Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Going to Church

Now that regular church attendance is no longer default behavior for responsible citizens as it was when I was growing up in a small East Tennessee town, much is being written about how and why the remaining regular attendees choose the particular churches they attend. Denomination choices may well be based either on sticking with, or avoiding, the denomination of one’s parents, but congregation choices seem too often to be based on liking the pastor, the sermons, the music, the food, the fun, or the fellowship. Sometimes proximity and convenience may play a role. Opportunities for service and ministry could play a role for serious believers, because, for them, personal involvement is essential. And perhaps some are just looking for confirmation of whatever theological or social positions they have adopted as their own over time though it does seem that few are interested in theology while many are interested in social issues.

But, not all denominations and churches are losing ground. While there is concern about loss of members and drooping attendance at so-called mainline denominations in the US, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists have kept up pretty well with growth in the population.

The table above, data from Demographia, shows that, while 54% of the population claimed church membership in 1960, only 27% of the 110 million person increase over the next 40+ years joined up. This is old data, but I think the trends have generally continued during the last six or eight years.  Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists have shown the biggest absolute increases. The shrinking of some groups, at the expense of others, wouldn’t really matter except that organized churches get caught up in worldly things such as expensive and lightly used structures, headquarters operations, staffs, and utility bills. Such obligations spark a bit of competitiveness in efforts to keep enough funds coming in to avoid the pain of shrinkage and sometimes distract attention from the essential focus of Christianity: Jesus Christ.

Whether our personal theologies are best expressed by the singing of Blessed Assurance  or of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence  and whether we prefer the democracy of congregationalism or the structure and authority of Catholicism, there are two things we can be sure of: 
  1. Any successful search for eternal things will lead eventually to “one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father.” 
  2. His Great Commission and two Great Commandments apply equally to all of us.
So, we might as well work together and help each other out. After all, it’s not all about us. And, if we did that, we might see a reversal of that decline in total participation.