Saturday, August 13, 2011

Why people don't go to church (or synagogue, etc)

Kaplony (Capelni) ChurchImage via WikipediaDo you regularly attend religious services? If you do, you may have some misconceptions about why others do not. If you don't, see if you don't recognize what I am talking about here.

I recently ran across a video advertising a church by talking about why people don't attend. It was interesting to see what they thought were the big reasons. I don't think the reasons they gave are poor, just incomplete.

If religious institutions cannot or will not see the light by accepting and responding what really keeps people away from their doors, they are going to have smaller and smaller numbers who tend to look, think and sound alike.

To quote Guy Kawasake from his book Enchantment, "A diverse team helps make enchantment last, because people with different backgrounds, perspectives, and skills keep a cause fresh and relevant. By contrast, when a naked emperor runs a kingdom of sycophants and clones, the cause moves toward mediocrity."

The reasons the video gave for  not attending church can be summarized as "I feel unworthy" (my life is a mess, I've done horrible things, I don't have nice clothes), "I don't trust religion/church people" (they are hypocrites, they just want money, they make me nervous), and "I don't believe what you believe".

It's not a bad list, but only the first kind of objection is truly addressed. The other two are more likely to be of concern to those who avoid religious services. The participants simply deny that these are problems at their church.

Here is an expanded (but not nearly comprehensive) list of objections and concerns that can turn people off based on popular perceptions of religion (see the study by the Barna Group, for example). I use "church" here merely as a generic term, and mosque or temple or synagogue or the like can be substituted as appropriate when appropriate:

1. People who attend church are hypocrites because they go out of habit, or to be seen, or for some other reason that has no spiritual value. They rarely practice what they preach and they are too concerned with supporting the status quo, even when it is goes against their stated values.

2. People who attend church are judgmental and I don't want to feel uncomfortable because I don't dress the right way, or cannot attend regularly, or because they find out about things I am doing or that I have done that they won't approve of.

3. People who attend church are intolerant and whether with subdued or fiery indignation or with sardonic humor they mock or condemn people who represent the "Other" (those with different views on religion, people who are homosexual, people of a different ethnicity or social class, etc). 

4. People who attend church don't care about you but rather whether you can make an offering, or expand their membership rolls, or agree with their core beliefs. If you can't or won't give them what they want they aren't interested in you or your well-being.

5. I don't believe what people who attend church believe, or at least not all of it or in the same way, and telling me that doubts are welcome doesn't change that. In the service all of the hymns, readings and prayers state and affirm these beliefs, and I don't feel comfortable participating. Nothing anyone says or does before, during or after the service suggests there is another way to look at things or that it is OK to disagree.

Then there are reasons why people who give it a go are inclined not to go back. These can be harder to pin down but here are some good starters for consideration...

6. I don't see people with whom I can identify at church, there are few or no people in my demographic (a combination of age, ethnicity, marital status, education, occupation, family status, gender, sexual orientation, etc) who share my perspective and concerns, and it makes me feel out of place.

7. I find it hard to make a connection with anyone at church and to feel like I really belong.  When people welcome me and when they say they care it feels like something they are supposed to say or do when they have visitors.

8. There is no one I trust at church as a spiritual guide or mentor. There doesn't seem to be anyone that I can relate to or confide in and without that relationship there is no one who I feel can really accept me whether I believe or not or believe the right way or not.

9. There is no challenge or purpose that resonates with me and with my spiritual journey. The service feels boring or pointless, or it seems to be aimed at people with a different set of concerns or needs. I don't see how I can fit in or contribute.

10. I haven't found signs of beauty, grace, enlightenment (etc) while participating in the services. It just doesn't seem to be the right place for me.

Any of these perceptions, individually or collectively, has the power turn people off from attendance.

You don't think your congregation ever turns people off?

Look around at the next service and ask:

  • What kind of diversity do you have? Do most people fit within a narrow range of skin color, age, socio-economic status, etc?
  • Is the congregation shrinking or pre-shrunk? Has it always been small or has it become smaller over time?
  • What are levels of enthusiasm and commitment at the services? Is it kind of ho-hum or dull? Do people regularly skip it or leave early?
  • How many new faces do you see each week, and how many of them stick around? For how long?

Having a shrinking congregation of similar looking people who are largely unenthusiastic that struggles to attract or keep new members doesn't mean you are turning people off, but it is certainly a possibility worth exploring.

Next, take a look at that list of concerns above and imagine what someone with these preconceptions would think if all they had to go on was what they saw and heard at your last service.

If you aren't thrilled with the result, there's your answer. But at least now you have a clearer idea of what to work on to turn things around. Good luck.

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