Church attendance continues to tank across America. Downward trends already in place before the pandemic declined even further in the wake of it. It’s a tough time to be a business offering only one product—active church membership—in a country that increasingly doesn’t want it.
In reversing the decline of their religion, evangelical leaders have two basic options: They can offer a product that customers want to buy at the price those leaders set, or they can convince customers that what they have right now is perfect and essential to their lives. Sadly for them but good for everyone else, they’re taking the second path. We’ll explore their strategies here today, and then maybe we’ll see why they’re failing.
(As always, all emphases in my quotes come from the original sources unless I say otherwise.)
Loss of Christianity’s coercive powers: the real reason for all this dechurchification
Once upon a time, nobody had a choice about being Christian. The religion was compulsory. Its devotions were, likewise, not optional. At that time, disavowing Christianity came with a very distinct and usually exceedingly high cost. Refusing to affiliate with any churches—or worse yet, openly criticizing church leaders or Christianity itself—could result in many real-world losses: Loss of income, loss of one’s family and home, loss of one’s reputation in the community, even the loss of one’s property and life.
I strongly believe that hardline Calvinist evangelicals want a return to that time. Back then, they could pretend that people affiliated with Christianity because it was just so gosh-darn wonderful.
No, only within the past 40ish years has it been safe to reject Christianity—much less to openly criticize it and its leaders. For the first time in many centuries, Christianity is optional for most Americans. Affiliating with churches is, likewise, optional.
And here, too, I strongly believe that hardline Calvinist evangelicals want this time to end. I think they’d love for their religion to be mandatory again.
It’s just not going to happen.
Just as the optional nature of Christian affiliation has led to more Americans choosing to drop it, it’s led to a certain winnowing and amplification effect in the ones consciously choosing to stay. And that latter effect means much more than the former one, by far. Loving Christians get chased away, and the ones remaining tend to be the cruelty-is-the-point type.
It’s not our imagination: Evangelicals are getting more cruel and control-hungry by the day
Last week, I had a few interactions with hardline evangelicals that had me laughing. If my first pastor had seen me treating people that way back in the 1980s, he’d have had my hide. And he’d have been right in being angry.
Evangelicals have really deteriorated even since the 2010s. Sure, evangelical men back then threatened me with demonic rape for my rejection of Christianity. That was a popular but thankfully short-lived twist on the usual threats. But even considering that threat, they weren’t this generally nasty or obviously control-hungry. They weren’t openly insulting their enemies or gloating about people roasting in Hell like they were last week. It’s painfully obvious that what these Christians have is a totalitarian political movement with some Jesus frosting on top to try to legitimize their demands.
Back then, they at least tried to trot out supporting evidence for their claims, even if it was never actually valid evidence at all. Not one single evangelical in those recent interactions even tried. It was just threats and more threats.
In recent years, evangelicals have completely forgotten that they’re supposed to be Jesus’ very own hand-picked ambassadors, charged to bring his overwhelming love and healing light to a doomed world. No, instead they’d rather be enraged keyboard warriors lurking social media for opportunities to sneer at and snidely insult and ruthlessly abuse their culture-war enemies.
The real surprise is that any decent human beings remain in their ranks, not that so many leave. If this is what Jesus’ own special pretty princesses are like, nobody compassionate wants to be part of that. The only people who resonate with evangelicals’ behavior are equally hateful, cruel, control-hungry people. They recognize in this behavior a permission slip for them to act the same way if they join up.
Anyone still loudly involved with this flavor of Christianity is there because it’s a divinely-endorsed substitute for being a decent human being. It’s what they can do instead of all that boring-ass stuff Jesus told Christians to do.
With this substitute, they can act the way they want and still escape Hell. Unfortunately, it also means they win far fewer converts than they used to, and the ones they get tend to be like themselves or worse.
Christian groups are now on the same level as any other group
In addition, Christianity’s loss of coercive powers means that Christian groups—be they churches, parachurch organizations, missionary endeavors, or anything else—now sit on the same level as any other group in the real world. They’re no longer obligatory and compulsory, but optional.
