As influential as they are, megachurches aren’t the whole story of American religion. To get a complete picture of church growth in the 1990s and new millennium, we need to look at overall church attendance patterns. Traditional pollsters conduct telephone interviews and expect people to be honest about their religious practices. According to the numbers gathered this way, we’re still at a 40 percent attendance rate. But pollsters who actually do seat counts and take exit polls tell a different story. The average weekly church attendance when measured by actual “bodies present” was at 17.4 percent in 2006, down from 20.4 percent in 1990 . . .
The upshot? For all the money, time, and effort we’ve spent on cultural relevance—and that includes culturally relevant worship—it seems we came through the last 15 years with a significant net loss in churchgoers, proliferation of megachurches and all.
Jared Wilson comments,
Megachurches have flourished, but there has been a net loss of churchgoers. I suggested in my post Contra Pragmatism (#2 in the list) that the churches that have dominated the scene over the last 20 years have only succeeded in attracting Christians tired of their “old” churches or bored with non-entertainment-driven church. As I have suggested this over time, some people argue with me. And while no one can doubt the seeker church movement has won souls, the research appears to support that megachurch growth is by far transfer growth.
Which is fine, if we can be honest about that. Nothing wrong with Christians going to church. They should.
But the assumption has been that we are churches for the unchurched, while the unchurched actually prefer to stay home. The worship service as “evangelistic tool,” in my opinion, is not entirely invalid. Honest, authentic, genuine worship that exalts God and genuinely speaks from the human condition can be attractive and invitational, as real honesty can be. But the predominant execution of evangelistic worship, in which the evangel hasn’t really even been present, has really only served Christian consumers.
And might I suggest that we are Christian consumers who have little or no desire to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. Why would we when we can be living our “Best Life Know”, a life that is “Purpose-Driven”, a life that can be built “from the Inside Out” (as long as we approach the Mercy Seat, of course – as Paula, with her upcoming divorce, must need more money), a life that includes Rolls-Royces (at least for people with the last name of Dollar.)
We’ve turned the church into a services-dispensing corporation that must become more and more sophisticated in order to attract its audience. We look to Hollywood for visual cues, to New York and LA for the beats and to Milano for our designer style. But the audience we want isn’t buying it. Let me quote Sarah, a Gen-X church visitor, from Earl Creps’ Off Road Disciplines (a worthwhile read)
We know you have tried to get us to church. That’s part of the problem. Many of your appeals have been carefully calculated for success and that turns our collective stomach. (I’ve used the same quote in my series on Marketing the Church)
Let me finish with another Sally quote from the Allelon article,
JCPenney stores adopted a new motto a few years ago: “It’s all inside.” That may work well for clothes and housewares, but it doesn’t work so well for spreading the gospel. Ah, but aren’t buildings important? Yes, they are. Jesus himself spent crucial time in synagogues and the Temple. He affirmed that the worship of God is central to what it means to be a disciple. But here’s the catch. He did not make the building—or corporate worship—the destination. His destination was the people God wanted to touch, and those were, with few exceptions, people who wouldn’t have spent much time in holy places. Jesus’ direction was always outward. Centrifugal. Even in death, he was broken and poured out for the sake of a needy world. God’s work may not be “all outside,” but if we look at where Jesus spent his time, I think we can safely say that most of it is.