Thursday, June 26, 2008

Church attendance through the ages

Okay, this is a deceptive post title, since "through the ages" usually references something historic.

This blog has existed for somewhere in the neighbourhood of 36 hours, and it's already way more successful than my other websites. I got 41 votes on the first poll, "How often do you attend worship," and that prompted me to write about just that.

For the first big chunk of my life, church attendance was mandatory. It was simply what you did on Sunday mornings, and no amount of complaining would get you out of it (there was an eventual compromise on dress code, resulting in my now-ingrained idea that T-shirts and jeans are appropriate church wear). As I got into my later years of high school, it became more of an optional thing for a couple of reasons: first, I was older and my parents were giving me more freedom, and second, I think church attendance in my family as a whole was starting to decline. I still went, now out of choice, and I thought I'd keep going to church once I was in college.

I had it all planned out. I'd go to the Eel River Community Church of the Brethren, since I knew Dan, the pastor. There was even a van to take me from the college and, better, a senior who worshipped there and was willing to drive me.

I went once.

It became just too easy to sleep in on Sunday mornings. Church was too early, ERCCOB was too far away, and I assumed I wouldn't like the North Manchester church because it was too big. Of course, there's another option for worship when you're at Manchester College: chapel!

I went to chapel maybe once or twice my entire first semester of college. Somewhere in the middle of that year, though, Jim, the campus pastor, asked me to do something for chapel. I don't remember what - a reading, a skit, a prayer - but I think his secret motive was to trick me into attendance. It worked, and I've scarcely missed a Wednesday since.

I also later discovered that I am in love with the North Manchester Church of the Brethren.

I still usually miss Sunday mornings, so my poll answer on average as a college student would be that I attend worship once a week. However, I had to vote "almost never," since in Mexico I've been to church twice: once to mass in Cuernavaca (who can say no to a mariache band in a cathedral?), and once to the Good Friday service at my host family's congregation of Jehova's Witnesses.

Thinking about this the other day, I started to wonder about how church attendance changes once we leave our families, go to college, and then leave college. (This also got me curious about the age distribution of this blog's fledgling readership, which is why I added the new poll. Scroll down for the old one.)

I wish I could post data that cross-references these two variables - age and attendance - but for now, please comment with your own stories and observations on the matter.


mufasa said...

Church attendance...the ultimate measuring stick for churches to look at one another and see if they are growing, living, or dying. Which is sad really because numbers do not create a community, people do. I come from a COB in Middle PA, and as I have been away from there since college, I have been struck by the fact that they are not the norm. They had maintained attendance in the area of 150-200 (not North Manchester numbers, I know, but for Middle PA, which has 55 churches in 7 counties, I think that is pretty good). But, I never recall them stressing attendance to any one who chose to worship with them. They would stress that they enjoyed the presence of the worshiper in service, but that they should not feel commanded to be there. I think that has been a key point in the COB in the last 10 years. As the numbers have declined there seems to be an increase in saying why someone should be a member of a church. This bothers me. If people want to be a part of a church, that is their choice and their choice alone. If they ask, "Why should I attend church regularly?" then an answer should be ready. But I see it as problematic to provide an answer before the question is asked, especially in this case. I myself echo your church attendance. I went to RSCOB cause I had too for a few years, then I went because I wanted too. I graduated, went to Juniata College (a good old heathen school ;-) ), and attended Stone Church of the Brethren maybe a dozen times over my 4 years there. I participated in the chapel services, mostly because I worked in the campus ministry office and the chaplain (Dave Witkovsky) had been my youth pastor and my mentor for some time. When I graduated, I worked at a Methodist Church for two years so I attended every week, but I was not thrilled about attending because I no longer enjoyed worship, I worshiped because I had too. Then I cam out here to Seminary and I attend when I want and because I want too. I think that is the real drive of attendance...Be there because you want too, not because you have too. When people are forced to do something it often goes poorly. Ever tried to force feed a baby? They throw that food right back up. TO me that is the same with church...when adults are "forced" to go, then they don't want too. But when they want to go, they never leave.

Nadine said...

Sadly, I live in an area where there aren't many CoBs and the ones here haven't met my church community needs.

I'd like to attend worship regularly. However, I don't like the feeling of slogging through services at churches that just don't fit me.

mufasa said...

nadine, what about the current services that you attend "don't fit" you? I ask because I am always intrigued to know what is not reaching one person in one church, but does in others. It is just interesting to me. Thanks for any information that you are willing to divulge

Nadine said...

Mufasa, it's easier to list what I am looking for. So, after all my work in recent years on the Intercultural Study Committee, here's my "I wish" list. (Each item carries equal priority.)

* Urban ('cause I live in a major Eastern city)
* Intentionally multicultural
* Combo of traditional and emergent worship styles
* Rooted in Anabaptist/Pietist heritage
* Embraces our witness through actual evangelism ('cause if we don't share our stories, who will?)
* Has active social justice outreach to and plain old interaction with the neighborhood in which it is located

mufasa said...

Eastern city...hmm...some church that is really really close to an educational institution would probably be your best bet. I know COB's that are part, but not all of that list. I don't think that your list is bad, but I don't know of one that exists. Now, I am not the guru of COB churches or their make up, but I just know what I have seen, and even those that are closer to educational institutions don't have those things. Maybe you should start a church plant ;-)

Anonymous said...

Church attendance is one of those phrases that is almost becoming taboo. It's sad but true. For me, I attended church growing up because of exactly what nico stated. I had to go...rules of the house. I went to college and went to Stone COB some of the time as did mufasa. Contemporary worship was a must since I was the music coordinator for 3 years or so. Now I'm out at seminary and the same pattern is holding true except for different reasons. Before, it was simply about excuses and obligation. Now, it has a more deeper reasoning. A reasoning that has much more to do with rethinking the way the COB does church. After spending two amazing weeks in Brazil with our COB brothers and sisters there I realized that most, if not all of the small churches/house churches were made up of 75% young adults and 15% older adults...and of course lots of children. Community and history kept these people growing and alive. Everything was about community and the violent recent history of Brazil keeps the call for pacifism real. How can we, here in the United States integrate our history and our faith together to create passion around community and God? That's my first thought, I guess I am a theologian. I'm long winded :)

My second thought is about liminal or liminoid. Liminal simply means being in a time of transition, an 'in between' space. In order for growth or change to happen people must experience liminality. Maturation or vision questing are good examples. The process of change is separation, liminality, reincorporation according to Victory Turner in 'The Ritual Process.' Liminoid is the same as liminal except in the last step. Instead of reincorporation the step is out into something completely new. This is where I think the church is right now. The COB may be beginning the journey to that completely new place were our history and our faith can converge. With youth and young adults being in liminal spaces and the COB being in liminoid spaces it makes life very interesting which is a fantastic thing because if every person said 'no' to interesting things, there would be no stories to tell or learn from.

That's all for now from the public theologian.