vacations anymore, they wind up taking multiple weekend trips during the year, decreasing the time they have to participate in church activities. All of these lifestyle and economic influences make it less likely that people will commit to a church.

At the same time, the number of churches per thousand people has been declining since the 60’s as well. At one time, Methodists were proud of the fact that there were more Methodist churches than post offices in the United States. All those little country churches became a drag on growth as urbanization increased, yet we stopped planting new churches in cities. And guess where young people are more likely to be? The cities. Not marrying. Not breeding. And the longer they are not in church, the less likely they are to return.

It’s not all about young people. Since a greater number older people can’t afford to retire, the pool of available retirees who provide valuable volunteer labor to churches is declining. We like to talk about the graying of our congregations, but the fact is they are increasingly absent, too.

Here’s a little comparison that illustrates what I’m talking about. Overlay these two graphs. The first is union participation and wage growth for the middle class:

This graph starts with 1967, the last year that the UMC posted a gain in church membership. Since then, we’ve mirrored all other Protestant denominations:

Of course, I’m not claiming that you can just look at two possibly correlated graphs and infer a cause. But I do think that they illustrate what Wuthnow claims about socioeconomic factors leading to fewer young adults in churches. We designed churches to be anchors in the community and shaped them around heterosexual couples who were married, had children, a stable income, and predictable life patterns. The church in the United States shaped itself around the middle class, and grew as it grew. We do not live in that world anymore.

Sure, any given individual’s story may not describe those socioeconomic pressures. I have no doubt that an 22-year-old who has left a church disillusioned might blame bad theology, religious exclusivism, or intolerance of LGBTQ persons for her leaving rather than her parents later marriage, smaller family size, and job transfers in the 80’s and 90’s. And again, I’m not suggesting theology and mission are not important. In fact, I think they are extremely important. But I am always skeptical of self-reporting, and I tend to look for material (rather than intellectual or spiritual) etiologies for church problems. I know this approach is not popular among the religious set, but I have to ask myself which is more likely: a) that an entire generational cohort is suddenly asking the critical questions I’ve always wished they would ask, or b) that growing income inequality, rising poverty, and a shrinking middle class over the last thirty years has changed the way people approach their careers and their relationships, and those factors, in turn, affect how their families (and their children) relate to church?

There are some questions, though, that do connect the socioeconomic problems with the theological ones: Why is church a place where we settle down instead of launch? Why have we idolized family, race, and class values instead of questioning them? And why aren’t we raising more of a ruckus about the economic injustice that is (directly or indirectly) decimating our churches? Why aren’t more of us pointing out that our civic religion and social structure seems to be based more on the pagan worship of the power and wealth of the 1% than the liberating God of Moses and Jesus? Maybe it’s time that we were driven out into the wilderness to learn about the kind of society God envisions.

From Daniel Erlander’s “Manna & Mercy”

The inevitable question people ask me when I talk about this stuff is, “What do we do, then?” I wish I had a better answer, because I automatically mistrust any pastor or pundit whose answer is “Think more like me.” Including me. Especially me.

I do not have an answer, but I have chosen a particular response: Make disciples and plant churches. Plant churches for people in transition. Plant churches for people who want to launch instead of settle down. Plant churches for families. Plant them for homeless runaways. Plant them in bars. Plant them in parks. Plant them in closed or dying churches. Plant them among the young. Plant them in retirement communities. Plant them on the internet. Plant them for liberals. Plant them for conservatives. Plant them among the disillusioned and the non-religious and the too-religious and the rich and the poor. Plant them for freaks and geeks and people who like church and people who don’t. Plant them and call them churches or plant them and call them something else. Just plant them, like a sower randomly casting seeds that bounce off of car hoods and passersby and fall between cracks in the sidewalk and land in vacant lots and on railroad tracks.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’ll tell you if it works.

When Jesus Worried About Numbers (John 6)

It has been an amazing week. Jesus has just had a record attendance at one of his speaking gigs—multiple thousands. He has pulled off a miracle in feeding them all. Everyone is pumped. The momentum of The Way is building fast, and it even begins to get a bit out of control. People want to make Jesus king—by force (John 6:15).

