The decline of worship

Those of us who think, read, and write about religion in America often go round and round about the reasons for the decline of church attendance, both in mainline churches and in evangelical ones.

The two most popular views–at least from my perspective–are that church decline is a function of (1) doctrinal impurity or (2) of doctrinal rigidity.

The former claims that the church has ceded too much ground to culture and compromised its doctrinal integrity: restore the church’s doctrine and its vigor will return.

The latter claims that the church has too long held onto views that are oppressive (at worst) and outmoded (at best). The church’s teachings need to change if the church is to survive the century.

Could it be that, in addition to the influence of these two factors, there is another factor?

Could it be that consumer capitalism is making the church as we know it implausible? Or worse, impossible?


Consider this argument advanced by Dave Barnhart, a United Methodist church planter in Birmingham.

He believes that while theology is important, the church is being buffeted by something else–the economy. And COVID-19 has only exacerbated this.

…I believe all of the discussion about theology and mission is largely irrelevant to Protestant decline. It’s important stuff, certainly, and worthy of discussion. I’m just skeptical that it has much to do with the growth or decline of the church. Our churches have been beating ourselves up about our theology and mission and so on for thirty-some-odd years, and while there may be some insightful critiques in all the hand-wringing, I believe the decline of participation in both evangelical and mainline churches has more to do with two things: money and birthrates.

The funny thing about the church is that it is a paradox–it is a heavenly, theological reality lodged in the concreteness of a creation populated by broken people and systems.

As such, notes Barnhart, it is also a sociological reality:

Robert Wuthnow is one of few researchers pointing to sociological causes, and his book After the Baby Boomers completely changed the way I think about these issues. To wrap your head around the various causes of decline in church membership, remember this fact: The best predictor of church attendance is if someone a) is married and b) has children. I’m not saying that this should be the case. I’m not saying that married people with kids are the only people in church or the only people who count. I’m just describing empirically-verifiable data.

Epistemologically, I’m not all that amenable to the caveat: “I’m just describing empirically-verifiable data,” since the capturing and interpretation of data is itself an interpretive act. However, it’s worth considering.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for many people to economically achieve and maintain the sort of life that makes regular church attendance possible.

When people have to work two full-time jobs to raise a family, they don’t have time to go to a worship service on the weekend. Speaking of jobs, Wuthnow pointed out that it is less likely that anyone will be employed by the same employer in the same place for more than a few years. With all that job-and-place-changing, people don’t settle down anywhere, nor do their children get habituated to church attendance. At a recent church-planter training, Jim Griffith pointed out to us that since people can’t afford to take two-week vacations anymore, they wind up taking multiple weekend trips during the year, decreasing the time they have to participate in church activities. All of these lifestyle and economic influences make it less likely that people will commit to a church.

A friend–I can’t remember who–recently linked to this article: “Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time that you.” 

It’s a great title, not least because it challenges the assumption that we must be in every respect superior than our medieval forebears.

Now, I’m pretty sure that my dental hygiene is superior to my medieval ancestors by several orders of magnitude.

What the article makes clear, however, is that in all likelihood you and I have a lot less “disposable” time than did our ancestors.

Plowing and harvesting were backbreaking toil, but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off. The Church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off quaffing ale to celebrate, and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment. There were labor-free Sundays, and when the plowing and harvesting seasons were over, the peasant got time to rest, too. In fact, economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.

I am fortunate to have four weeks of vacation annually, significantly more than many Americans. Many of us have to “quaff our ale” in a single week or two of paid vacation each year.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way:

John Maynard Keynes, one of the founders of modern economics, made a famous prediction that by 2030, advanced societies would be wealthy enough that leisure time, rather than work, would characterize national lifestyles. So far, that forecast is not looking good.

The takeaway is that its more likely than not that most people who aren’t retired or independently wealthy have been forced to construct a type of life (really, a range of lifestyles) that makes it all but impossible to be meaningfully involved in a church.

That type of life is quickly becoming normative.

And as something becomes normative, resisting it becomes something that requires both intentional effort and sacrifice, both on the part of congregations and of individual Christians.

In lieu of a comments section, I accept and encourage letters to the editor. If you would like to write a letter to the editor, you can do so here.

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