- A renewed Church begins in renewed worship. Let’s shift out of entertainment and inspiration mode and into authentic worship mode that is filled with praise, lament, confession, hope, and joy.
Researchers probe the drop-off in worship attendance since the Covid-19 pandemic. The results are both surprising and sobering.
In March 2019, Port Wentworth Alliance Church, located near Savannah, GA, averaged about 100 in worship on Sunday mornings. By March of 2023, that number had plummeted to around 20 and the church closed its doors for good after nearly 75 years of ministry. The pastor and elders were left scratching their heads and wondering, where did everybody go?
Sadly, Port Wentworth Alliance Church isn’t alone. Hundreds of churches have closed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and in thousands of others worship attendance hasn’t come back to pre-pandemic levels. If you’re a worship leader or pastor at one of those churches, you are probably wondering, where did everybody go? Why haven’t they come back? What can we do – if anything – to get them back?
Thanks to two significant national studies of worship attendance since churches began reopening in 2021, some answers are starting to roll in. The results are both surprising and sobering.
The first study focuses on worship attendance among older adults (Gen Xers) which has declined more than other generations. The study by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, and reported by Clare Ansberry in the Wall Street Journal, found that worship attendance among Americans between 39-57 fell from 41% in 2020 to 28% in 2023. This level of attendance now matches the Millennials, historically, the generation least likely to attend a church at least once a month.
Is the pandemic to blame? Yes and no. On the one hand, the lockdown hit Gen Xers the hardest. George Barna, the director of the Center, observes, “No generation endured greater spiritual turbulence than Gen X during the pandemic.” In the past decade, Gen Xers began inheriting the mantle of the “sandwich generation” from the Baby Boomers. They’ve found themselves pulled in several directions at once: managing work lives, looking after children (including adult children), and caring for aging parents. For many, going to church got squeezed out by other demands. At Port Wentworth Alliance Church, Gen X and older Millennial members often missed church because of work schedules and their kids’ travel sports.
The trend of declining Gen X worship attendance was in place well before the pandemic. To begin with, overall church attendance has been declining for the past couple of decades. Gallup research puts church membership in 2023 at less than 50%, compared to 70% in 1999. That’s about 45 million Americans who have stopped going to church, roughly 12% of the population. And Gen Xers are at the head of the parade of Nones and Dones.
Nones and Dones
While many of those Nones and Dones were previously only nominally affiliated with churches (attending seldom or never), the recent numbers suggest that churches are now losing people who attended more frequently and were more involved in ministry. That’s alarming, or at least it should be.
In their forthcoming book, The Great Dechurching, authors Jim Davis, Michael Graham and Ryan Burge dive deeper into these numbers to examine the personal and spiritual reasons for the post-pandemic exodus. They confirm that churches are losing members for several reasons, including recent, well-publicized scandals involving pastors and other ministry leaders and the failure of churches, organizations, and denominations to address allegations of abuse and misconduct, culturally unpopular stances on social issues, and partisan political rancor and division. But Davis, Graham, and Burge point to other, more banal, reasons for the de-churching, namely, people can’t be bothered to go to church. Jake Meador, writing in The Atlantic, summarizes it this way, “the defining problem driving out most people who leave is … just how American life works in the 21st century. Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children.”
So where did everybody go? The answer is, a lot of places: to work, to the store, to travel sports games, to their aging parents, or just to the couch to watch sports or movies. The bottom line is, church just doesn’t fit into the schedule for most adults these days. Which says more about our society than anything else. Americans are struggling to fit church – or any other kind of community activity – into their busy lives. Nor is the attendance decline going to reverse itself. Gen Xers probably won’t find their way back to churches the way Baby Boomers did in the 1980s and 1990s.
Where does that leave us?
So where does that leave us? There are a couple of things that we can start with. First, let’s “lean into smallness,” as Curtis Chang puts it. While a few churches are growing in the post-pandemic world, most churches will struggle to maintain their numbers, and many will decline. However, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. After all, how many does it take to do church? Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
Yet leaning into smallness is likely to be harder than it sounds. Small churches find it hard to lean into smallness because of long-term habits of maintenance and survival. Pastors and lay leaders in smaller churches believe small is a problem to solve, not an opportunity to embrace. Larger churches find it hard to lean into small because of large-scale expectations from customers attenders who are more interested in consuming religious services than following Jesus.
Second, let’s raise the bar. Instead of trying to find the lowest level of connection and commitment people are willing to take on, let’s raise the bar to where the Bible puts it. Jake Meador notes, “a vibrant, life-giving church requires more, not less, time and energy from its members. It asks people to prioritize one another over our career, to prioritize prayer and time reading scripture over accomplishment.” That’s a tough sell in an age of hyper-individualism and consumerism. In fact, it sounds downright impossible. But that’s actually a good place to be because God does his best work when things seem impossible.
Living in anxious times is a reason to raise the bar in worship. In worship we encounter the possibility of the seemingly impossible, starting with God. In worship, we are called to praise and proclaim a God who loves his people passionately, so much so that he became flesh and dwelt among us, a God whose grace and forgiveness covers all – not just some or even most – of our sins, a God whose Spirit dwells within us working deep change that transforms us into the very image of Jesus Christ. God makes impossible things possible.
A renewed Church begins in renewed worship. Let’s shift out of entertainment and inspiration mode and into authentic worship mode that is filled with praise, lament, confession, hope, and joy. As worship leaders, we have important work ahead of us in this anxious, post-pandemic season. Our people need us to help them “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
More from Robb Redman:
In this helpful (and much-needed) book, author Robb Redman-pastor, consultant, and educator-offers a unique insider’s explanation of the ins and outs of Christian worship trends. The book explores the four major developments that comprise what he calls the “worship awakening”: the seeker service movement, the “praise and worship” movement, the Christian worship music industry, and the liturgical renewal movement. Redman explains that these trends offer important examples and lessons for established churches. The Great Worship Awakening also includes helpful guidance for congregations who are considering making changes to their current worship style.
Clare Ansberry, “Why Middle-Aged Americans Aren’t Going Back to Church,” Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2023. https://www.wsj.com/articles/church-attendance-religion-generation-x-6ee5f11d
Jake Meador, The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church, The Atlantic, July 29, 2023. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/07/christian-church-communitiy-participation-drop/674843/
Jim Davis and Michael Graham with Ryan Burge, The Great Dechurching. Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? Zondervan.
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Robb Redman is currently Professor of Theology and Ministry and Director of Ministry Programs at South College (TN). He also serves as Consulting Editor for Worship Leader magazine since its inception in 1992. He has previously served as an academic leader at Fuller Theological Seminary, A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary/Simpson University, Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University, and South University. Ordained in the Christian & Missionary Alliance, he has pastored congregations in Oregon, California, Texas, and Georgia. He currently lives near Savannah, GA.