Now that it's getting warm, look for church attendance to drop even more.
That's the implication of an article in the current issue of the Baptist Press. Why? Because as Erin Roach reports, sports and other activities for families often trump church time for families, even for those who "regularly" attend church. The trend is most pronounced when it comes to church activities during the week. But as anyone who has driven past a busy soccer field on a Sunday morning knows, the trend affects the fullness of the pews on that day, too.
The Baptist Press looked at a survey of almost 500 pastors done for Leadership Magazine, a publication of Christianity Today. It found that family commitments and kids' activities are definitely bringing down church attendance. It seems that families are looking for more time together. But, ironically, on the menu of things to choose from, church is becoming one more option, even for Christian families. It's an "option" they often find is just not as relevant to them as sports or other events.
Pastors and other church leaders rightly bemoan the trend. I feel their pain, especially when I have to tell my kids they can't go to a Sunday-morning birthday party or Saturday-night sleepover, for instance.
But having watched this trend for some time, I also think the church too often enables parents. As at least one church leader and many parents noted in the Baptist Press piece, too often churches themselves split families up when they come in the door: kids here, adults there, teens in that program around the corner.
Youth programs are great, but historically families worshipped together on Sunday mornings. The age-divided worship programs (versus Sunday school after a church service, for instance) are new to the last half century. Interestingly, in his book "Intergenerational Religious Education," James White reports on studies showing that children who attend worship with their parents are more likely to regularly worship as adults than children who exclusively attend "children's church."
If families want together time, and they don't get it at church, that's one less reason to go. There's evidence, though, that the pendulum on segregating families may be swinging back again, as more and more churches seem to be realizing that as wonderful as their kids programs are, they've got to find ways to build on that and get families worshipping together, so that church becomes a family activity.
But I don't think even that vision will help reverse the trend toward lower church attendance by families if another trend not mentioned in the Baptist Press isn't addressed: Too often today, when it comes to the religious education of their kids, parents seem to think it's up to the "church experts" to handle it, and the church too often enables parents in their thinking.
When it comes to our kids, we are an expert-obsessed culture. We'll hire or find or read or rely on experts for almost every aspect of our kids' lives. Parents may too often think, "I'll let the church handle my child's religious life and give them what they need in that one hour a week."
But parents, by design, are the ones who have the time and intimacy with a child, over time, which is most likely to impact them with religious values. One hour a week, no matter how devoted the teachers. can do little if the parents aren't leading the way. Few people know this better than children's-ministry workers, who typically report that one of their biggest frustrations is that parents aren't more involved in the child's religious upbringing.
If churches communicated to moms and dads (the biblical pattern) that parents are the ones primarily responsible for their child's religious education and growth, might that refill those pews on Sunday mornings? I'm not sure. But I do know that if the church doesn't communicate that message, the church has little chance of winning families to worship before today's generation of youngsters are taking their own kids to soccer practice on Sunday morning.