If they wish to attract new members, they need to offer those prospects something they want at a price they’re willing to pay. At the same time, they must keep existing members satisfied with their club.
The results: Essentially a long-term customer subscription, which depends upon maintaining a balance between these two customer bases. This principle applies whether one is running a church, a hiking club, or a gym franchise.
Some church leaders understand this new normal. It’s why megachurches are about the only churches growing in post-Christian America, while smaller churches—which can afford to offer way fewer amenities, programs, and perks to members—struggle hard and are closing by the truckload every year.
Ironically perhaps, megachurches and smaller churches reflect two completely different approaches to dealing with their religion’s decline in cultural power and membership.
Two approaches in any product’s age of decline
In the real world, sometimes once-beloved products begin losing popularity. I’m not talking about companies that torpedo a product’s sales figures through spectacularly-bad marketing decisions. No, here we’re talking about products that were once mainstays of consumers’ lives, but just aren’t anymore.
In America’s history, there’ve been a lot of those, too. Sometimes, technology just renders the product obsolete. When’s the last time you went shopping for a typewriter? Probably decades, if ever. In 1995, the New York Times announced that this once-essential product had reached “the end of the line.” In other cases, Americans’ lifestyle whooshes right past and over a product: Marmalade, paper napkins, bar soap, mortgages, and more have become entries on Lists of Things Millennials and Zoomers Just Don’t Buy As Often.
Once a product begins to decline in popularity, what do their marketers and creators do?
Well, they have two basic responses.
- They can retool the product or find one that’s similar that Americans will still buy. The bar soap companies can pivot into selling body scrub, for example.
- They can try to convince Americans that their product is too totally still useful and necessary. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Those marmalade companies can try to pair with cooking influencers online to show younger cooks fun and tasty ways to use their products.
Now, let’s take these ideas to Christianity.
Retooling increasingly irrelevant consumer products for a younger generation
Megachurches have definitely taken that first approach. They are now much more like glorified country clubs than anything most hardline Calvinist evangelicals would recognize as doing church, to use the Christianese. They offer tons of activities and clubs geared to almost every hobby and activity. It wouldn’t even half surprise me to learn that one had its own baseball team. Go to any megachurch’s website, and you’ll encounter a downright dizzying array of programs and amenities offered to members.
And megachurches have been doing this for years. It’s largely why they’ve been almost completely impervious to Christianity’s decline. As just one example I encountered personally, the Southern Baptist megachurch I briefly attended in my teens was looking forward to converting a nearby closed-down supermarket into a roller-skating rink for its huge youth group.
In their defense, it was the mid-1980s. Back then, skating was the go-to wholesome group activity for teens in my neck of the woods. ‘Xanadu’ didn’t feature a roller-skating divinity by accident. Everything about her, from her leg warmers to her hair to her Maxfield Parrish-inspired country-maiden costumes, was on-trend at the time:
And ironically enough, roller skating rinks themselves have gone with a similar strategy. Amid the pandemic, skating made a huge comeback after 20 years of irrelevance. This time, though, it was mostly inline skating (“rollerblading”) that had caught consumers’ interest, and it seemed like rinks were designated on the fly as often as they existed as commercial ventures built for the purpose.
But hardline Calvinist evangelicals don’t tend to like such folderol and fripperies. Roller skating and baseball have distressingly few mentions in the Bible, and they take a suspiciously-large chunk of time out of a believer’s busy day of Jesusing. So they tend to adopt the second tactic:
Instead of making any changes at all to their businesses or business model, they instead focus on convincing people to purchase and then keep purchasing their product as it is now—and at the price they’ve already set for it.
No, Christianity’s new normal is not making evangelical leaders very happy
And when I talk about “convincing people” of things in this end of Christianity, it means making the flocks think that their product is mandatory. Affiliation is mandatory. Active participation is mandatory. Most of all, obedience is mandatory.
Let’s go into the wild!
