I was recently called upon to deliver a sermon in my church. It was an emergency fill-in because the pastor and lay leader, both unavailable, had figured that I, as a long-time newspaper reporter and editor accustomed to deadlines, could put something together that wouldn’t result in raucous dissention in the pews. I reluctantly agreed, despite several good reasons not to, because I knew my God-fearing and conscientious church-attending parents in Heaven would want me to do it. It might earn a few points with St. Peter who, in a weak moment upon my leaving this mortal plane, might allow me entrance into that highly selective commune.
Among the prime reasons for me not delivering a sermon to fellow Methodists on that September Sabbath was that, well, I hadn’t attended church in several months. Then there was the fact that I had been retired as a deadline-motivated journalist for more than a decade and had become quite accustomed to not meeting deadlines except my own. Then there is the fact that I didn’t feel qualified to offer religious instruction or moral advice from the pulpit— especially considering my recent record of absenteeism.
How did I resolve this sticky situation? I spoke about why an increasing number of Americans were not going to church. I quoted Fred Allen to set a humorous tone without coming across as inappropriate: “Most of us spend the first six days of each week sowing wild oats; then we go to church on Sunday and pray for a crop failure.”
To which I added: “Old guys like me don’t have the oats to sow, so that gives me at least one reason nowadays to stay home on Sunday.”
Maybe I went too far on that one, but a handful of chuckles, possibly snorts, reached my lofty perch, and I tried to ignore one woman’s glare.
“So why are people not going to church?” I asked the handful of congregants before me.
Most recent findings show that, generally, younger age groups tend to be less likely to attend church compared to older age groups, especially “in more developed and secular societies.” I, at the age of 75 years 362 days as I post this, am apparently an exception whose attendance, or lack thereof, is contrary to these demographics.
Chief among the least likely to attend church regularly are the so-called young adults, ages 18 through 29. I went through that phase myself after a childhood and adolescence of weekly Sunday School and church attendance in my homogeneous small town. The same holds true today, because this age group tends to be more focused on education, career building and moving away from the comforts of home and church to explore personal interests. They are the most likely to take a detour into the military, possibly going to war, as was my case.
Teenagers also tend to have lower attendance rates. This can be attributed to factors such as increasing independence, engagement in school and extracurricular activities, and a period of questioning and exploring personal beliefs. That often extends into the young adult years, and a growing group who never go back to church except to weddings and funerals. The chief motivation for young adults to return to or commence regular church attendance is having kids who, they feel as parents, should at least be exposed to religious education.
Attendance is more likely to pick up in your thirties and forties, once known as middle age, and, as fear of burning in the eternal fires escalates, it is those of us 50 and older who are more likely to attend church religiously. Make that regularly.
As a churchgoer, I have lapsed in the last few years when most adults in my age group find it most important, perhaps spiritually or to become more devoted to their chosen Christian tenets, in their old age. For some, it is the awareness that our time is running out, and I understand that. I’m pretty healthy, which makes me fortunate, even blessed, for someone who has crossed that line of average life expectancy for the American male, which the CDC reported late last summer had dropped to 74.1 years. Women, as usual, have a few more years of grace, but that may be because more of them attend church— 53 versus 47 percent. It is interesting to note that those numbers came from the Pew Research Center, which has nothing to do with where you sit in church.
Reasons to Stay Away on Sundays
There can be a variety of reasons why people choose not to go to church or, as often the case, go back to church. These reasons can vary based on personal beliefs, experiences, and circumstances. My research into why so many people are eschewing church services revealed all kinds of reasons, a.k.a. excuses, including busy schedules, negative past experiences with religion, apathy or indifference, health and mobility issues, and lifestyle choices, such as unconventional relationships or behaviors that may lead individuals to feel unwelcome in some religious communities.
Thousands of Protestant churches are closing each year in this country, which some evangelicals blame on a nationwide adjustment to, in the words of Lifeway Christian Resources, a research arm of the Southern Baptist Church, “an increasingly non-religious population.” The good news is that about 3,000 new churches opened as of 2020, when the data was last available, but, at the same time 4,500 Protestant churches closed. The signs are that the trend of church closings has continued, if not accelerated, with some of the slack taken up by new churches consolidating multiple congregations. Some of these are the so-called bells-and-whistles churches, often mega-churches where entertainment ranks almost as high in a Sunday service as the liturgy.
Mega-churches, by the way, are defined as those with 2,000 or more attendees on a typical weekend, but there were 116 mega-churches claimed in the early months of the pandemic in 2019. Their average weekly attendances at the time were between 10,000 and 30,000. Those numbers are apparently back and gaining momentum since the alleged taming of COVID-19. The majority of those 116 are non-denominational, inter-denominational and evangelical. There were 15 Southern Baptist Convention churches, considered the largest of the so-called mainstream protestant churches. The second largest, the United Methodists, according to the magazine, Christianity Today, “can only claim about half the number of people as Southern Baptists, and the denomination has lost a number of congregations in an ongoing church split” since the 30,051 Methodist congregations tallied in 2020.
This does seem to include an exodus of congregants from the smaller churches, once the lifeblood of their communities, to regional consolidated non-denominational churches.
I should note that most Protestant denominations do not specifically regard nonattendance as a sin. Most would concur with the Commandment to “remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy” as including a call for regular church attendance, part of Lutheranism’s “Divine Command.” As for Methodists, John Wesley clearly believed that public worship and the sacraments were necessary for the survival of church as we know it. We are reaching the point where technology will allow us to stay home and partake of, even participate in, local church services as was done during the pandemic. You may even click an online payment as your weekly offering to the strains of the Doxology. We’ll be able to do everything remotely, as we’re doing in banking, education and even on the job.
The one certainty is that the church, as we know it, will be undergoing historic changes in the coming decades.