I’ve decided to start my series with a pretty basic question. What is the point of church attendance? Is it important, and if so, in what way? What are the benefits to the individuals and to the church? Which of the Church’s missions does it fulfill? What are the side effects of attending less quantity of church now (with an accompanying increase in “at home” study responsibility)? Does this mean that there is now less focus on church attendance than before?

One of the first things I said we would look at is how each topic fits under the three-fold mission of the Church. Clearly the “big” mission of the Church is to bring people to Christ. The three supporting missions are:

  • Preach the gospel
  • Perfect the Saints
  • Redeem the dead

I usually think of the three-fold mission of the Church as three target audiences: potential converts, existing members and dead people. Activities and programs that relate to temples are mostly (IMO) about the dead, or at least that’s the direct purpose (plus lots of side benefits to the organization). Missions are most directly for the purpose of winning converts (but also with very important side benefits in terms of increasing member commitment, etc.). Using this logic, the primary purpose of Church Attendance is the second one, perfecting the Saints. While it includes preaching the gospel, it’s primarily preaching to the converted, an insider audience.

As to how well church attendance perfects the Saints and brings them to Christ, that’s one point of today’s discussion. Does attending church bring us closer to Christ and help us become more perfect disciples?

Home vs. Church

First, a quick look at some history. People didn’t always attend church regularly. Attendance tracking as we see it today is a byproduct of the Reformation rather than a feature of early Christianity. The Lateran Council of 1215 was the first attempt by the Christian church to legislate church attendance, requiring at least annual attendance (!), although we have to note two caveats: 1) the council was making clerical reforms more than laity (even more of a “!” about annual attendance in that case), and 2) the Church was a huge, integral part of everyday life in a community, not just a matter of Sunday attendance. Anything you wanted to do involved the Church in some way. Plus, there were no competing congregations throughout most of history in the majority of communities. Pluralistic societies were the exception (although they certainly happened–including in Jesus and Paul’s time–throughout history).

Going back to ancient Israel, there wasn’t “church attendance” as there is now, and private worship in the home was viewed with a clerical eye of skepticism. From William Dever’s book Did God Have a Wife (and from the Old Testament) we learn that many households had gods and goddesses in them for worship, primarily related to domestic concerns like childbirth and health of the family. It is common throughout history for homes to be a locus of worship in addition to a centralized worship space (and sometimes in competition with the centralized space). In many faiths, the home includes a shrine or prayer place for daily, routine worship needs. Even in the iconoclastic Reformation, reading a prayer book in the home was expected, along with reading the Bible (an important feature of the Reformation).

Church attendance has always been a way to balance or at times to combat domestic or private worship. The new shift away from more time in church instruction and toward more home-based worship is a way to increase private devotion while maintaining church-sponsored indoctrination. However, the church still creates the home-based guide. Private devotion and study may be in this instance replaced by church-mandated study (since there are only so many hours in the day). Which is the anchor point for our current program–private devotion or bringing correlated materials into existing private devotion? Clearly, this shift shows that church-driven indoctrination is more important to the Church than private devotional study, despite less time being spent at the meeting house.

WWOCD? (What Would Other Churches Do?)

Other churches don’t have the same articulated three-fold mission that we do. In Googling articles about Church attendance, what you are likely to find (as I did) is that church attendance is not necessarily for the same purpose in most Churches with a strong online discussion presence (a lot of Evangelical churches, natch). These churches use attendance to measure their success at getting butts in seats every Sunday (as well as presumably more cha-ching in the collection plate [1]), and there are a lot of arguments about how best to do that, many of which are focused around the medium and the music. Their target audience is mainly the “unchurched.” By contrast, the Mormon Church’s [2] lessons and talks are for insiders, those who already believe.

