One of the more noticeable causes of congregational anxiety is less frequent weekly church attendance. Pastors and leaders of small congregations can relate–looking out over half-empty seating on a Sunday which “should” be full. The Barna Group, a nonprofit church research and statistics organization, reports that regular Sunday worship attendance is trending down. Over the ten-year period of 2004 to 2014 regular church attendance declined from about three or more weekends per month to once every four to six weeks. This trend seems universal across the United States, effecting churches large and small. Even churches that are growing in membership report spotty weekly attendance numbers. What can we make of these experiences?
I would suggest one factor driving reduced regular attendance may be decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is a psychological theory that states the more choices you face, the weaker your willpower becomes, leading either to bad decisions, decision avoidance or just generalized fatigue. You’ve come face to face with decision fatigue at the supermarket, with so many varieties of cereal, snacks, sport drinks, chewing gum and soda or at an electronics store (“High-Definition or Flat screen? Or both?”). Psychologists have noted, for example, that after mall shopping people perform less well on simple math problems. In other words, too many choices can lead to a shut down of our normal decision-making process.Decision fatigue certainly sounds like a real 21st Century phenomenon. Could it be keeping some from regular church attendance? After all, stores are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so any of the grocery shopping I fail to do on Saturday morning, I can get done before the weekend is out. But that’s not the only choice (shopping vs. Sunday worship) I have to make. Many people I know have flexible work schedules–but which days, or nights, should I work? The kids have had sport practice 4 out of 7 days this week. They’re on the traveling team. I want them well-rounded, so I have to get them to music lessons. I’m always available to my work because of my cell phone. I take business calls at all hours of the day or night–even in my car through hands-free technology. I have friends and colleagues who expect me to respond immediately to emails, texts, Facebook messages, and voice messages (none of which, by the way, existed a generation or two ago). I have to choose a brand of cell phone, a phone carrier, a health insurance plan, an internet carrier, a school for my children (charter, public or private). Add in the bills that need to be paid, online shopping and activities, apps that follow your diet and exercise, and you can see that Americans are awash in decisions.
One of the well-known effects of having too many choices is decision avoidance. Decision avoidance usually sides with the state of things as they are, the status quo. In other words, some people in our communities just feel they can’t put another potential decision in their schedule (to attend or not attend Sunday worship). It’s refreshing to sleep in, putter about the house, play with the kids, do some housework, and maybe, have time to go to church. Yet, I’ve put in so much effort to making decisions Monday through Saturday; I just can’t expend the mental energy on another important decision, such as church attendance. (Have you ever tried to get four kids ready to go out on a Sunday morning for church? Do you know how hectic that is? How many choices have to be made? Snacks for the car, outfits, diapers, shoes, and so on.) The church hour comes and goes. And anyway, worship will still be there next week. The cycle repeats.
I haven’t talked much about the church’s role in this post. I suppose there are many things churches could do to combat decision fatigue–seminars for busy people, add a worship service at a more convenient time, and so on. But I think adding ministries is missing the point. More programs would become more events not to go to. What if churches were to do less but do it with more passion and excellence? In their tellingly titled book A Simpler Way, Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers define successful organizations as those that seek to connect people with their passions. The authors critique the time businesses, nonprofits, synagogues and churches spend on rules and technique, institutionalized structures and so on. The authors encourage organizations to connect individuals passionately “purpose to purpose” [page 63]. What in your worship service might connect congregants purpose to purpose? What are the passions and dreams of your church attendees? And how can you share those passions on Sunday morning? What types of passionate ministry might your congregation offer during Sunday worship that would get people out and on the road; excited to come and offer praise to God?
Rev. Joseph Hedden is Pastor of Emmanuel Reformed (Hill’s) United Church of Christ in Export, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. He serves as Dean of the Penn West Conference Academy for Ministry and also chairs the Global Missions Team for the Conference.