What Do People Experience in Church?

An article by Taylor Burton-Edwards caught my attention this week.  He speaks about recent studies about the effect (or lack of it) congregations have on people who attend.

He cites the Barna Study on “What People Experience in Churches,” which has these gems:

“One of the most significant gaps uncovered by the research was the fact that most people cannot recall gaining any new spiritual insights the last time they attended church. Asked to think about their last church visit, three out of five church attenders (61%) said they could not remember a significant or important new insight or understanding related to faith.”

“The survey also probed the degree to which people say their lives had been changed by attending church. Overall, one-quarter of Americans (26%) who had been to a church before said that their life had been changed or affected “greatly” by attending church. Another one-fourth (25%) described it as “somewhat” influential. Nearly half said their life had not changed at all as a result of churchgoing (46%).

On the generational issue:

“Another noteworthy research finding is that older adults generally report the most favorable experiences at churches. This is not altogether surprising, but the level of disaffection of young adults is striking. The youngest generation—a segment Barna Group labels Mosaics, ages 18 to 27—is significantly less likely to describe positive outcomes while attending congregations. In particular, there were significant gaps between young adults and older adults when it came to feeling part of a group that cares for each other, experiencing God’s presence, knowing the church prioritizes assisting the poor, and being personally transformed.”

So to summarize: Burton-Edwards says,

“Let me try to summarize this bluntly. The vast majority of church attenders, 2/3 or more, report that congregations either do not or only marginally affect their lives. 

Even more to the point, perhaps: Congregations make little or no difference in the lives of most people who attend them.”

Wow!  Really?  On one level this startles me.

Serving in the local church for 20 years & raising our son in a community of faith have been important parts of my life.  And when I reflect on if the local church has changed me, I would have to say it has and in a positive way.  I connect with a wider group of people, understand a variety of ages and enjoy connecting with people I would never really have known because of the church. I found God in my local church and it made a real, transformative difference.

But, I also read this and recognized that it is saying something which lines up with what many of us already knew, or are starting to see—I hear it from clergy friends, friends who are part of churches and I feel it myself—there is a problem.

But what is it? Is the church is no longer worth our time or energy?

Because more and more of us are leaving—the recent Pew study shows the growth among folks who are leaving as well as the number of folks who are never connecting. So, is the church passé?

If many church attendees get little out of church, why do we spend so much, time, energy and money on it?  Should we bother anymore?

If you (like me) answer, yes and believe we need the church, it would be natural to wonder what we might do to have Sunday have a great impact.

Do we need better more interesting sermons?

Do we need better music?

What do we need to change, improve on, and shine up?

Changing up worship would have been the answer in the past.

In the 1990’s that was needed, but by 2001 or so things started to change and by 2004 the church world (at least for mainline Southern California type folk) changed drastically. What this meant in practical terms was changing around worship didn’t bring the results it once did.

So, should we leave things alone?  No. Futz with worship please.  Do make changes to your preaching (if it isn’t connecting) or music (if you think contemporary means songs from the1990’s and traditional means slow like a funeral dirge) and yes, do change up the order of worship and do welcome & connect people well.  This is important.

But don’t spend all your time there because something else needs your attention. And it isn’t something YOU need to do, but it is something that will take a major shift in a church’s understanding.

BUT FIRST, notice one important thing the church does well as reported by the study, the church does connect other people with each other and God.

The research is helpful here, it reads:

“Another aspect of the research was to explore whether people feel connected with other human beings at church. The study revealed that nearly seven out of 10 respondents (68%) said when they attend church they feel “part of a group of people who are united in their beliefs and who take care of each other in practical ways. On the other hand, one-quarter (23%) of those with church experience selected the description that church feels “like a group sharing the same space in a public event but who were not connected in a real way.” One in 11 (9%) said they were simply “not sure.”

I actually think this is really important.  We are to care for one another, we do connect with one another and God & that has implications for Sunday morning.  It matters and when we don’t do it well (like with younger generations or that 23%) we need to make changes. Connection matters.

So here is my radical thought about Sunday. Maybe Sunday morning is for this –connecting people to one another and God.  This is the foundation, but it is really more, it is the point of Sunday.

Maybe worship is about making the opportunities for entry-level relationships—

And, for me this is why preaching, music, welcoming (and more) still matters.  I say this because if you want to begin a relationship (have new people come and attend) you need to have things ready that interest, invite and welcome people.

In fact the Reveal Study shared that what congregations can be good at is helping people first encounter Christ and connect with other followers through the Sunday gathering.  This is where we can and should SHINE!

But, it is really an entry-level experience.

Entry level? By that I mean the kind of relationships one can have in a public space—these relationships have boundaries of time and numbers of people that keep things on a level that while (at its best) is warm and friendly, making mature disciples who make other disciples isn’t for the most part going to happen. I want to be clear in saying that yes, congregations matter, but if you want to make disciples, build leaders and move a church forward worship isn’t going to do it for you, no matter how awesome the preaching and music is.

We have put our eggs in the worship basket and that isn’t making disciples who make disciples.  It isn’t growing people who can articulate and live their faith.  It isn’t helping burned out pastors who are doing more and more and becoming less and less effective and local churches who have less and less financial resources and lay people.

And here is the word of grace you need to hear: it was never meant to.  Worship was never meant to take people to that next level.

So, if the thing we do well as local congregations is entry level welcome people and give them a taste of loving and following God, we need to acknowledge that we need something in addition (which we will get to in a minute) to worship.

But a word on worship first: If you are going to change up worship, keep in mind that key is helping people connect to God and others – so maybe, just maybe….

+interactive sermons – 1 main idea, some real stories and discussion, response time, small groups interacting during worship, time to write or use social media as a response…

+more space and flow to music—instead of singing the song all the way through, making some space for instruments to lead us into a space to take a deep breath, reflect on what we are singing or to pray. Also time for “just our voices” so we can hear one another sing.  And, changing up where the music is and what instruments are used…

+more time for prayer and silence – done in a variety of ways that are authentic to the community.  Prayers of the people in small groups or –if the church is small–shared in the larger community, times for SILENCE, guided meditation, prayer stations, praying in color, slide shows of photos of people and places that need prayer with prayerful music underneath, tweeting prayers, finding a prayer partner for the week…

+ Communion done in a variety of way, some formal Great Thanksgiving as well as a time when several people who know the story tell it as the pastor fills in pieces and presides, Communion set in various place in worship (and in the worship space) for example,  set in the prayer time or set as the benediction (as a call to action), I think Communion and its expression is vital in this next chapter for us all…

I know you have ideas too!  I think the idea is to recognize that the 3 point sermon (or whatever it is for you) just doesn’t work like it used to and it is OK to let it go and see where the Spirit is moving.

Well, I was going to transition now to what I think does need to come alongside worship and how that might happen but this is a bit long – so I will post that next.