In Defense of Church Absenteeism

his will break the line of thought I've been developing, but in an effort to get some interblog conversation going, I want to respond to a blog post from a colleague. Click here to read it. I would normally do this in the comments section of his blog, but given what will be my rambling response to his reasonable thought, I need more room. Of late, I've experienced several people, often pastors, complaining about lack of attendance at church. I give Frank credit for looking to some reason rather than just venting, but I think we as church need to look harder at both ourselves and the changing culture of the United States.

We Suck At Being Church

To me, this is probably the number one reason why members, or anybody really, don't show up. I must admit that of late its been very hard for me, a rostered leader in the ELCA who is currently on leave from call, to go to church. Some of that might be that since I'm living at a seminary, I can attend worship five times a week without leaving campus. I'm afraid there's more to it than that, however, and here's some of the reasons why. (And not just for me.)

  1. Can't Relate: We as church have forgotten how to relate to some people, although which group of people will vary from congregation to congregation. From my own experience, I can tell you that many congregations don't know how to relate to single, heterosexual, adult males. I've encountered so many unintentionally hurtful assumptions in congregations that its actually hard for me to go to church. Relevance still matters, but not the applying of faith to my life like some kind of jam, instead its about being aware of the relevant assumptions we make about people's lifestyles, long absences from church, motivations, experiences, etc. We as church must attend to the assumptions we make about those around us--and not around us--on Sunday morning for the sake of relating to them in Christ.
  2. Once Offended: All it takes for a family to absent themselves from the church is one offense. Feel free to raise up all the "it shouldn'ts" and "it ought nots," but the reality is that it does. And it can be anything: from something the pastor says or does, to overhearing another member speak ill against them, to a child saying to a parent, "Can we go now?" Depending on the cause of the offense, entire generations can disappear. I've seen where my presence brings a family back simply because I'm not the previous pastor. I've seen where my presence sends a family into the absentee cycle. I've seen where one person in a family was hurt by the church and so the family never returns, even decades later, because the person or people who did the hurting are still part of the church. But in this, the absentees still stay members of the church because its their church. What drives them away is the people who make up their church, and good luck fixing that.
  3. Class Conflicts: As Chaves points out, one of the easiest places to see how the United States is a country unconsciously ruled by class is in churches. In today's world, more and more people are having to work Saturday overnights or Sundays and therefore can't come to church. Artistic expressions, the most profound declaration of class, might also keep people away because it doesn't match their sensibilities. As these expressions change over time in the life of every congregation, people may come and go based on class.
  4. For Grandma: One simple reality we as church need to attend to is that many of the Christmas-Easter and the fire insurance members aren't showing up because of the gospel, they're showing up because grandma expects them to be there. This attitude is becoming more common because we've gone through a problematic agreement (see below) that meant one generation didn't explain to the next generation why church matters, and so the next generation didn't have a way to explain to the third generation why church matters, and now that third generation doesn't think church matters. But keeping grandma happy does matter, so we do the minimum amount of work to keep grandma happy.

The Morning After

The United States is still, as it has been since the days of colonization, the most churched country in the Western world. It might not feel like it when we look at numbers from the past seventy years or so, but push that into more of the hundred or hundred-and-fifty range, and all of a sudden the effects of McCarthyism can been seen.

After World War II, the church made a deal with the culture of the United States, and particularly McCarthyism: the culture will direct people to regular church attendance through social pressure (here the culture told people why church matters, so parents gave up explaining), and the church will help raise patriotic, non-Communist itizens. What's the best way to avoid being investigated? Church membership and regular attendance. See, I'm not a Communist!

The bad news is that the church in the US is just beginning to ealize that we're the ugly one who took someone home from the party last night, only to discover as we wake up that we're the only one in the bed now. The culture in the US gave up on this deal by the 1970's and the church is just beginning to realize it.

So this is really another assumption check, but an important one. If we limit our expectations to the experience of those who lived through the effects of McCarthyism, we will always think there aren't enough people in church. A longer view, however, shows a different picture.


If I could relabel Frank's number 5 of his 21st Century ascal's Wager, it would be "moral therapeutic deism" (MTD). This phrase is seeing more play because it describes what Frank's getting at. Another label would be "superstition," where God is essentially a good luck charm. If God only exists to keep me from doing wrong and help me feel good about myself, or worse to help me feel good about myself even though I'm doing wrong, then Frank is right, and we're just not committed to the idea of God or faith. 

If however, the issue is the particular expression of faith in the church, then the "spiritual but not religious" (SBNL) group actually has something to teach us, and its a helpful reminder: sometimes the institution gets in its own way.


Statistically, old-call evangelism (the old school knocking on doors) results in about 10% of those people showing up for worship. Inactive member evangelism, in contrast, results in about 1% of those people returning to worship. This tells me that we church leaders who rant on about people not showing up for church need to stop talking and listen to the inactive members. They have reasons for not showing up. We should bother to learn what they are. If relationships matter, then people not showing up to church is exactly the point where we, as church, focus on relationship.

I think most church leaders actually care about why people don't show up for church, but it is not helpful to insist on worship attendance. Rather, asking questions in love, willingness to use the resources God has given us, openness to change, and admitting our own imperfections will go a long way.

What would it look like if those who go to church started practicing forgiveness and asking for forgiveness outside of church before accusing people of not showing up for church?