I am currently driving to church. With the assistance of
“Rose Computers and Networks”, we are updating our net-
work a bit in order to make things a little more stable for
daily church operations as well as Sunday Services; I am
going down there to see how things are going. But, I must
confess, I don’t really want to go. It is cold and it has been
raining all day. Today is the kind of wet, cold day that just
seeps into your bones. It’s the kind of day to curl up with a
good book and a hot cup of tea. As I drive down I ask my-
self, “ Why do I do this? Why do I go to church?”
This question then broadened out to ask “Why do we go
to church?” This seems like a good question to ask in a
time when, according to NPR, church attendance in this
country is at an all time low. In 2020 only 47% of Ameri-
cans belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Accord-
ing to Pew Research, attendance is at about 85% of what it
was before the pandemic. The most notable drops in atten-
dance have come from Millennials. The most common rea-
sons given were: Contrary political beliefs; the congrega-
tion was judgmental; and a lack of connection to other
members. From a marketing perspective (occupational haz-
ard), it is clear that houses of worship are having trouble
meeting the needs of the market.
When you think about it, it seems that we engage in re-
ligion for two major reasons. The first is a need for secu-
rity. This would be a connection to a deity that will secure
our future in this life and the next. The second would be a
need for affiliation, to be part of something larger than our-
selves in the way of a community. Being non-dogmatic,
Unitarian Universalism definitely lands more heavily on the
second of these two influences. But human needs don’t
really change that much. Maslow’s hierarchy is as relevant
today as it was when it was developed in 1962 and the
human needs of security and affiliation are just as strong
as ever, I think.
So then why is affiliation and attendance dropping? I am
sure that there are several reasons but from what I can
tell, I think that churches (Christian denominations espe-
cially) have long ago abandoned really catering to these
basic needs and instead, attempted to cultivate a sense of
obligation (some might say coercion). Going to church be-
cause it is expected. In other words, instead of going to
church because it gives me a sense of connection to some-
thing larger than myself, I go because if I don’t, bad things
will happen (censure, ostracization, damnation, etc.). To be
honest, some denominations have stressed this more than
others. I think that UU churches do a better job than most
of offering a sense of connection. However, if a sense of
connection hasn’t already been cemented in, then situ-
ational changes (like a pandemic) can sever this relation-
ship. As such, when a more appealing solution appears, the
market will shift to that new solution and away from the
old one.
This is what I think is happening with church atten-
dance today. Other forms of community and connection
such as social media, etc, are fulfilling these needs . One
may argue that these new forms of connection aren’t
sustainable or nourishing, but that doesn’t really matter.
The market will always gravitate towards what it wants,
not necessarily toward what it needs. This puts churches
in a quandary, especially dogmatic ones. What do we do
when we sell broccoli and the market wants cake? Do we
wait until the market tires of cake? By then another,
sweeter, offering may take its place. So what, then, is
the solution?
If I had the answer to this question, I would be on the
lecture circuit raking in huge speaking fees, but I do
think there are some clues. Sometimes, we need to grow
and sometimes we need to affirm who we are. Churches
have positioned themselves as places of growth (despite
being the most conservative of social institutions), spe-
cifically spiritual growth. I don’t think it is a coincidence
that as the world seemingly becomes more chaotic and
frightening, church commitment (as it is positioning itself
right now) is in decline. People, I think, are looking for
comfort and validation before striving to grow into some-
thing greater. Hallmark movies tend to do a better job of
providing comfort than do churches. Perhaps a slight re-
positioning
away from obligation and
towards connection
and reaffirmation might bring back the market. Perhaps
we start with cake and then offer broccoli. For it appears
to me that the churches that offer cake never get around
to offering anything nourishing, and the churches that
offer broccoli rarely offer cake. Maybe churches should
start with connection and build toward commitment, not
obligation.
I will consider this as I drive through the cold rain to
church