Time for Alarm, or Something Else?

By Denelson83. CC-BY-SA-3.0 "

Alarming Findings

The latest findings from Barna about church attendance and the reasons people say they attend are sobering, to say the least.

Among them:
Overall, this picture comports with the findings of a January 2012 Barna report  which found 2/3 or more of those attending at least once a month said their participation in a congregation affected their lives only marginally, if at all.

It's Probably Even Worse than That

You are reading that right. My strong hunch is what Barna is reporting now may actually be wildly better on some measures than what's actually happening in our congregations.


Because much of this research is based on self-reporting, whether online or through interviews.

And self-reporting of religious participation has been shown to be over-stated by a rate close to 50%.

More than this, the linked article just above by Presser and Stinson in American Sociological Review shows there had been substantial over-reporting for at least thirty years leading into the late 1990s, all of it tending to show an average attendance rate somewhere around 40%. That Barna found an overall decline from 43% attendance in 2004 to 36% in 2014 is still fairly close to the 40% "sweet spot" expected for self-reported attendance.

What Presser and Stinson also show is that when self-reporting is done without the pressure of an interviewer asking a direct question, such as via some forms of online reporting, also used in this study, over-reporting of religious participation becomes a less dramatic factor. 

Responding with Alarm Won't Help... Much

The real numbers are far worse than even what Barna is reporting, yet I'm advising not responding with alarm?

Why not?

Because alarm doesn't help us much. Alarm makes sure we know something is wrong, and may get us moving to do something about it. But the state of alarm itself gives us almost no clues how to make it any better. It tells us to move (or it paralyzes us!), but often makes it impossible for us to discern where or how. It gets us stuck into fight, flight or freeze, when what we may need most is focus.

Questions to Help You Focus Where You Are

And let me suggest the focus begin not at some macro level, with high-level consultations or programs others design to "fix" your situation.

First off, the data gathered by Barna are from so many different contexts that they may provide little actual insight into any particular context, including your own. If you want to learn from Barna, don't go generic. Go local.

Begin at the level of your own worshiping community and the people of the neighborhoods and social networks you and they inhabit. Ask Barna's kinds of questions right where you are. Learn from Prosser and Stinson about the mistake of direct interviewing for some of these indicators. Design an instrument people can fill out on their own, maybe on the Internet, away from any "social desirability pressure bias" a direct interview in any form will generate. Here are some sample questions related to the findings listed above.

1. Did you attend a service of worship this past weekend?

2. Did you attend a service of worship last weekend?

3. In a typical month, how frequently do you typically attend worship? __1 __2  __3 __4 or more times per month

4. Have you attended a service of worship anywhere in the past six months? 

5. On the following items, rank their importance to you on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = not at all important, 2 = somewhat unimportant, 3= neither important nor unimportant, 4= somewhat important 5 = highly important).

a) Attending worship weekly
b) Attending worship regularly (once per month or more)
c) Participating in a small group (other than Sunday School)
d) Participating in a choir or other musical ensemble or solo role
e) Participating in a Sunday School or other spiritual education class
f) Participating in an outreach ministry of the church
g) Participating in an administrative committee of the church
h) Living out my religious beliefs in daily life (work, school, wider community, etc)

6. If you attend worship, please give your top three reasons for doing so, in order.
(Free response)

7. Which of these reasons were satisfied when you attended worship most recently? How frequently were these satisfied within the past month? Within the past year?

8. How much would you say your participation in a congregation affects your daily life? Not at all? A little? Some? A lot? A significant amount?

Demographic Questions (all open-ended)
1. Age
2. Sex
3. Culture(s) you identify with most (ethnicity, interest groups, etc.)
4. Relationship status
5. Relationship to this or any congregation

These questions presented in an online format, not a direct interview, could help give you a snapshot of how the kinds of indicators Barna was testing actually apply where you are. And they'll likely lead you to ponder more questions, depending on what you find. Keep following the questions that surface, and focus not on fixing, but understanding these elements of your contexts the best you can.

You can learn about attendance and some values people place on congregational life from the questions above. But there's also another kind of focus to cultivate, one that precisely involves direct interviews and deep listening. This is about listening for the abundance of gifts people have, love to share, and freely share with one another all the time. This kind of listening is about cultivating focus, yours and theirs, on the discipleship to Jesus they actually live, day by day, with its gems and warts alike. And so it's about cultivating focus on what God is doing in your midst in and through their lives. 

By putting the results of these two ways of cultivating focus side by side, you and they together, where you are, may begin to develop some clues about what congregational life that better supports and grows the discipleship they have or long to have might look like.
And then, together, where you are, aligned with the Spirit's empowering your "second focus" reveals, you might be led to the right next steps-- steps grounded not on fixing problems or meeting needs, but on amplifying the abundant gifts already present among you better than you do now. 

Next: Examples of "Second Focus" listening from a United Methodist pastor