Pastoring a church in the United States in the 21st century is a much different endeavor than it was as recently as even 15 years ago. The rapid changes is technology, the growth of other worldviews in the fabric of the United States, and the ever-increasing distance between normalcy including the attendance of church on a Sunday morning, make it very difficult for pastors in recent years. Many churches have emerged that are “seeker-friendly” in nature; attempting to draw constituents with flare and entertainment. Jeremy Edmondson (2013) of Resurgence Church in Indiana echoed what some others have felt when he said,
“Worship has been replaced with entertainment, Biblical preaching has given way to motivational speeches, and attendees have been left feeling emotionally warm, but ignorant of Scripture, all for the sake of catering to the whims of the lost” (p. 63).
What is it that motivates people to attend Abundant Life Assembly of God in Grand Prairie, TX? The church would not be considered a seeker-friendly church although much effort has been placed in the media presentation of the church. The praise and worship style would be considered contemporary in nature with the inclusion of a modern or traditional hymn each week. The preaching is high energy in nature and the services are usually out around noon each Sunday.
Much focus has been placed on the attendance numbers of the church in the United States over the past several decades. This topic is one that seems to be dynamically changing all the time as the culture of the United States is in constant movement. The Melting Pot brings cultures, practices, and beliefs from around the globe and cannot help but create a new blend of church once all things are injected into a new world. However, a significant portion of the domestic society is made up of second, third, and even fourth generation Americans who have grown up in a newer American church with all of its various flavors and denominations.
In an effort to be intentional about keeping church attendees at Abundant Life, and reaching out to potential new constituents, a review of why people attend and what motivates their participation is helpful. Abundant Life is a multi-generational and multi-cultural church as is Grand Prairie, where the church meets. Cadge and Ecklund (2006) argue that people who are married will attend church more regularly than those who are not married “because of the desire people might have to socialize their children in their traditions” (p. 1580).
Another strong motivation that people have for regular church attendance is simple happiness in life. “Numerous studies find religion to be closely related to life satisfaction and happiness” (Lim & Putnam, 2010, p. 929). This is in part because people build strong relationships through church attendance. Lim & Putnam (2010) properly identify that friendships made within a congregational structure have highly positive effects on one’s happiness when done with the presence of a strong religious identity. They find little evidence that “other private or subjective aspects of religiosity affect life satisfaction independent of attendance and congregational friendship” (p. 914). Community and relationships built in church are important for the church itself as well as for constituents.
Children appear to be one of the driving factors for church attendance in the United States.
“The greatest concern of Christian parents and church leaders revolves around whether or not their children will be committed to Jesus Christ and to His service upon graduating from high school” (Gibson, 2004, p. 7).
I recently administered a survey to the constituency of Abundant Life. The respondents were asked questions to identify a positive or negative view of church growing up as well as how they viewed church in the more recent years. They were also asked questions relative to their current involvement in church. The survey was made up of 16 questions and was taken by 120 participants of which 90 (75%) have attended more times than they can count. The weekly service attendance of youth and adults ages 11 and up is around 160 in the sanctuary making the response rate significant.
Questions were posed with specific options to identify motivation for what individuals’ rate as important. Two questions in-particular ask participants to rate five different things in the order of importance for their selection of a church home. 12 areas of ministry were rated on a scale of one to ten. Volunteering participation was identified in several areas of the ministry. Lastly, people were asked to identify how much they value certain aspects of what Abundant Life currently offers or has previously offered.
The results identified the suspicion that what the church offers for children and youth are among the most important things people are looking for. 80% of all respondents placed the children’s program in the number one or two position of what they are looking for when asked about children, youth, theology, good preaching, and praise and worship style. 53% place the youth in the same regards while the music only ranked 10% in either the number one or two slot, and the preaching only received 12%.
When asked to rank elements that are not easily or quickly changed for a church such as size, location, cultural or generational diversity, or length of services, 54% indicated the length of the service was most important while only two percent valued the location that high. Even though the music and preaching was ranked significantly lower of what’s important, the church received a favorable mark for both (73% for music and 87% for preaching) identifying that those who attend don’t do so in spite of the above. The youth program received an astounding favorable view (87%) with 59% giving it top marks. The children’s program was similar (81% favorable and 50% with top marks). Participants also identified areas of fellowship to be of great importance with 70% ranking Connect Groups at six or above on a scale of one to ten.