As a former missionary, I can attest that our lessons and meetings require a lot of explanation to outsiders. We certainly say “Visitors Welcome” and we do invite investigators, but if we had some large group of non-LDS people show up out of the blue, they and we would all be bewildered. We use a lot of jargon and rote answers and unique lesson styles that might perplex outsiders. Even the unwritten dress code can be off-putting to those not familiar with our style of worship.

In fact, we quickly notice when someone is an outsider because they try to participate in ways that don’t quite fit our customary approach. For example, when a woman shouts “Amen” during your talk, you can bet she’s a visitor or investigator or otherwise an outsider. When someone sings part of a song during their testimony or doesn’t end with “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen,” you know that person is not a member. Say what you will, the target audience of our church services are existing church members.

Many of the online discussions (again, mostly Evangelicals) I’ve seen have this audience question in mind, and it’s a marketing question: why do people attend any church, and how can we attract them to ours? Those questions aren’t a very Mormon dialogue for a few reasons. First, everything is run through headquarters and consistency is required; we don’t have the freedom at the local level to change the type of music, artwork, messages, lessons, talks, etc. to any significant degree. There’s no “rock and roll” ward with a jumbotron competing with the folksy mom and pop ward down the street.

Second, we don’t really care if people like it. If they don’t like it, well, they are the problem and they are only hurting themselves–that’s the party line, anyway. If you’re offended, you are the bad person. If you don’t find church uplifting or interesting, you’re not spiritual enough. We might put on a show of shaking our heads sadly that you are so recalcitrant that you would deny yourself blessings rather than attend church, but we really don’t feel any responsibility to change that situation. Our tools to do so are limited, and we are not empowered to make changes.

So What’s the Point?

So if the point of church attendance is not to invite non-members (or preach the gospel), what is the point? If it’s to perfect the Saints, how does church attendance perfect the Saints?

  • Creating a sense of community. Without church attendance, who’s going to show up at your funeral? Who’s going to bring you a meal when you are sick? Who’s going to care about your kids’ achievements? There are things that only a ward family can accomplish.
  • Providing gospel instruction / indoctrination. Without church attendance, members might believe what they actually believe, and not what we want them to believe. Every church creates its own Overton Window of acceptable discourse.
  • Domesticating the Family. People attend church to keep the family on the straight and narrow, particularly children, but also spouses. In fact, many church members see a spouse leaving the church as justification to leave their spouse. That’s putting a lot of onus on the church’s role in our lives. You can hear this reason at play when people say “I know, I just know that if I weren’t in the church, I’d be off doing [insert hedonistic self-destructive behavior of choice.] The church has literally saved my life.”
  • Connecting to the divine. Church attendance can be a respite from the workaday week, a way to feel the Spirit, to ponder the eternal, a touch stone to our spiritual side.
  • Connecting to a grander purpose. This is different than the peaceful respite people seek from their harried lives or the reminder of the divine spark within them. This one relates to the good we are supposed to do as Christians, doing acts of service for others, caring about people and listening to their concerns. There’s something grand about sitting in church and listening to the human stories being shared, the course our lives take, knowing people at all stages of life and different economic levels and backgrounds, and finding ways to lift one another’s burdens or otherwise feel like a cog in the great machine.

Those are a few reasons people find church attendance compelling. The church clearly cares a lot about church attendance since lack of weekly attendance can get you kicked out of BYU or denied a temple recommend. But with those two exceptions, church attendance varies with no real consequences. Wards that are short staffed on callings are particularly forgiving of a weak attendance record.

I read an interesting article by Carey Nieuwhof about the ongoing discussion in megachurches trying to grow a congregation. The article points out that people don’t really need to attend church anymore because they can get uplifting content and music through online sermons, and people are more interested if there are opportunities to connect to service. Only people who are engaged attend church in the long term, and as Pastor Carey puts it: “You don’t attend church. You are the church.”

