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3 Realities to Help Declining Congregations Move Forward

Have you looked around your sanctuary on Sunday morning and wondered, “Where did all the people go?”

If so, you’re not alone.

Many churches are reporting precipitous declines in worship attendance. This drop can be partially attributed to changing worship patterns. A decade ago, regular worship participation was considered to be three or four times per month, but today it is considered to be once or twice a month.

People are simply worshipping less frequently. This, however, does not fully explain the drop in attendance.

Another factor concerns a group that we can call the “Dones,” people who have withdrawn from congregational life. They are done with church. The Dones hail from churches of all sizes across the theological spectrum.

Research indicates that the Dones number 65 million. Of these, 30.5 million still love Jesus, but as one gentleman told me, he simply does not want to be around Jesus’ people.

These individuals are not angry malcontents. They include former deacons, elders and Sunday School teachers. They had been generous with their gifts of time, talent and treasure.

Many sought out faith communities because they experience the presence and power of God in and through relationships. Instead, they encountered various forms of judgment.

Many wanted to engage faith communities as a way to help others in their neighborhoods and to make a difference in the world. Instead, they were asked to help maintain an institution.

Many actually did not want to leave, but after years of frustration, they believed it was their only option to deepen and strengthen their relationship with God. Their departure filled them sadness and grief.

Also, it is very important to consider that institutional trust is at an all-time low in our society. People are not simply leaving churches; they are leaving all kinds of organizations.

Take a moment to reflect on these questions:

  • How deeply do you trust the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee? What about your local school board?
  • To which civic associations do you belong? Are you a member of the Lions Club? The Rotary? The Eastern Star? The Masons? The Garden Club?
  • What about your parents or those in your parents’ generation? More than likely, they participated in one or more of these and grew up trusting, “Together we can!”

This mindset brought us through the Great Depression and World War II. However, when the baby boomers emerged, we placed less and less value on joining groups. We trusted them less to accomplish their stated goals, provide a sense of meaning and act with integrity.

The disappointment and disillusionment of Watergate and the Vietnam War reflect our innate suspicion of large groups, organizations and movements.

What does this mean for us?

  1. It offers to remove from our shoulders unnecessary anxiety, blame and fear.

The church as we have known it is caught up in a tidal wave of social change. The decline of worship participation and congregational involvement is not solely the result of something the church has or has not done.

  1. It challenges us to resist the temptation to settle for a quick fix.

Removing staff, adding staff and initiating a new focus on youth or young families can be momentarily satisfying. While commonly regarded as a panacea, however, they are more likely to end in futility and frustration because they do not address underlying relational and spiritual challenges.

  1. These social developments invite us to reassess who we are and what we are about as God’s people.

We can turn away from worn-out strategies, which served an earlier generation, and ask with abandonment pressing questions about faith.

What do we mean when we talk about Christian community? How are we nurturing a sense of belonging in our church? Where do we focus most of our time and attention? Where might God be calling us to focus our time and attention? How are we helping disciples to discern their unique ministries?

Instead of focusing on young families, how might God be calling us to reach empty nesters, the recently divorced or widowed, the lonely?

In my work with Pinnacle Leadership Associates, I walk alongside congregations as they struggle with these questions.

It is important to remember there are no quick fixes, but organizations like ours can offer experience and insight as we work together in embracing God’s future.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in Pinnacle’s blog. It is used with permission.

J. Patrick Vaughn

J. Patrick Vaughn has served as a Presbyterian pastor, writer and vlogger. In an era marked by the polarizing voices of fear and hate, Vaughn points to the joy and fulfillment that emerge through the unexpected, the unlikely and the overlooked. His latest book, “Meeting Jesus at Starbucks,” will be available through Pinnacle Press in November.