American pastors face a retention hurdle every time they step into the pulpit. Recent statistics suggest that only thirty-five percent of new members stay in a church for more than five years. A significant percentage of the rest, unfortunately, often join the growing number of “de-churched” individuals who drop out of organized religion. Their ranks are swelling: according to the Barna Research Group, over ten million self-described “born again” Christians do not attend religious services on a regular basis.
One Presbyterian pastor in Los Angeles calls this trend “apatheism”: without strong feelings of loyalty, duty, or need for church. The biggest threat to evangelical churches may not be the current bogeyman of postmodernism, but the apathy of their own members. Been there. Done that. Whatever. What drives apatheism? The answer can be found among cultural, personal, and ecclesiastical reasons.
The prevalence of nonchurch activities, especially amateur sporting events, is a key factor to many families. When Suzy has a soccer game at 10:00 a.m. Sunday morning, church often loses out to the pursuit of a league trophy. A recent report on MSNBC related how churches are responding to the conflict of interest. Interfaith councils are petitioning public and private leagues to refrain from scheduling games before noon on Sundays. Other churches are conducting community surveys to discover the best (i.e., the least scheduled) time for a church service. The result? Saturday at 5:00 p.m. Even a cursory doctrine of the Sabbath has all but disappeared from the American religious and cultural landscape.
A second reason churches are seeing unprecedented turnover rates is due to what pollsters call the consumer mentality among American Christians. The American religious life is now a spiritual marketplace. Believers and seekers alike are inclined to value church and religious community on the basis of their own personal feelings: how well the institution helps the individual achieve personal goals. “The autonomy of the individual believer . . . is greatly privileged” according to Wade Clark Roof’s book, Spiritual Marketplace. When individual needs are no longer satisfied by a particular religious body, the inclination to find a group that does meet those needs is the motivating factor to go church shopping. A church that may have sufficed while one was single may not have all the programs or activities one may desire as the parent of children or teens. Loyalty to a particular religious community lasts only as long as a need is being met. The result is that many churches have embarked upon a campaign of market segmentation, ensuring that their “brand” is attractive to every possible subgroup.
The current disdain among many evangelical groups for official membership also contributes to the problem. Churches that, in an effort to be sensitive to the changing needs of the community, downplay expectations of membership often find that many of their members have no compunction about leaving the church over the most trivial of matters. In order to counteract this trend, many churches have begun to purge old membership rolls, require membership for most leadership posts within the church, and offer rolling membership classes (often concentrating on particulars of doctrine, church history, and ethics) for newcomers to attend. In addition to formal membership, some churches now require the signing of a church “covenant,” detailing several specific requirements of members (see the example at www.9marks.org). This reemphasis on the third mark of the church, discipline, is an important antidote to the consumer mentality that grips most American evangelicals.
Undoubtedly, large churches are reaping the benefits of the evangelical migration from church to church. Although percentages of total people attending church have stayed the same, small churches continue to get smaller (average size down over ten percent in the last decade), and megachurches continue to grow (up over ninety percent over the last twenty years). But the same trend that feeds larger churches could help spell their demise: The U.S. Congregational Life Survey reports that sixty-seven percent of first-time visitors are regular attendees or members of another church. It is highly unlikely that those who wander will ever settle long enough to become a participating member of a local congregation.