Josh Buice at G3 (a hardline Calvinist umbrella group insisting that all members affirm the 1689 Confession of Faith, though they try very hard to obscure their stance in their About page) sure thought so in a 2016 post of his:
Sadly, it’s becoming a normal thing to see many Christians speak that way about their circle of friends outside of the church while their understanding of church has been reduced to a building and a seat to occupy on Sunday. Why are so many people willing to forsake the fellowship of the church?
In passing, Buice—a pastor—confesses to having a real problem getting new members plugged into his church community. Hilariously, though, he decides that he and his current core congregation members can’t possibly be the common thread binding all these people drifting out of his church. No, it is all those drifting-out members who are Jesusing wrong:
Some people are more extraverted than others, but there is no excuse for hermit Christianity. In fact, there is no such thing as hermit Christianity. We must learn that the church is not a burden – it’s a true blessing from God. The church is more than a building and a steeple, it involves a body of believers united in the gospel. Why is true fellowship minimized in our day? Could it be that we’ve forgotten that we’re in a war?
I’d love to know what Buice’s second guess might be. He has only one, though: those departed members have obviously “forgotten that we’re in a war.”
I can see why he’s settled firmly on this guess, too. After all, that explanation requires absolutely no changes from him or his core congregation.
Declining church attendance is “a disturbing trend that’s spreading like a plague”
Michelle Lesley bills herself as a “discipleship for women” expert. She proclaimed in 2017 that the new normal was “a disturbing trend that’s spreading like a plague.” In fact, she called her post “Basic Training: 7 Reasons Church is Not Optional and Non-Negotiable for Christians.” Strong words! After graciously conceding that some people have virtuous reasons not to attend church, she slams others for it:
Usually, the decision to opt out of church boils down to one of two scenarios: a) a Believer who was hurt by a previous church and yet isn’t ready to risk being hurt again or b) someone (often a false convert) who doesn’t grasp the concept that being joyfully joined to a local body of believers is part of what defines someone as a Christian.
After trying to cut off criticism at the pass, she hammers home that church membership is simply a sign of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™:
What I am saying is that one of the signs, or fruits, that someone is already saved is that she has a heartfelt love and affection for the things of God, which includes the gathering of the saints for fellowship, worship, encouragement, and edification. For a Believer, love for the bride of Christ is a natural extension of loving Christ, Himself. A Believer doesn’t have to be talked into attending church; there’s no place on earth he or she would rather be.
See? They have to do it, or else they’re showing that they’re not the real deal at all! This is such a zigzag of a post. She careers from graciously conceding that some distancing from church might be okay, then slams down on it being essential for everyone else. Then, she tries to mitigate criticism for her stance, and then she’s back to insisting that all TRUE CHRISTIANS™ will obviously always want to be active church members and slamming any who don’t. Whew, what a ride this post was!
A church leader tells readers that they cannot do solitary Christianity
That same year, a writer for Church Leaders told us that “you cannot ‘do church’ on your own.” Amy Gannett, the writer, is not necessarily Calvinist, though her church’s statement of faith contains a few tantalizing dogwhistles that lead me to think it might be. Her main objection here concerns Christians who think they can do church on a solo basis.
Her wording reminds me mightily of the perennial argument from the 1990s between group-practicing Wiccans and solitary ones. Back then, a lot of Wiccans thought they had to work within a coven, which is like a church group. As someone who was active in a general pagan club back then, I sure heard plenty about that squabble! Over time, though, the solitary approach has clearly won that fight. There are hundreds of books and websites (like this one) available now for those who wish to tackle Wicca by themselves, or who can’t find a coven they like nearby. Clearly, Gannett doesn’t want to see her religion end up the same way. She writes:
To be a part of the church is precisely to be one member of a much larger people; no one believer can be the church on their own (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). [. . .]
Like our friend who runs, we, too, develop our identity and are formed by what we do; what we do in our bodies matters (1 Corinthians 6:15-20). As Christians go to church, we embody the identity with the Body of Christ that we claim. [. . .]
Participation in the Body of Christ is not optional for believers, but is a matter of obedience. The Word of God makes it imperative that we don’t neglect the gathering of believers (Hebrews 10:24-25), and reminds us that faith festers in community, in the gathering together of believers (Colossians 3:16). [YES, she really wrote “festers.”]
