What excuses do people give for not going to church?

Family Feud has dealt with this matter.  I know that what the “survey says” on Family Feud is not scientifically based (in terms of conducting in-depth anthropological, sociological, psychological, or ethnographic studies) or even close to being statistically valid (in terms of surveying a sufficiently large numbers of individuals), but still the survey results can provide some insights into the hearts and minds of congregants.

According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 59% percent of U.S. churches average under 100 worshippers each week; the median average Sunday church attendance is 75 people.  (See statistics for 2009 study at: http://www.newchurchweblog.org/?p=81)  And how many people does Family Feud ask their survey questions?  One-hundred.  So think of each Family Feud question as a glimpse into the musings of a single, typical, local church.  Or simply put:

Survey says = Church says!

And now to the question before us: “What excuses do people make for not going to church?”

Here is a picture of my TV screen recapping the “top six answers” to that Family Feud question:

 

What can we learn from this?  Let me suggest some possibilities:

1) “Have to work” only garners 3% of the responses.  With the call to “defend and promote my neighbor’s good name” (see Heidelberg Catechism Q. 112), let us assume these respondents have in view emergency room attendants, power plant workers, police officers, and others who perform acts of necessity.  And if you really think about it: Americans in general have no problem with ceasing from work on Sunday, be they Sabbatarian or not.

2) A better fight may be had with Saturday night, alright, for 27% in the survey cite “Tired/Out Late.”  What shall we make of this?  Well, rather than suggest more folk ought to stay home and get to bed earlier, let me suggest that more Christians go out into the heart of Saturday night.

Let me here share a personal story:

In the mid-80’s, as a bachelor living in Sacramento, California, I had fallen into a period where I had ceased attending church altogether—for well over a year.  If I woke up before noon, it was only to watch the NFL while still under the sheets.  One weekend a friend was visiting from the Bay Area.  He was a recent convert to Christianity, and he insisted on going to church that Sunday.  So he consulted the Yellow Pages and picked a church for us to attend.  I very much enjoyed the worship, but afterwards gave little thought to returning the next week.  But that very next Saturday, on another typical night out with my work buddies, I happened upon all the elders from the RCUS church where I had attended the previous Sunday.  They too were out to see the Briefcase Blues Band (a Blues Brothers tribute band) at Harry’s Bar & Grill.  There, drinking their Beck’s beers with their wives, the elders spotted me and invited my buddies and me to join them.  Long story short: I attended that local church every Sunday thereafter, at first just the morning worship service, but soon the study hour as well, then Sunday evening worship too, and eventually I became a communicant member (of the first church I ever committed to joining).

May I dare suggest to local churches that your future Sunday morning is to be found on Saturday night?

3) Consider next the 20% who responded “Sick/In Pain.”  James writes, “Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call the elders of the church, and let them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14)  I’ll not comment on this use of oil, but let me suggest there is an opportunity in many churches for better communication between elders and their flocks.  In this age of ubiquitous cellphones, text-messaging, Facebook updating, and tweeting, there really is no excuse for poor communication between elders and their flocks.  Note this communication starts with the sick: If you are sick, call your elder!  Elders, be open to such calls.  And visit the sick, not just the very sick, but the 20% Sunday sick.  Frankly, it’s tempting to think those who stay home from church are simply lazy; but perhaps it is those of us who neglect to go visit the sick that are all the lazier.

4) More survey respondents cite “Ball game on” (38%) than “Play sports/Golf” (3%).  In his commentary on Galatians, Luther makes the distinction between passive righteousness (all-sufficient salvation by grace) and active righteousness (insufficient effort by works).  Note that we see greater sports passivity (game-viewing) than sports activity (game-playing) cited in the survey findings.  While all sin against God is active rebellion, maybe a distinction here too can be made, between active unrighteousness (on the fairway) and passive unrighteousness (on the couch).  And maybe for every person actively perfecting their game (for a better life now), tenfold more are to be found passively amusing themselves to death.

Another possible lesson: let me suggest that those who do place their bodies in the pews on Sunday morning may still have their hearts and minds on the “ball game on” television back home.  Perhaps some pastoral prayers along the following lines may be in order (especially in the Pacific Time zone): “Lord, I want to thank you for the invention and awesomeness of the DVR and TiVo.  Please help those who may be here preoccupied with the ballgames going on right now, and with how their fantasy football teams may be doing, to let it go.  Let them be confident in the performance of these recording devices, so that they may focus solely on the greater awesomeness that is to found in communion with you in this hour.”  More such realism might help land more people in the pew, for people might actually want to join in such honest prayer before the Lord.

5) Forbid it that anyone might think they have “Nothing to wear” (2%) to church.  While this Family Feud survey response may seem ridiculous at first glance—the excuse seems like such a, well, such an excuse—do recognize that a church can signal to visitors that they are unwelcome when because of outward appearances they are not embraced as equally as the more fashionably attired.  I have witnessed this with my own eyes: individuals completely ignored by pastor, elders, and well-mannered parishioners, too pre-occupied with small talk to truly greet someone who looks out of the norm.  It is with this lack of looking and loving that we ought to truly feud.

I close with this prayer: “Lord, open our eyes.  Let us affirm that we all stand naked before you.  We are the 2%.  Do please clothe us with your righteousness.  Amen.”

James Gilmore is the co-author of the bestselling book, The Experience Economy. A prolific speaker and popular business consultant, Jim has also been a guest on White Horse Inn and has recently written for Modern ReformationJim is a Batten Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. He is also a Visiting Lecturer in Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, where he teaches a course on cultural hermeneutics.