What can be identified is that the children and youth departments are important as well as the opportunity to connect and fellowship with other individuals. It is not conclusive with the information currently available, but another potential hypothesis for future investigation is that individuals are interested in a shorter Sunday service because they are in attendance more so for the benefit of their children then for themselves. If this is the case, creating intentional opportunities for community and fellowship building may be of greater importance.
Is the primary church attendance for the average Christian to ensure that their children are raised in church? When first seeking a church home, was it the preaching or worship that drew them or the entertaining service? How important are the children and youth programs in the selection of a church? To further investigate this issue, I followed up this quantitative study with a qualitative focus group of 14 participants who are regular attendees of Abundant Life and represent nearly 10% of the average adult attendance. The ages ranged from 15 to individuals in their 70’s and included members from African American, Hispanic, and Caucasian ethnicities. The socioeconomic backgrounds included those from families on government assistance to individuals working at the executive levels with successful professional backgrounds. There were singles, married couples, divorced people, and individuals with and without children. Some of the participants grew up in a Pentecostal church, some came from a worldly background, and others recently converted from a Catholic background. Several of the participants had experienced a time in their life when they did not regularly attend church.
While the assumption entering into this focus group was that children heavily motivated the selection of a church for attending, the participants did not echo that thought. One participant said that she continued attending church because she wanted her children to experience what she did growing up. However, that wasn’t the motivation for attending. Those that grew up in a Catholic home seemed to go to mass as a child because their parents wanted them to grow up in church even though they did not really practice their faith. These were some of the only examples of children being the actual motivation for attendance.
The greatest expressed motivation for attending a church was the desire to feel connected to a community. This is interpreted through stories of accepting and friendly churches that the participants previously attended.
They used words like “they were warm and inviting,” they were “family.” One participant directly said that he was “looking for connection.”
A couple that participated shared of occasions when they searched for a church home for several months. Churches that seemed to have decent programs for the family and good preaching and worship were not sufficient. They noted that the church was “too crowded,” and even loud as a result. They stated that they “wanted to get to know people.”
The participants of this focus group chose to attend Abundant Life because they saw the likelihood for connection. The children, youth, and even the quality of the Sunday morning service did seem important. However, if there wasn’t likelihood for relationships to be built, they would not have chosen Abundant Life. One participant even eluded to the fact that he looked around at all the elderly people who were pillars in the church, and wanted to be connected to the body enough that he could see himself growing old in this community of believers.
This qualitative study is indicative of a greater need to focus on making sure connectivity is still an easy byproduct of the various offerings of church. Placing emphasis on children and youth programs is responsible, but does not seem to be as important as placing emphasis on relationship building among the believers when looking at motivation for attendance.
Cadge, W., & Ecklund, E. H. (2006). Religious service attendance among immigrants: Evidence from the New Immigrant Survey-Pilot. American Behavioral Scientist, 49(11), 1574-1595. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from http://abs.sagepub.com/content/49/11/1574
Create online surveys. (n.d.). KwikSurveys: Free online survey & questionnaire tool. Retrieved February 27, 2014, from http://www.kwiksurveys.com
Edmonson, J. D. (2013). Seeker friendly churches and the problem of unregenerate congregations. Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, 26(50), 63-76. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from the EBSCO Host database.
Firebaugh, G., & Harley, B. (1991). Trends in U.S. church attendance: Secularization and revival, or merely lifecycle effects? . Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 30(4), 487-500. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from the EBSCO Host database.
Gibson, T. S. (2004). Congregational connectivity: The key to keeping youth in the church. The Journal of Youth Ministry, 3(1), 7-14. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from the EBSCO Host database.
Lim, C., & Putnam, R. D. (2010). Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction. American Sociological Review, 75(6), 914-933. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from the SocINDEX database.
Schwadel, P., Mccarthy, J. D., & Nelsen, H. M. (2009). The continuing relevance of family income for religious participation: U.S. white Catholic church attendance in the late 20th century. Social Forces, 87(4), 1997-2030. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from the EBSCO Host database.
Tyers, P. (2005). Engaging with the religion of those who do not attend public worship. Implicit Religion, 8(1), 53-63. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from the EBSCO Host database.
Walker, D., Francis, L., & Robbins, M. (2010). You don’t have to go to church to be a good Christian: The implicit religion of rural Anglican churchgoers celebrating harvest. Implicit Religion, 13(3), 319-325. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from the EBSCO Host database.