Back In 2013, it seemed that everywhere I went, I was having conversations with my age peers about their changing relationship with their local church. I’d been wrestling with the same questions as my friends and acquaintances were about faith, identity, belonging, and my relationship with the world around me, and a good many of those questions were linked to church life.
I put together an informal survey that collected some basic demographic data and then asked respondents to tell me whether they were more, less, or just as involved in their local church as they were a decade earlier. Then I asked them to tell me why. I was hoping for 50 or 75 answers.
I got more than 500. Throughout this month, I’ll be sharing some of what I heard from respondents, as well as some thoughts I received from pastors and church leaders when I did a follow up survey with them. A social scientist or statistician would have inquired about the church affiliation and belief system of the respondents. I didn’t, as I was simply trying to get a reading of what people were experience. I am grateful I had the privilege of hearing from people from a wide variety of Christian faith traditions.
Two-thirds of the respondents were female. Approximately 90% of the respondents of both genders were over 40 and under the age of 65.
Of those who answered the question about marital status, 76% are married and nearly 6% are separated or divorced. The figure that surprised me: 17% reported their status as single, never married.
35% had been attending their congregation for 10 or more years, 25% for 4–9 years, 19% for 1–3 years, 9% for less than a year, and nearly 12% reported that they did not attend church. A few people added some words of explanation. A couple of those explained that relocation and travel kept them from regular church attendance. Others listed their status as occasional visitors. One watched church services online, and a couple of others said they do not attend an institutional church. One of those noted, “After ten years at the last church, and lifetime attendance, intentionally quit”.
When asked to describe the demographics of the church they’d most recently attended on a regular basis, 64% reported that there was a generous mix of all age groups in the congregation. An additional 21% reported that their congregation was comprised mostly of people over age 40. 17% said the church they attended was made up of families with children under 18, and 2% said they attended a congregation of singles and young adults. A couple of the commenters noted that age diversity wasn’t an issue in their church, but ethnic and racial diversity was. A couple of others explained that their congregation was connected with a local university or campus ministry. Some of those who attended a church that skewed older said they were always looking to attract young families. One person asked, “When did I get old?”
I asked those who weren’t attending a local congregation about their future plans in this regard, and heard from 23% of those taking the survey. 75% said they had no plans to change what they were currently doing. An additional 25% said they planned to connect with a new congregation. A whopping 0% said they planned to return to their former congregation. Though a few expressed contentment with their current unaffiliated status, most of the commenters expressed sorrow over what they’d experienced in the past at a local church:
- “I was very hurt by my experiences and when I tried to stand up and tell about the very wrong things that were going on, no one would listen or get involved”
- “Hoping to find a community, but losing heart”
- “Tired of the a church that uses all the right Christian lingo with no substance behind it”
- “I consider looking for a new church, but I sort of expect more of the same – to be used and left unappreciated, or worse, find that my gifts are invalidated because I am a woman, or because I have disabled children”.
I missed the survey so my statistic is not counted in, there’s not likely a category for me anyway. As is my lifelong curse, or blessing, depending on how you look at it.
I grew up Baptist but when I was nine the church we attended more or less shunned us and I never joined another church. Over the course of the next six decades I attended church now and again for different reasons but never felt the call to join or belong. You see, what I learned so early on was that God doesn’t live in a building. Humans are always humans, even Christians. I started reading the Bible on my own at the ripe age of nine. Starting from Genesis to Revelation, I read it nearly every day. Over and over. As I grew in my spirit and in my relationship with Christ, amazingly Scripture that I had read many times, gave me new insights and answered questions of that very moment.
I’m only putting this out here so that those who feel betrayed or disheartened by a church experience can know that, in this age, this reprobated age, where good is bad, where there are so many wolves dressed as sheep, you can walk alone and still be part of the Body of Christ – the true Christian Church, the one not built by man’s hands. It is very real.
April, thank you for sharing your experience. You are not alone in walking alone – I know many who have headed for the exit doors of their local church and chosen not to return. (The recent book Church Refugees is an academic study of this phenomenon, in fact. I commend it to anyone interested in learning more, though these days, most recognize that there is a mild exodus in some quarters from institutional churches – and not just by Millennials: https://www.amazon.com/Church-Refugees-Sociologists-reveal-people/dp/1470725924/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1520007882&sr=8-1&keywords=church+refugees)
For those reading this who may not be a part of a local organized church, we’d love to hear from you. What practices keep you growing? What does fellowship look like for you? How do you practice communion and/or baptism?
Grateful for the whole body of Jesus the Messiah. – Michelle
I think I should add this and then I’ll shut up – since you posed the questions.
I always felt set aside, not in a bad way though. It’s been at times a lonely road, not because I don’t have others who understand my singular path, but because when you seek a One on one relationship with Christ, and you don’t have religious traditions, tenets, doctrines or buzz words to guide you, what you end up doing is remaining silent because you don’t speak the language.
How can you explain that because you are so completely surrendered and dependent that you expect confirmation when you pray for it. It might come as a scripture given three different ways in a single day or any of a thousand variations that you have fine-tuned in your walk. Like when you learn that 2+2=4 – you just know it forever.
You know when you are being chastised, you know when you are being challenged, you know when you are being blessed, even if it comes in the form of rain. There is no confusion at all. You don’t question anything because you know He really does have it and you are in HIs grip – not for you- for Him.
When you try to explain this independence and lack of religion to someone who relies on a system to provide the protocols and methods for praying or how to receive, or how to define what being a Christian means, there is often the sound of crickets. So all these years, with the exception of my loved ones who understand, I have kept this to myself and thus I do my alms and ministering anonymously. God knows though. I have one particular joy and I call it my loaves and fishes ministry. God provides, in the strangest ways, small amounts of money, that I save until He sends me someone who needs it. I always know who it is and I can’t even begin to express how humble it makes me to realize He picked me to do His will.
You see serving and ministering for God is what church is for but is so much bigger than an organization can pull together. No overhead, no paperwork.
This is how I worship then. We don’t need a new thing – we just need the original thing.
I find these surveys and discussions on church membership/involvement interesting. I’m a regular reader of Carey Nieuwhof’s blog as he often shares about the changing church. Society is never stagnant and if The Church is really about people, it needs to reflect that changes as well. I’ll be most interested in following this series.