People don’t need to go to church.
At least that’s how the majority of people in America act. Less than 18 percent of the population attends church on any given Sunday. In the U.S., we are chasing downhill Europe’s church attendance rate of 7 percent. David Olson predicts by 2020 we’ll be halfway there.
And that is precisely our problem: we’re stuck on Sunday morning church attendance as both the measure of a church’s health and an indicator of a person’s spiritual life.
The question that church leaders need to ask now is not, “How can we get more people to come to church?” We’ve been asking that question since the numbers started turning down in the 1970s. All our solutions together haven’t turned the tide of declining church attendance.
Throw in all the megachurches, all the church-growth seminars, all the church marketing, the millions spent on programs and the kitchen sink, and the result is the same: people continue to stay away from church in droves.
The question we need to be asking is, “How can church become indispensable to a community?” People don’t come to church because church isn’t essential to their lives. Church is a take-it-or-leave-it experience, and most are leaving it.
Our challenge is to make our churches indispensable to our communities. The well-worn but telling question – “If your church closed tomorrow, would anybody notice?” – has been answered by millions of Americans with a resounding “No.”
But, I am not advocating a return to “attractional church” programs and activities, either. Rather I am advocating the following:
- Sunday morning worship isn’t the most important thing we should be doing.
- Missional isn’t missional until people outside the church notice.
- The unchurched will tell us how we can be indispensable to them.
Those three ideas all reflect the need to change perspectives from our self-congratulatory, self-validating point of view to an outsider point of view.
Here’s an example: In North Carolina, Crossfire United Methodist Church got started because one biker (the Harley-riding kind) had been befriended by a member of the dying Moravian Falls United Methodist Church. When Alan Rice, the United Methodist district superintendent, showed up to close Moravian Falls, Duncan Overrein showed up on his Harley and wouldn’t leave until Alan promised him to keep the church open.
But the old church congregation was too small to sustain the church, so the old Moravian Falls church died and the new Crossfire United Methodist Church was born in the old church building. Now 110-plus people – bikers and others – ride from 30 to 40 miles away each Sunday to come to church.
But Sunday isn’t all they do, or even the most important thing they do. They help each other. They repair houses, fix cars, buy groceries, care for the sick, pray for their brothers and sisters. Crossfire is buying an old, abandoned refrigerated warehouse as their new home. Part of the refrigerated space they’ll rent out, but they intend to start a beef-aging business there, too.
The church has become indispensable to the community of bikers and their friends and families. It’s there because one pastor listened to one long-haired, do-rag wearing biker who wanted a church for people like him.
Crossfire doesn’t have any problem with attendance, except they’re outgrowing the old Moravian Falls building. They don’t have any problem with wondering how to get people to come. Instead they go into the community to families in need, to those who are sick, to brothers in jail, and they listen to them.
I am repeatedly drawn to the Celtic Christian abbeys. Those early monks built their monastic compound at the crossroads or next to a village. The abbey became the center of the community. It became necessary for the community’s survival because they fed people, cared for the sick, gave shelter to the homeless, provided refuge for the weary and wanted, and lived out the gospel in tangible and essential ministries.
Is your church indispensable in your community? Would anyone notice if your congregation folded? What are you doing to become indispensable to the people around you?
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.