Making church uncomfortable

A short article in the May 4 issue of WORLD Magazine entitled “Bleachers vs. Pews” highlights a “new study of declining North American churches.” The study revealed that “the most common explanation for congregational malaise is the ‘secularization of Sunday,’ or the way that other activities, especially childrens’ sports, have reduced attendance at religious services.”

The study was conducted by Stephen McMullin of Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, and while he reports that one pastor in his study summed up this “secularization” by lamenting that many parents will “sacrifice church ‘for the sake of their son or daughter’s sports program,'” McMullin is not convinced that Sunday sports are a determining factor in the decline in church attendance. McMullin observed that many of the churches seeing a decline in enrollment have “internal problems, such as poor quality music, or making little attempt to welcome guests.”

I both agree and disagree with McMullin. I agree that youth sports are not the sole, or even the predominant, cause of a decline in church attendance, and I agree that the number of people opting to pursue youth sports or other leisure activities on Sundays is a symptom of “internal problems” within many churches. I disagree, though, that “poor quality music” is one of those problems. I am not disagreeing that some churches may have poor quality music; some, no doubt do. Rather, I am disagreeing that the quality of music at a church is a determining factor in anyone leaving the church–or, for that matter, regularly attending it in the first place.

This is not a position I am basing purely on gut instinct or a hunch, either. Several years ago Answers in Genesis commissioned Britt Beemer and America’s Research Group to study why young people are leaving the church. Their survey questioned one thousand twenty-somethings who were raised in conservative churches but are no longer attending in order to find out why they are not. One question in the survey specifically asked “Why have you stopped attending church?” The answer “music is poor” was given by only 1% of the respondents; sixteen other reasons ranked above this one. Only four answers ranked below poor music quality in the survey, and those four answers–miscellaneous, unsure of my belief, just quit going, and always ask for money–accounted, cumulatively, for only 1.6% of the responses. So clearly, music–and particularly the quality of music–is not a big factor when it comes to folks making the decision to stop going to church. (To explore this survey further, check out Already Gone by Ken Ham and Britt Beemer).

In my opinion, the increasing number of sports leagues that allow games or practices on Sunday is just another example in a long line of symptoms of the declining importance of church attendance in our country. Many things that used to not happen on Sunday do now, not just youth sports. I am not going to take a position that youth sports cannot be played on Sundays ever, and whether or not Christian parents allow their children to practice or play on Sundays is a decision I think they need to make for their family after prayerful consideration. I am personally not in favor of it, and I would encourage parents to establish from the get-go that their children will not practice or play anytime doing so will conflict with Sunday school or church services. And if they do make that decision, I strongly encourage those parents to abide by that position.

University of Washington religion professor James Wellman commented that “[c]oaches are less and less intimidated by religious norms and conventions and simply see Sunday as yet another day to schedule practices and games.” That may be. But the real problem is why do they see Sunday that way? And the answer is, why wouldn’t they? Too many professing Christians are no longer committed to regularly attending church on Sunday mornings. They may go if they feel like it, get up on time and do not have something better to do, but it is not all that important–it is not a priority for them. And therein lies the heart of the problem. Why is it not a priority, and what are churches doing about it?

One if the biggest reasons I believe it is not a priority is because so few people see church as being “worth it.” Too many churches have weakened their stance on the Bible, too many of them teach only the “feel good” parts, too many have focused on making church attendees feel good and feel welcome than have focused on making sure they hear the life-transforming message of God’s Word and spurring them on to live it out. And yes, too many have focused on making sure they have great music and lots of “ministry opportunities” without making sure that people are hearing, studying and applying the Word. see, when church becomes more about visiting with friends and getting a feel-good message there is no need to make a priority. People can do that at the ballpark or on the boat, they can get that from their radio or computer or television, or even the local bookstore.

So when churches start to wonder why people are leaving perhaps the best thing they could do is look within instead of without; perhaps they need to focus more on making people in church uncomfortable than on making them comfortable, since the Word of God, when accurately examined, will convict–and conviction doesn’t feel good. Perhaps instead of working to improve their PowerPoint presentations they should work to make sure that their presentations of the gospel are presented with power, and making sure people get the point. People will abandon the youth leagues and Sundays on the lake and lingering in their pajamas with the Sunday paper when they realize that their lives are impacted by attending church, studying God’s Word, interacting with fellow believers, and being challenged to apply what they learn and live out their faith in between services. In other words, the church needs to act like the church.

2 thoughts on “Making church uncomfortable

  1. Despite the growth in organized youth sports, there is still an element of recreation involved. Participation in sports as a player or spectator is different from the weekday work or school. I like the idea of limiting Sunday activities to the late afternoon or early evening hours so that families can attend church services in the mornings. A one two punch of connecting with God in the morning and connecting with teammates in the afternoon serves as a nice combination of loving God and loving the neighbor.

  2. Actually, you do not “disagree with McMullin,” but with the summary in World. The quote ““internal problems, such as poor quality music, or making little attempt to welcome guests” does not appear in my original article which is based not on my opinion but on meticulous field research, and it does not accurately reflect my conclusions. That is part of the challenge when a popular publication summarizes technical arguments of an academic publication. I encourage you to read the original article in Review of Religious Research (March 2013), not just the summary.

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