A bright spot amid downward trends is that life in the local church can be a transformative example even to those outside it.
By Meredith Flynn
Jon Myers was no stranger to church when he visited Heights Community Church in Collinsville, Illinois. He grew up going to church until he reached the age when attendance became his decision. At that point, Myers said, he only went when it was convenient.
Sporadic church attendance is increasingly common, according to recent studies pointing to an overall decline in attendance in the U.S. In the decade before the pandemic, Pew Research Center found church attendance was mostly steady among Christians, with more than 60% attending at least monthly. But among all U.S. adults, the share of regular churchgoers was declining before COVID-19 shut down in-person services.
Currently, 28% of U.S. adults say they’ve attended services in person in the last month, and adults ages 18-29 are the least likely attenders of any age group.28% of U.S. adults say they've attended services in person in the last month, and adults ages 18-29 are the least likely attenders of any age group, according to Pew Research. Click To Tweet
For Myers, church attendance continued to be hit or miss at Heights, a church plant on the Illinois side of the Metro St. Louis region. This time, his girlfriend, Rachel, attended church with him. They were in and out of church, he said, going to Heights when they didn’t have something else to do on Sunday.
That mindset is increasingly prevalent, said Rickey Dorsey, pastor of Beacon Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago Heights, Illinois. “Now people are saying, ‘Sunday’s just another day to me.’ Our society now doesn’t consider the need for church attendance and spiritual growth.” People don’t realize the importance of having Christ in their lives, he said.
“That’s the challenge in 2023: trying to rekindle that knowledge and way of life in this generation and the generations to come.”
The undervalued local church
“When I was young, I went to church at least five hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Maybe I missed one Sunday if I was severely sick.”
Doug Munton is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in O’Fallon, Illinois. His own history aside, Munton said if an attender comes to his local church half the time, he considers that regular attendance. His current standard mirrors a recent Lifeway Research study that found the majority of pastors consider regular church attendance to be at least twice a month.
Every pastor knows the feeling of being between two worlds, Munton said—the world as it is and the world as they wish it was. “We would like everyone in the world to come to church every week, of course. But we also live with how it is. And how it is, people are going to miss for a lot of reasons.”
A 2018 survey asked people why they go to church or generally choose not to attend. Among those who attend a few times a year or less, 37% said it was because they practice their faith in other ways. The same percentage cited dislike for the congregation or religious services, while 22% said they don’t attend because of logistical reasons, including lack of time, poor health, difficulty getting around, or the absence of an appropriate church in their area.
Along with logistical reasons for not attending, Munton noted a deeper, more foundational concern: For many, church simply isn’t an important part of life.“Going to church is one avenue through which growth happens. Getting people in the door, though, is increasingly challenging.” — Meredith Flynn Click To Tweet
“The goal of the Christian life is not to attend church more frequently,” he said. “The goal of the Christian life is to follow Jesus more closely.” Going to church is one avenue through which growth happens. Getting people in the door, though, is increasingly challenging.
While U.S. church attendance was falling even before the pandemic, the last three years haven’t helped reverse the trend. In November 2022, U.S. Protestant pastors said average attendance at their churches was 85% of what it was in January 2020. A study from Lifeway Research also found fewer churches are now reaching 100 in attendance on a typical weekend. Around 2 in 3 U.S. Protestant churches have congregations of less than 100.
Pew found 1 in 5 U.S. adults (20%) say they attend religious services in person less often than before the pandemic. 1 in 5 U.S. adults (20%) say they attend religious services in person less often than before the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, Dorsey said regular attenders at his church were coming to church three or four weeks a month. But the COVID-19 shutdown changed everything at his Chicagoland church. Currently, Sunday morning attendance is about half what it was before the pandemic.
Even before the shutdown, his church had experienced declining attendance. As long-time churchgoers moved to other communities, some joined other churches while others tried to travel a greater distance to be there on Sunday mornings.Around 2 in 3 U.S. Protestant churches now have congregations of less than 100. Click To Tweet
“The folks who replaced them did not have those same habits of church attendance. We were trying to grow and disciple a whole new generation of people, many who had never attended church at all in their lives, or on a limited basis,” Dorsey said. The pastor tries to maintain personal relationships despite declining attendance. He makes phone calls or drops by, checking on his people and asking if they need anything.
“Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said, “but you don’t stop trying. You continue to make that effort.”
The call to community
A bright spot amid the downward trends is that life in the local church can be a transformative example even to those outside it, said Megan Hill. The author of A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church was drawn to write about the church out of her own love for it and because of a growing discouragement she noticed about it. Falling attendance, spiritual doubt, bad experiences—for a variety of reasons, she said, more and more people are questioning whether the church is a necessary place.
And yet, the Bible is clear about the priority of the church, she said. “It’s hard to read the Bible and come away without realizing that God’s people coming together to worship Him is very central,” Hill said. In the book of Acts, people are converted, and they join the church. If it was true for them, she noted, it still is for us.“It’s hard to read the Bible and come away without realizing that God’s people coming together to worship Him is very central.” — @MeganEvansHill Click To Tweet
“One of the beauties of the weekly worship service is it’s a group of people you haven’t chosen for yourself,” she said. “How much more striking it is when you’re with this group of people you have nothing except Jesus in common with? And yet, God has called them all together to worship.”
A striking testimony
Jon Myers’s level of engagement with his church changed when the truth of the gospel dawned on him in a new way. Before that, he said, he’d been attending to occasionally mark a mental checklist of things he needed to do to maintain his salvation. But two years ago, Myers understood for the first time that God exists in community as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“When God creates us, we reflect his image,” Myers said. “From the beginning, we’re made to be in community with the church.” He and Rachel, now married, joined their church as covenant members.
The couple, who have a 1-year-old and a newborn, realize staying committed to the church is a process, one that likely won’t be easier with young children. Late nights are the most likely obstacle between his family and getting to church, he said. But as a fellow small group attendee recently said, God commands His people to stay in community.
“Now that I have this perspective of the gospel and the understanding of what the church is,” Myers said, “that is helping me stay faithful.”
For permission to republish this article, contact Marissa Postell Sullivan.
Meredith is a freelance writer in Springfield, Illinois.