Thursday, March 26, 2020

Don’t Expect Everyone to “Come Back” to Church

I begin with this falsifiable claim:  
When coronavirus “stay-at-home” orders are lifted, fewer will come back to in-person worship services.Why? Because that’s what’s happened on a larger scale with rise of the religious nones.
Let me explain: According to the best social science, there has been a gradual—and in the past decade or so, a marked—increase in those Americans who check the box “None of the above” when asked the question, “What religion do you affiliate with?” Currently, among 18-30-year olds, that percentage stands at 40%. (This is not, by the way, “do you believe in God?” About 70% of religious nones believe in God or a Higher Power.) Since, of course, this is the emerging generation of our country, the trend line is not hard to discern: fewer people will be part of churches.

The reason for this “rise of the nones” might not be obvious at first. Yes, the Barna Group has found that two top reasons are that emerging adults believe "c
hurches come across as antagonistic to science" and "the church feels unfriendly to those who doubt," and the organization I co-direct, Science for the Church, is designed to address those questions. Still, there's a more prosaic, but powerful reason: it’s about changes in habits. (I’m summarizing lots of research on this, but look at what I've written here or here for a bit more detail.) Essentially, over a long period of time—from about the mid ‘60s, give or take a few years—Americans got out of the habit of “going to church.” 

And the cultural pressure over the past fifty years slowly subsided. 

When asked, I’ve discussed this with pastors. Particularly what do I, as a university professor, observe are the barriers for students coming to church? And notice that this phrase implies a physical act of “coming to” a church building. At any rate, here’s my answer: Going to church is generally not a part of college culture. Of course, there are regional variations, but with the students I talked to have whom I’m interviewed, it’s not like “Ya, I know people who go to the gym, but I don’t choose to go.” It’s often more, “What’s church? I don’t know anyone who goes.”

And that’s what’s happening today, but with a twist: 
Instead of a gradual culture shift away from attending church services in person, with the outbreak of COVID-19, there’s a massive cultural and political force not to go.
(I’ll get to whether virtual services are a replacement below.)

This represents a blizzard of cultural change
In a recent article, Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard just wrote about “Why Every Organization is Now a Startup.” It’s profound and insightful, and here’s the relevant quotation for my purposes (with my italics added):

“If your nonprofit organization depends on gathering people in medium or large groups — and it is truly daunting to consider how many do, whether for fundraising banquets, afterschool programs, or in the case of churches for corporate worship — you are not in the same business today. And this is not just a blizzard that you can wait out. We cannot possibly tell when such gatherings will again become routine, but it will not be in a matter of weeks.” Crouch, Keilhacker, and Blanchard
Just a few days ago, I was on the phone with a financial counselor at Morgan Stanley, who echoed these exact sentiments from the for-profit world through his company’s research about consumers heading out to restaurants or shopping in stores, etc. When there’s a pattern change, people don’t all go back to normal. With that in mind, I make this guess without any scientific specific support for the percentage, but with loads of research supporting this future trend: About 10-30% will not go back to congregations who just open their doors again to in-person worship as it’s always been. In this fundamental mode of what it means to affirm “I’m a Christian,” they will no longer affiliate with church. And they become “nones.”

And the main reason is what the nones in our country have been doing for years now—they

found alternatives. Frankly, they found that it wasn’t worth their time to attend worship services. (Remember, if it sounds harsh, I’m talking about from the perspective of the notable minority of those who used to be in the pews.) When I moved from leading or co-leading four worship services Sunday mornings as a pastor to attending one worship service as a parishioner, I had time to head to Chico’s gorgeous 3670-acre Upper Park. There mountain bikers and hikers, with or without their dogs, didn’t appear to be wondering, “What’s happening today at First Presbyterian Church?” They seemed fine enjoyed the sun and walking through the rugged North State terrain. In many ways, I couldn’t blame them.

This is a challenge. Is there hope?
I’m not writing this because I’m glad to see the gradual fade of worship services. As I mentioned above, I love heading into a worship service, hearing a sermon, and receiving the sacrament. I am committed to participating in Sunday worship services. Even more, I feel tremendous empathy for pastors who are going to face financial hardship—and thus have to fire staff members—when “butts in the pews” leads to lower dollars in the plates. And yes, I do think about 70%, maybe even 90%, of the church will be ok with what’s gone on before… but given the growth of the nones, even their numbers will also incrementally fade. Still, a sizable minority won’t head into the doors of a church building on Sundays. And church leaders will feel it.

I’ll have more to say next week, but I believe there can still be hope if churches change. Here are two vectors.

  1. First of all, there is hope for churches that integrate technology and create virtual worship. This doesn’t mean simply sticking one camera on a tripod and filming what’s always been done. As a recent meme puts it so well, “Pray for pastors as they attempt to make this Sunday’s livestream not look like a bin Laden capture video.” And there are answers to those prayers: See David Taylor’s recent article in Christianity Today "How to Lead Online Worship Without Losing Your Soul--or Body" for some excellent tips. Video is a different media than in person, as I learned when I did a wedding on the Today Show in 2006.
  2. Second, there is hope for churches that emphasize relationality. Too many worship services don’t help congregants connect with one another. Church has the ability to unleash the awesome power of human relationality. And when the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, and we can be in the same room, let’s exploit that.
But for now, let’s not wait until they “come back to church.”


Ken Anderson said...

Wondering – when did church become something we ‘go to’ instead of something we do, are, or love? Do emerging adults – and even those who emerged long ago – ‘go to’ their phone instead of ‘to’ church? If the net can so easily replace church as our ‘go to’ source – maybe we need to re-imagine church.

Ken Anderson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
My Reflections said...

This is spot on. I agree and I just wrote in my notes for next week, "All churches (as gatherings not buildings) need to lean into the natural advantage of having relationality at their center."