Preference or Revelation: Church Attendance in the 21st Century

In 2013, Pew Research conducted a study on Americans who do not attend church on a regular basis. While the study had many facets because people have their many reasons, nearly four-in-ten (37%) “point to an issue directly related to religion or church itself.”

While this study is composed to represent those who either do or don’t go to church, I’m inclined to believe that this 37% represents individuals who are not committed to a single congregation but are visiting other churches as well. We call this “church hopping.” Please note that I’m banking on this percentage to be based on the fact that people were not descriptive enough as to why they don’t go to church. Bad science, I know, but let’s just roll with it.

Lights, Sound and Worship

Several years ago I was attending a pastors conference in Nashville. It was hosted by a charismatic church with a pretty substantial following. The event was lively and there was a constant rolling of laughter throughout. At one point the hosting pastor pointed to the ceiling where students had blasted whip cream and confetti during a youth gathering a few days before. It was pretty noticeable, but the crowd found it amusing.

The first guest speaker wasn’t a pastor. He was a church advisor. Following his introduction, he shared a statistic on the amount of people who attend churches because of their lighting (from what I can remember, he said it was around 70%). This was the whole concept of his talk and he unraveled his arguments meticulously. But it all came down to fact that good lighting equates to big crowds.

The second speaker was a pastor who emphasized a similar concept but with a different perspective. He boasted about the 4,000+ congregants who regularly attended his services saying that because of the church’s dedication to creative teaching styles, he predicted that the numbers would continue to increase. Creative teaching styles equate to big crowds.

My thought process throughout the conference was entirely negative. I had no positive mental experience. The speakers spoke about reasonable and useful ideas but the objective was destroyed by their obsession with the size of the congregation. However, their ideas require an important question: Were they wrong? Not in the moral sense but in the factual sense. Were they wrong in suggesting that better lighting and creative teaching styles will draw bigger crowds? The answer came from a phone call in a church office.

I was having a discussion with a coworker at a local church when his cellphone rang. He answered the phone promptly and began describing what our church services were like. As the conversation continued, he began to describe our style of worship. The woman on the other end had been looking for a church with a worship band similar to Jesus Culture, a well-known, charismatic music group. My coworker friend explained that we didn’t identify our worship with any singular style but that we did have modern tastes. Unfortunately, this was not satisfactory to the woman calling and she quickly ended the conversation.

For her, it was either Jesus Culture or nothing at all.

This event startled me. I was frustrated to learn that someone would make their decisions on church attendance based on what kind of worship band would be leading on Sunday. But it seems that the Nashville guest speakers’ assumptions weren’t too far from reality.

Obviously, no amount of research can represent the unknown and unsaid convictions of individuals. And so I take the 37% to mean something a little more than it suggests: people weren’t telling the researchers everything. Again, forgive me for doing that. But this is often the case of those who are active churchgoers. What is our motivation for attending the church we currently attend? Why do we identify with any particular denomination? Why we do prefer one pastor over another?

To bring this idea home,

is our Christian experience based on our preferences or the revelation of redemption in Jesus Christ?

That is, I believe, the over-arching question of 21st century Christianity. Granted, not every Christian is persuaded by preference more than revelation so my idea cannot be all-encompassing. But it is largely relevant and pervasive.

My convictions on this matter are not to separate good lighting and creative teaching and popular worship bands into categories of immorality and irrelevance. Rather, my aim is to measure these tools by the character of the people managing them. And that’s where we determine whether something is healthy or destructive—a rule that applies to all of us.

Are we being honest with ourselves about why we do what we do? Are we stuck in the rut of misplaced preferences? Or, are we centered on creating beachheads of restitution for broken and needy people?

The conversation about lighting and worship bands and teaching styles is a good one, but we cannot remain there. The church is much bigger than that.


Photo ©EdYoungMinistry

Shelton Brown
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