Emptying Pews Cry For Leadership

Religion is losing its hold on our lives. This realization is inescapable, given the marked decline in the number of people attending church services. In 1996 the Barna Research Group released a report which illustrated church attendance was declining steadily and that churches were losing “entire segments of the population: men, singles, empty nesters…” In 2006, Keith Barltrop wagged a cautionary finger towards a 2004 ecumenical survey which showed that 73% of those surveyed believed that the “clergy failed to prepare congregations for the challenges to their faith that the culture of our times throws up.” In that same year AgapePress covered a study which concluded that only about 20% of Americans go to a church on Sunday, which is a much lower figure than previously anticipated. More recently, Rebecca Ryan of the Carolina Reporter quoted a poll which “suggests that 30% of Americans are either changing their religion or abandoning it [sic] all together.”

Based on these striking figures, the obvious question is: why are pews emptying? Are people losing faith in their god(s)? In their priests? In their fellow humans? Or could it be that congregations’ demands are becoming more sophisticated, and that churches simply are not measuring up to these advancing standards. As I explain below, my perspective leads me to believe that there is a direct correlation between the leadership provided through the church and the level of interest congregations display in attending services.

For full disclosure, I am historically a non-religious person (in a way, a product of the trends I illustrated previously). I have never attended a church for any sustained period of time, and before this year could probably count my visits on both hands. Nevertheless I have been, rather non-traditionally, spiritual. I have been especially eager to find the right answers, or even the right questions, to some of life’s more esoteric issues. Some people find solace in reason, some in religion. With several significant changes in my life recently, I chose to investigate the church as a possible way to enrich my intellectual and spiritual sides. To this end, I have been visiting a different church, of a different denomination, each week. This experience has been interesting and educational. I recommend it highly to anyone.

But back to the issue at hand: my survey of churches led me to consider why the services I attended always felt so (physically) empty. I began asking members of each congregation: is the church always this empty on a Sunday, or is it just an off week? Invariably the responses I received suggested that every year, the church loses another family, or two, or three. In my personal experience, the vast majority of attendees are those who are elderly or terminally ill. And, of course, as parents or those who are near to becoming parents stop attending church, it follows that their children will be less likely start of their own accord.

In the recent weeks, my consideration of why people were abandoning the religious ship intersected with my passion for the study of leadership. Assuming that people are not losing their faith wholesale at the same rate that church attendance is dropping, the obvious reason why congregations are diminishing is because people are not getting something they need out of their church experience – there is an x-factor that is simply missing. So what is that x-factor? I suggested that the answer, the x-factor, is leadership.

In this process of surveying churches and religions, I have observed some church practices which do not make sense to me. The attendees arrive, are directed to sing far too many songs (few of them of intellectual or musical worth), listen to uncredentialed individuals pray, hear a short sermon by a usually lackluster priest, sing another half-dozen songs and then depart for an after-church service or for home. Pardon my broad-brush strokes here, which I have probably overloaded with hyperbole. Nevertheless, the point I am getting at is that very rarely (in fact, not at all in the past two months for me), do church services seem to provide much in the way of guidance for attendees. Instead, it seems that the point of today’s sermons are to paraphrase a biblical tale, maybe show how a parallel event is occurring in today’s society, and to praise the lord.

In absolute seriousness, I think the last thing any god would want for his or her worshippers is to stand around and, inanely, offer an interminable amount of praise each week. Isn’t praising your god something you can do privately? Can’t you allow your actions speak your praise for you, rather than empty words? The answer is, of course, yes. And I think more and more people – especially those who belong to the millennial generation – feel this way.

So what does this mean for the church? It means that the church must live up to its proclaimed role as “spiritual leaders.” What is the fundamental reason people go to church? It is not to learn about the bible. That can be done on one’s own, or through Sunday school. It is to find inspiration and instruction for our lives.

How are churches to provide this leadership, this inspiration and instruction? Really, it is simply a question of leadership. The presiding spiritual leader must be our twenty-first century shepherd. This is accomplished by

  • The preacher (obviously) being a role-model; showing others how life is to be lived through example.
  • The preacher constructing sermons which are not sustained hero-worship (what hero wants to be worshiped, and what worship-hungry hero is worthy of it?). Rather, sermons must explore existential issues which we struggle with and offer instruction, inspiration, or open a path of spiritual exploration with the aim of individuals resolving or coming to terms with these issues. The best sermons will focus on the individual and challenge them, will be opportunities for the individual to learn about him/herself. Of course, these sermons will rely on adeptly chosen scriptural material in order to highlight a particularly valuable apercu or to present something for the individual to reconcile with.
  • The preacher treating him or herself like leader of a business. Don’t have a new or worthwhile sermon? Why in god’s name would you have your congregation meet to hear something less than stellar? So that they can become more disinterested? So that you damage your ethos as a preacher? This simply isn’t a good idea. Preachers must evaluate themselves and their church regularly and adapt. Perhaps some churches will only meet once every two weeks. Perhaps some will gather for a religious service once every two weeks and in the off weeks meet for fellowship, community service, or some other activity where the congregation puts its money where its mouth is. This sort of adaptation is not bad, but can constitute a positive and value-add change. Sure the congregation will not have as much “face time” with their god, but they are more likely to remain worshippers for a longer period when they feel their time is invested well and that they are making an impact in their community.

Although I realize the irony in quoting such a figure, in the end the state of the world is much as Oscar Wilde described it:

“The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly – that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self. Of course they are charitable. They feed the hungry, and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. Perhaps we never really had it. The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us. ”

People’s souls are starving  and churches are not providing the leadership they hunger for. Too many churches falter when it comes to creativity and seek to fill an hour’s worship with jingles, repetitious prayer, and empty sermons. If the pews are to be filled, religious leaders must begin to focus on the true needs of their flock: the need to know themselves, the need to belong, the need to develop one’s individual faith. In short, they must make their services matter to the individual which, as statistics shows, they simply don’t.



Barna Research Group, “Church Attendance,” 1996. [Click here.]

Keith Barltrop, “Why are Fewer People Going to Church?” The Universe Newspaper, April 6, 2006. [Click here].

Fred Jackson and Jody Brown, “Fewer Americans Than Thought Going to Church, Says Study,” AgapePress, 2006. [Click here].

Kirk Hadaway and Penny Marler, “Did you Really Go To Church This Week?” The Christian Century, May 6, 1998, pages 472-475. [Click here].

Rebecca Ryan, “Fewer People Filling Up Pews,” The Carolina Reporter, August 10, 2008. [Click here].

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