Like the other sources we’ve encountered, she also slams Christians who don’t participate in church culture:
In the West, we have adopted a church culture that is heavily based on preference. If I don’t like the worship style at the church, I’ll attend another; if our congregation doesn’t agree on worship style, we’ll offer two different styles of worship services. And while this is not entirely bad, it certainly isn’t a foundation we want to build our theology or our churches on. Because, like it or not, I have yet to find a church that meets my preference of staying in bed on Sunday mornings in my PJs. Preference can (and will) only carry us so far.
At the end, she alights on perhaps the only real good reasons any Christian has for attending church:
You cannot give yourself communion or baptize yourself; they are primarily and fundamentally acts of community.
That, at least, is true. I know of no flavors of Christianity that don’t push the necessity of Communion and some form of baptism, so okay, she’s got a point there. Credit where it’s due, right?
Tom Terry, a former missionary who now runs the website Teach It Preach It, echoes Gannett’s reasoning when he insists that “Christianity was never meant to be a faith that people practice alone.” In addition to sacraments like the ones Gannett mentions, he adds that churches provide instruction and encouragement to believers. Insofar as either is really necessary or useful, I suppose that’s also true.
A more scholarly look at the mandatory nature of church attendance
In far loftier language, a Table Talk post from last year (2022) informs us that active church membership “isn’t incidental to the gospel.”
Here, David Strain’s general take was that people really want connection and intimacy with others. But the mean ole world can’t possibly provide that like active church membership can.
People want to belong. I want to belong. You want to belong. But we don’t do it very well. It’s not that easy to find community, to find our people, among whom we just seem to fit. We crave it, but we don’t know where to turn to find it. To be sure, social media offers one type of community, but it is necessarily superficial and illusory, and it is ultimately profoundly unsatisfying.
Deep down, we know we were made for face-to-face, life-on-life, loving community.
That’s why at the heart of the Christian gospel is the promise not just of a new life or a new identity but of a new humanity. What Jesus brings is never solely a private, individualistic thing. It is also a corporate salvation, a salvation known and enjoyed in the fellowship of the church.
And Strain definitely means that Christians need to join a local church even if all the ones around them are full of terrible people:
If we come to know Jesus, the Bible cannot conceive of us as refusing to belong to His church, which, of course, is one important reason that refusing to join a local church is so wrong. We don’t get to say Jesus: “I love you—but the church? Not so much!” To be sure, the church is a messy place, full of screw-ups and failures. It will often let us down, it’s true. But isn’t it clear that Jesus loves that church? [. . .]
To be united to Christ is to be united to the whole church, on earth and in heaven. It is to be called into fellowship with Jesus and in Him with all His people. We are to love and be patient with the church, all her faults and failures notwithstanding, knowing that we ourselves belong to her, and Christ, who loves His bride, is patient with us. Union with Christ creates true community, and this doctrine calls us to love the church.
I’m suddenly getting flashbacks of the old meme image that says “Jesus loves you. Everyone else thinks you’re an asshole.”
Obviously, this guy has never experienced the sheer emotional torture that church members can inflict on those they deem inferior. Just cruising around the results for a search on church bullies pulls up some really awful stories. Even if there’s no overt mistreatment, it’s disheartening even to attend a church for ages without ever feeling like a real part of its community. Getting frozen out of a community is its own form of bullying.
David Strain won’t be there to help anyone suffering as a result of active church membership. (Though it’s not like church leaders can do much about it anyway, which is made clear by the lackluster advice that exists in such cases.) He insists that such sufferers suck it up and Jesus on so that his religious sensibilities are kept sacrosanct. There’s no room in him for compassion at all, despite his highfalutin’ words to the contrary. It sounds a lot like he’s demanding that Christians put themselves into harm’s way with no protection at all.
If today’s evangelical churches are so precious to Jesus, he is more than welcome to them.
One hardline Calvinist site repeatedly hammers at church attendance being “mandatory”
The Gospel Coalition (TGC) really, really, really wants its readers to consider their product mandatory. It’s downright hilarious to see their steady drumbeat of posts to that effect.
