Where Are They? … Responding to Changing Family Attendance Patterns

Where are they?” That’s one of the questions that pastors and child/youth ministry leaders are commonly asking (often silently) each and every weekend. The experience in many, many congregations is that families – and by extension children and young people – are attending weekend worship services and ministry programs less frequently. The notion of “regular attendance” has shifted. For many who once attended weekly the new regular is fortnightly. For those who attended fortnightly the new regular is monthly. For those who attended monthly the new regular is two-, three-, four- or perhaps six-monthly.

What is behind this shift? There are multiple reasons but a key one seems to be the sheer busyness of life for many households. In many contemporary households in western society both parents are working. Children and youth are involved in a variety of activities each week in different times and places. Increasingly, as the societal influence of Christianity has waned, these external commitments have encroached on the traditional times churches have used for gathered events. Sunday mornings, for instance, are now utilized by a range of sporting and community organisations, so families have been forced to choose between church attendance and other involvements.

The busyness of life has also led many families to designate what remains of each weekend, beyond their work responsibilities and their children’s extracurricular commitments, as their retreat time … a time to relax and “do their own thing”. Sadly, these families have not typically considered church attendance a favoured retreat option (something that should give church leaders and ministry staff cause for thought … in what ways does this reflect on what the weekend church experience has become for many?). Increased levels of income have also increased the range of alternative “retreat” options for families. Many contemporary families can afford to get away for the weekend, something their own parents were not able to realistically afford.

For church communities and ministry leaders and pastors, these trends pose many questions and challenges?

  • What does it mean to build and sustain cross-generational community in the face of irregularity?
  • What does it mean to impart Christian teachings and engage families with the Scriptures in the face of irregularity?
  • What does it mean to nurture faith practices in the face of irregularity?

Traditional ministry forms and structures generally assume regular attendance. The growing irregularity of family attendance seems to be undermining their effectiveness and even threatening their viability. Hence the increasing sense of dismay, confusion and even crisis in many faith communities.

So what can be done? What might it mean to respond in healthy and helpful ways? Here are some of my initial thoughts.

  1. Avoid making assumptions and rushing to judgment! Seek to understand the pressures impacting and shaping the families associated with your church. Criticism and negativity is unlikely to be helpful for drawing them into patterns of increased attendance.
  2. Evaluate your congregation’s ministry offerings for families. Are they in fact adding further pressure to the lives of your families or are they perceived by them as enriching and strengthening?
  3. Aim to develop avenues of positive communication with families so that they do not feel “out of the loop” about the life of your faith community and its ministry offerings.
  4. Use non-gathered, flexible ways of relating in person to families and family members. This might include family visitations, mentoring and phone catch-ups.
  5. Provide at-home faith resources for families to use. Aim to make it as easy as possible for households to practice faith together in their daily lives.
  6. Offer faith formation resources online for households to access at times and in places that are convenient for them. Contact families to gain feedback on their use of these resources and to encourage them to access and utilize what is available.
  7. Use social media tools to develop digital faith communities in which families of faith can provide mutual support to each other.
  8. Emphasise and promote small groups as flexible environments for families to connect with others who belong to their faith community.
  9. Highlight to families any “big events” on your ministry calendar well in advance and personally invite them to attend.
  10. When families of irregular attendance do come, be careful not to use language which draws attention to their absences. Celebrate their presence.

At the same time, I do believe that the church has a prophetic responsibility to gently confront families about their life priorities. I do not believe that we should “sanctify” the busyness of modern life by passively accommodating ourselves as church to the lifestyle choices of modern households. Jesus’ call to “take up your cross and follow” challenges households to consider what it means to live in the way of Christ in a time of multiple lifestyle options and opportunities. There is a time and a place for inviting families to review their spiritual wellbeing and the factors shaping their patterns and habits of faith practice. However, in so doing the aim should never be to “get them to church”. It is to see families living in God’s grace and growing in the new life which Jesus brings. My experience is that families respond best to a challenge towards greater church involvement when they are helped to see the blessings which can flow into their home lives through immersion in the body of Christ. “Guilting” people into church attendance is not a helpful or fruitful approach.

I hope this post can become part of a wider and ongoing conversation. What are your thoughts and ideas?

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