There was a day when a Sunday school perfect attendance pin was a regular feature in churches across America.
If a person attended Sunday school every Sunday in a year, he or she was awarded a pin or an attachment that hung below the original pin to denote another year of perfect attendance.
People took great pride in amassing multiyear pins that honored their spiritual fortitude and persistence.
Gradually, the expectation that weekly attendance at church was a given has eroded and been replaced with a hope that people will attend church “regularly.”
The definition of what constitutes “regular attendance” has been redefined downward as competition on weekends has increased.
Some churches are coming to realize that very active and loyal people are attending church much less frequently than before. As a result, average weekly attendance is in serious decline for many.
Several pundits have offered their take on why this is happening, and their explanations are often tinged with criticism and a thinly veiled sense of condemnation.
My organization has worked with 50 different churches from 16 states and eight denominations in the past year. They ranged in size from 32 weekly attendees to 5,000.
In nearly every situation, we have engaged our clients in a conversation about frequency of attendance.
Rather than conjecture about why people are attending less frequently, we decided to ask them where they are when they are not attending church.
Here are the 10 reasons most frequently mentioned by those we have polled:
1. Athletic events.
College and professional athletic events evoke intense loyalty. For those who travel to Saturday night games, showing up on Sunday mornings is a stretch. Many professional athletic events take place on Sundays and force a choice between attending church and going to the game or tailgate event.
Many have told us that the depth of their commitment to weekly attendance is eroding. There are multiple reasons, but at the heart of the matter is a sense that what is offered on Sunday mornings is not meaningful or valuable enough to make the effort to attend.
On several occasions, we have heard younger families say that they find themselves exhausted by a six-day workweek, overactive social life, over-engaged children and a host of other stresses.
Several have mentioned that Sundays are now their only day to be together as a family. Occasionally, they choose to spend the morning together.
The number of Sundays that are now part of holiday weekends has risen dramatically. One church counted and discovered that 26 Sundays in the previous year were impacted by a holiday or vacation week. Long weekends and breaks invite travel and time away from home.
Several senior adults have shared with us that they are living with chronic illness that inhibits their ability to attend weekly worship. In previous years, they would not have survived such a serious illness. Now they find their ability to get out and participate severely restricted.
The array of activities for children offered only on weekends is overwhelming. Athletic travel teams, academic conferences, chess tournaments, cheering competitions, parties and trips have proliferated in the last 30 years. Many parents tag along and find themselves far from home on Sunday mornings.
Several median-age adults recounted that they miss Sundays because they are caring for aging and ill parents. We frequently heard about rotation systems among siblings to care for an invalid parent. Taking your turn for a weekend each month keeps you out of your church.
The proliferation of travel as a high-value activity for Americans has significantly impacted church attendance. The ease of travel in our day is a huge shift from 50 years ago.
9. Vacations, timeshares and second homes.
Many admitted they spend multiple weekends a year on vacation or taking advantage of second homes or timeshares.
Nearly every gathering evoked stories of people who work, or travel for work, on Sundays. The official estimate is that one in three Americans regularly works on Sundays.
What are we to make of these stories?
First, we must grapple with the illusion that Sundays belong to the church and that loyal members will be present four or five Sundays a month.
Second, we must explore possible strategies, which include:
- Measuring your impact rather than simply counting your attendance.
- Counting participants over the course of a month or year rather than attendees by the week.
- Investigating Bible study and worship on alternate days and locations.
If nothing else, have an honest conversation about the issue. It isn’t going away.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.