In 2019, Trevin Wax posted “Pastor, Don’t Imply That Church Is Optional.” We’ve met Trevin Wax before. He’s a solid Southern Baptist good ole boy: Graduated from one of their seminaries, works for Lifeway Christian Resources, and has a gig as a visiting professor at Wheaton College, which also employs Southern Baptist made man Ed Stetzer.
But we know him around here because he contributed the very first chapter to Before You Lose Your Faith (2021). In it, he tried very, very hard to set the terms for deconstruction: how he’d allow to start and progress, what reasons he’d accept for it, and how he’d allow it to end. It was hilariously authoritarian in nature, obviously a desperate power-grab from someone watching his denomination fray and splinter harder every year.
In his 2019 post, Wax fretted that pastors might be giving their congregations the absurd notion that church was optional. He decides, from his very gracious throne on high, that church attendance is slipping for three reasons:
- Too much “expressive individualism.” Christians perceive themselves as “lone individuals who only come together based on common interests or goals,” and make commitment only as they please and on their own terms.
- Americans are just too darned anti-institutional. They trust themselves too much “to figure out what’s best for themselves, not listen to a church or a pastor or a political figure tell them what to do.”
- Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when church attendance was a cultural requirement if someone hoped to maintain their reputation and standing, church leaders began teaching that “personal faith in Jesus” was far more important than church attendance. Yes, he literally goes there, and then he blames eroding church attendance on this factor.
Yes, he literally goes there, and then he blames eroding church attendance on this third factor:
Looking back, we may conclude that was the right move at the time. Distinguishing between the trappings of faith and the substance of salvation remains vital. But I wonder if, in the decades that followed, the truth that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian morphed into a different idea—that being a Christian doesn’t necessarily include going to church. I wonder if people started thinking that personal, individual faith in Jesus is the only important thing, and if the church can help with that, fine, but if not, that’s fine, too.
Here’s where the problem shows up. The idea that belonging to a church is an optional add-on to one’s Christian life is far from the biblical picture. The idea of an unchurched Christian wouldn’t have made sense to the writers of the New Testament.
Uh oh! He concludes by pleading with pastors to stop making statements “that seem to pit true Christianity against the church.”
It’s possible that this, indeed, was the germ of the current feeling that so many Christians have that they can maintain their faith without church attendance. But it’s really not why attendance keeps falling, with no hope at all for stopping that decline (much less reversing it).
Another wild guess about declining church attendance
But don’t worry! TGC has another wild guess about church attendance. In 2021, Trevin Wax wrote another post for them about the topic. This one was called “The Main Reason Church Attendance Is Slipping.”
In a lot of ways, he retreaded the 2019 post. Instead of blaming the pastors of the 1950s and 1960s for contrasting TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ with rote devotions like church attendance, this time he accuses modern pastors of making active church membership into too much of a “personal accessory.” Here, he draws upon a book called Handing Down the Faith. It describes the ways that parents try to raise their kids to be Christian for life. Of it, Wax writes:
For more than a generation now, we’ve been undergoing a massive shift in how we understand the role of religion and the place of church.
The traditional perspective saw religion as a “communal solidarity project.” According to this model, “the way people, institutions, and traditions know what is good is through some combination of revelation and received teachings (tradition), mediated through reason and interpretive commentary.”
In more recent years, religion has moved from being a “communal solidarity project” to what [authors] Smith and Adamczyk call a “personal identity accessory” (73). According to this model, the purpose of religion is “not to promote right living grounded in good beliefs, but to offer practices and techniques that promote coping with life and the making of ‘good choices’” (75). The role of religion, then, is not to be “an authoritative carrier of a tradition” but “an optional lifestyle accoutrement.”
Wax laments that modern American parents might consider church attendance important while they’re raising their kids. They want churches to instruct their children in the faith and reinforce the morality they teach at home. But aside from that instructional function, parents have little interest in attendance.
He’s super hoping that more books will contain suggestions for making American Christians realize that they totally do need church membership in their lives. Meanwhile, I’m just wondering why he doesn’t pray for Jesus to change Christians’ minds. If Jesus wants Christians to attend church that mightily, one would think this would be an easy request for an omnipotent god to fulfill.