But just as it begins to look like they will go from success to success, Jesus sticks his foot in it. First, he makes himself scarce at the height of his popularity (6:15). Next, he questions the motives of his fans (6:26). Finally, he starts talking about people eating his flesh, which is always a bit off-putting (6:57).

People stop following him. The crowds dwindle. The morning after a particularly disappointing attendance, Jesus sees his original twelve talking among themselves. They stop talking when he approaches. He looks at them and asks,

“Are you going to leave, too?”

I’m not used to hearing Jesus sound this despondent. In fact, it scares me a bit to hear him this dejected.

I’ve read this passage many times, but before I’ve always heard this as a rhetorical question. I’ve imagined Jesus saying it calmly, almost flippantly, even though he already knows the answer, because he’s omniscient, right?

But as a pastor starting a new church, I know how important those attendance numbers become. You begin thinking that the numbers indicate God’s approval rating. You start taking them personally. When I catch myself thinking this way, I usually try to give myself a pep talk. You may know the phrases: “Where two or more are gathered,” “It’s not quantity, it’s quality,” and so on. But I’ve always had my eyes on the numbers, whether I’ve been speaking to a handful or a thousand people. There’s energy in crowds. I like approval. When crowds shrink, I start to panic and wonder what I’ve done wrong.

But even at my lowest I’ve not felt the pain in Jesus’ words when he turns to his friends and asks, “Are you going to leave, too?”  I hear this not as a rhetorical question, but as real human pain and fear. Jesus is worried.

It is comforting, in a way, to know that Jesus was not immune to the effect of numbers, that he felt disappointment when his crowds dwindled and his popularity decreased. I’m glad that he woke up with a pessimistic attitude and expected the worst, because I feel like that more days than I want to admit. I used to resist the idea that Jesus would ever get his feelings hurt, but now I understand better. I can relate. He can relate.

I’m also glad that his students become his teachers, because that’s the way real life works: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68). It isn’t about the numbers. It’s about the message. The news is so compelling that some of us are drawn to speak it and hear it, whether it’s a group of 5000 or of 5. If you ask those of us who become his followers why we do so, we just shrug. What else can we do? He has the words of eternal life.

How to Love

I’m not sure who came up with this illustration, but I really like the way it helps me understand what Christian individuals and communities are supposed to do.

Jesus says that two commandments are the greatest of all: Love God, and love your neighbor. You place those commandments at the top and bottom of a Y axis.

The X-axis is the part most people forget: We act not just as individuals, but as larger communities. This diagram helps us break out of our American tendency to think that every human activity boils down to the individual. So the left side of the axis is what we do as a church community (public), and the right side is what we do as individuals or smaller groups (private).

The way we act in love toward God as a community is worship. We gather together to pray, sing, read and interpret scripture, and offer our praise and attention to God. The way we act in love as individuals or small groups is devotion. We do some of the same activities like prayer and reading, but we also study, fast, and practice stewardship of our time and money.

Moving clockwise around the image, the next act of love is toward our neighbors individually. This area is sometimes labeled “charity” or “kindness,” and it includes all the ways we behave toward others, like practicing hospitality or helping people in poverty.

The way we love our neighbors as communities is the part that seems to generate the most controversy in churches today. The phrase “social justice” has become a political litmus test. Being human means being part of social groups and structures: families, work groups, organizations, genders, ethnic groups. A feral human being, cut off from others, is not a “natural” human being. As Christians we are part of an even larger organism called “the church” that transcends all of these social boundaries, and this corporate creature has an impact on society that can be good or evil. If we ignore how we behave toward others as a larger group, then we are likely perpetuating evil. Justice means restoring just relationships between all people and groups of people.

Usually when I’ve seen this illustration used it leaves off the part I’ve added in the middle: Witness. I put it in the middle not because it is most important, but because it overlaps all of the spiritual disciplines and connects public and private, God and neighbor. Witness means both seeing and saying what God is up to in the world. It includes what Christians usually call “evangelism,” which means telling the Good News, but also being a living witness in the world, what Jesus called letting “your light shine before others.”

The United Methodist Discipline describes the mission of every church as “making disciples for the transformation of the world,” but our new church will think about making disciples in this way. This is how we join God in the renewal of all things: publicly and privately, loving God and loving neighbor: worship, devotion, compassion, justice, and witness.