He decries the consumer model that so many modern Evangelical congregations are built around, that if you create exciting and entertaining content, people will show up. That’s a valid point since church isn’t exactly the place I go for exciting or entertaining content. If I were there to be entertained, I would have quit going a long time ago. I wouldn’t mind being entertained, but it seldom happens or at least it pales in comparison to actual good entertainment I experience routinely. Of course, his article on the short-sightedness of a consumer-focused church ends with a sales pitch for his Church Growth MasterClass. Classic.

On the one hand, the Mormon church does a better job of engaging its members by ensuring we all have, hopefully meaningful, callings and responsibilities that tie us to church attendance. But if those callings don’t feel like they are accomplishing something related to a Christian commitment, then our engagement can be a casualty. And what people find meaningful and purposeful can vary from person to person. Sometimes that’s because they lack vision (without which, the people perish, yes, yes), but sometimes it’s because we give them dumb assignments nobody really cares about, doing busywork. Or because the thing we gave them to do just isn’t their jam.

I found another article that was even better from CNN, outlining the results from a pew survey of 10 reasons people attend church, and 9 reasons they quit attending. People were allowed to choose more than one reason. Here’s why they said they attend:

  1. To become closer to God. (81%)
  2. So their children will have a moral foundation. (69%)
  3. To become a better person. (68%)
  4. For comfort in times of trouble or sorrow. (66%)
  5. They find the sermons valuable. (59%)
  6. To be part of a faith community. (57%)
  7. To continue their family’s religious traditions. (37%)
  8. They feel obligated to go. (31%)
  9. To meet new people or socialize. (19%)
  10. To please their family, spouse or partner. (16%)

Who are these spouse-pleasers? Predictably, mostly men claiming their wives are dragging them to church. Reason #7 reminds me of a joke Todd Glass made. He said “You wouldn’t wear a pair of jeans your parents picked out. Why would you go to a church they chose?”[3]

Less predictable is that most of those who quit attending on the survey were middle-aged women, not men. If churches aren’t pleasing to middle aged women, just who is the target audience? Here are their reasons:

  1. They practice their faith in “other ways.” (37%)
  2. They are not believers. (28%)
  3. No reason is “very important.” (26%)
  4. They haven’t found a house of worship they like. (23%)
  5. They don’t like the sermons. (18%)
  6. They don’t feel welcome. (14%)
  7. They don’t have the time. (12%)
  8. Poor health or mobility. (9%)
  9. No house of worship in their area. (7%)

Women were more likely than men to claim that their reasons (for attendance or quitting) were complicated and to choose multiple options. The majority of respondents (70%) who quit attending but believed in religion still affiliated with a denomination. In Mormon terms, we would call them inactive, but still consider them part of an assigned congregation.

Most of the reasons on the second list could easily be distilled by most Mormon wards into “they were offended,” and therefore easily dismissed (both the reason and the person, in one easy move). That’s a shame because we certainly aren’t learning how to be less offensive disciples of Christ with that self-congratulatory attitude. The majority of middle-way Mormons I know would probably agree with things on both the “reason they attend” and “reasons they don’t attend” list, and it’s revealing that not everything on the first list is positive. About half of those reasons are pretty weak sauce, attending for other people or a sense of duty or coercion.

My own perspective is that the more we stick to the mission of bringing people to Christ, the more everything else will shake out. When church strays from the mission of bringing people to Christ, the most common reason on the Pew survey disappears.

  • What do you think the point of church attendance is?
  • Do some of these reasons resonate for you?
  • If you have stopped attending, what reasons quit compelling you?
  • Do you think church attendance matters to a person’s spiritual life? In what ways? If not, why not?

Discuss.

[1] I certainly don’t think they are just looking for money, but that is one very useful way to measure the effectiveness of your Christian reach and message.

[2] Look, I’m 51 years old, and this is a lot faster to type than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This one feels like a dumb change to me. So sue me.

[3] It’s a funny point, but church is probably more related to legacy, and while I do have several really old pairs of jeans, none of them are multi-generational.