Another TGC writer demands that Christians “make time” for church attendance
This next one was a treat. It was written just last year (2022) by Dudu Mkhize. According to her bio at TGC, she lived for a while in South Africa teaching children, volunteering at a family center, and mentoring women in Bible studies. She’s also one of many millions of middle-aged evangelical women who’ve had to embrace singleness. But last year, she wrote a post called “Christian Community Isn’t An Optional Add-On For Believers.”
Her post begins with a description of her recovery from foot surgery. Her lengthy recovery time prevented her from attending church, and she rapidly decided that “it isn’t normal or healthy for a Christian to be away from the community of God’s people.”
Then, she describes a part-time job offer she got at a pharmacy “many years ago.” Alas, the employer needed her to work on weekends. She told him she refused to work on Sunday because of her volunteer commitments at church. Despite not being a Christian, her employer “respected her decision” and upped the offer to full-time work!
One wonders how long ago this was, exactly. Nowadays and in the United States, low-wage jobs typically don’t allow workers any slack like that. Many demand their workers fill ever-changing shifts on ever-changing days, which allows those workers no leeway at all to have regular activities outside of their work life. Regardless, Mkhize informs readers that they’ve simply got to insist on hours that allow them to attend church. She writes:
We must ask God to give us courage to be upfront about and consistent with our priorities. For our priorities matter to God, while they will also shape our lives and souls.
And if an employer revokes a Christian’s employment because that worker can’t be available when the employer needs them, I’m assuming Mkhize will send that person money to hold them over till they find a more cooperative job. Right? Or is she assuming Jesus will do something there?
Otherwise, this post repeats what we’ve seen elsewhere. She concludes:
Meeting in fellowship as God’s people is rewarding and priceless. Thus, we should take our time of fellowship seriously as our response of gratitude to God for what he has done for us through Jesus on the cross, and for the sake of obeying him as our Lord.
Of course, if it’s not “rewarding and priceless,” that is definitely not the church’s problem. Christians have to perceive it that way regardless, or else they’re Jesusing wrong.
And there’s only one penalty for Jesusing wrong.
In the end, church attendance will continue to decline
Sometimes, careful marketing can revive interest in a product that’s still high-quality but has receded into the cultural rearview mirror. Midcentury Modern cooking blogs might revive interest in marmalade. Bro-dude TikTok accounts might revive interest in bar soap with properly woodsy scents. Who knows, some future primitive-core fashion might require the use of typewriters again. But with a product as profoundly flawed and dysfunctional as evangelical church membership, such marketing just feels like an insult to those who’ve walked away from church culture.
Church leaders can say whatever they want about how totes essential their product is. Of course salespeople and business owners will talk up the absolute essentialness of their product. Afterward, consumers will make their own assessment regarding its true value to themselves, thenkyewverrahmuch.
Should those flocks decide that why yes indeed, active church membership really is an equation that doesn’t balance, then they will express that decision by doing something else with their finite time and resources.
In all but a vanishing few areas in America, church leaders can’t do a single thing about it, either. That’s really the glorious central cause of declining church attendance. That, right there, is why churches keep losing people and are unable to replace them through recruitment. People don’t need to attend church, and so they don’t. It’s that simple and that beautiful.
Churches have simply shown themselves to be poor investments of time and money. If they weren’t, then members wouldn’t have left their ranks. In all too many cases, church congregations themselves make the decision to leave extremely easy. And church leaders simply can’t force people to submit to hanging out with people they dislike and who mistreat them, or to sit through services that simply don’t feel relevant or even based in reality.
Where evangelicals are now, they never, ever expected to be. And they have no clue in the world how to proceed—except to use tactics that only worked when they had the power to brutally punish dissenters. They don’t want to learn new tactics, either.
There’s such a lovely poetry here, such an absurd and ironic twist. Evangelicals are their very own worst problem, but their favored solutions only make their problem worse.
I wonder if a god who loves reversals might appreciate that one.
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