“Something spiritual is starting to stir in this country (Australia).” But, wrote Erica Battle in the Sydney Sun-Herald, “On the last published census 64% of Australians nominated adherence to the Christian faith, yet only about 9% attend church weekly.” Why do so many people sense a spiritual dimension in life but do not seem to carry this over into religious commitment? Do they even perceive a gap between their beliefs and actions? There are two perspectives from which we can answer these questions: the human perspective and the God perspective
The human perspective
This perspective uses the social, cultural and religious dimensions of the human situation in the 21st century. It looks at why groups of people hold the beliefs that they do, and what motivates them to behave in certain ways. To net out these findings (from the western, developed world context):
- People value their individuality, especially their right to make personal choices, much more highly than membership in any group, sometimes even including their own family.
- Trust in all groups, including religious denominations has eroded significantly.
- People get their opinions of religion and church from encounters and conversations with others and the media.
Using these three findings it is easy to see why people can say they are Christian but don’t attend church. They weigh up things in their individual consciences and see no strong reason for faithful membership in a church. The church itself doesn’t provide information about or influence this choice very strongly.
The God perspective
This perspective views each individual human person’s unique situation. It looks at how each person grows and deals with the stresses of life, trying to find meaning and purpose in their life. Let me ‘play God’ and net out my idea about His perspective:
- I created a deep hunger for knowing God into each person.
- I love each person and continually communicate myself to them.
- During their life, each person develops ther own unique ways to avoid this deep hunger and my love, to live as they wish.
- But there are moments when they ask questions they can’t answer — “Where is God?” “What is my purpose in life?”
From this God perspective, the gap between people who call themselves Christians and those who attend church makes sense. It happens because many people don’t find the experience of ‘church’ relevant to helping them answer these important questions. How can that be? Christian churches claim to be able to authoritatively provide these answers, speaking for God, using the Bible. As a movie character once put it so succinctly: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Why is church attendance at your local church too low?
I have given you my theory for why attendance at most Christian churches is declining. I point the finger at the churches not at individual Christians. People have always acted the way I described in the God perspective. What has changed is the way churches communicate the answers to important questions that people ask. My challenge to each local church is to develop your own theory about declining church attendance and its root causes — and act on your analysis. If you come up with the same theory as I have, look closely at all the ways you communicate with people, both inside your church and outside. Christian churches have the content but it’s not being heard. Figure out why. This is one good step toward transforming your local church.