If you attend a church, here is an interesting exercise. Think about your church’s regular services and its “outreach” activities. Do you try to make your services attractive to outsiders? Are the “outreach” activities held on church property? How many activities (whether evangelism or community service) are located in the community?
I want to suggest to you that your answers to these questions may give some clues as to why church attendances have generally fallen in recent years.
How willing are non-believers to attend church?
- Research in Australia and the UK indicates that about three quarters of non-attenders are unwilling to attend. David Male gave this percentage for the English population in a workshop he conducted in Sydney last year, and Alan Hirsch gave a similar figure for Australia in a talk in 2004.
- A 2009 Australian survey was not quite so negative, but found that about 20% of people attend church and a further 10% are open to attending. The remaining 70% (if I have interpreted the figures rightly) were not interested, even though almost half of them have some belief in christianity.
Thus churches in Australia and the UK that build their mission strategies around inviting people to church or church-based events are probably only ever likely to be appealing to about a quarter of the population. The exceptions to this may be youth activities (where parents are happy to see their children on ‘safe’ ground, and the teens appreciate the socialising opportunities), and adults in parts of the US (where church attendance may be more part of the culture).
Barriers to attending church
There are significant barriers to people attending church. These include:
- A poor image of the church. In the same 2009 Sydney survey the 12% of people who are not regular church attenders but may be willing to attend, had generally positive feelings towards Jesus, increasingly more negative feelings about christianity, religion and the Bible, and quite strong negative feelings towards the church.
- A number of aspects of our postmodern culture are quite different to what we typically find in churches – our culture prefers authenticity to authority, spirituality rather than creeds and rules, and multimedia rather than passive listening.
- Outsiders find many aspects of church culture (e.g. public singing, listening to long talks, theological jargon) quaint and irrelevant at best and foreign and off-putting at worst.
- Why would you want to sit in an unfamiliar building when you could be sleeping in, going to the beach or playing sport?
Way to go!
It has become clear to many people that we need a new approach. If we can’t attract people to where we christians meet, we must do more to meet with non-believers on their own turf. There seems to be two possible ways to go:
- Re-shape our churches. Build mission strategies around community service (meeting real needs), building friendships and spending more time with non-believers, instead of relying on the old idea of inviting people to evangelistic events that will make them feel uncomfortable. At the same time, church activities (church services, Bible study groups, etc) should be re-oriented to better train christians in mission and making disciples.
- Alternatively, christians could establish in their neighbourhoods ‘simple churches’ which begin where non-believers are comfortable and interested. Many christians who no longer attend mainstream churches are already doing this.
In the next few posts I’ll look at both of these options.