Declining Attendance: The Church Fights Back

By Mike Willis

With attendance declining in the mainline Protestant denominations in America we are witnessing attempts being made by most denominations to rebuild their memberships. Several local congregations among the Protestants have been tremendously effective in building large memberships, including Robert Schuller (an ordained minister of the Reformed Church in America) who has built the membership of the Garden Grove Community Church to 7000.

An examination of some of the techniques being used by modern denominations deserves some of our attention. Indeed, some among us have attended workshops across the land conducted by these denominationalists in order that they might increase the attendance in local churches of Christ. Indeed, some are aping the denominations in building their attendance.

Attendance Building Schemes

1. Youth Programs. Because so many churches have been losing their teens from church attendance, most denominations and liberal churches of Christ have started all kinds of “youth programs.” Full-time “Youth ministers” are hired whose jobs appear to be little more than arranging and promoting a full calendar of social activities for the young people. The programs range from skating to ball leagues to outings to camps, fairs, and entertainment parks. There is little spiritual work involved in the work of these “youth ministers”; as one confessed to me, “The primary interest is fun and frolic.”

How effective have these programs been in keeping the youth? Not very effective according to some surveys. Charles E. Garrison conducted a survey among the students at Milligan College (a conservative Christian Church group) on “The Effect of Participation in Congregational Structures on Church Attendance.” The conclusion of Garrison’s study was that involvement of the youth in the work of the church was more determinative of whether they stayed faithful in church attendance than participation in church sponsored social activities. He wrote,

It was found that holding positions in the division of labor in the congregation while in high school does have some effect upon later attendance while in college. However, the extensiveness of the division of labor itself does not affect later church attendance.

In addition to the division of labor, the extent of activities which the congregation sponsored for the high school youth was measured as was the extent to which the individual participated in these activities. Examples of such activities would be parties, picnics, and softball teams. These activities are often justified as important for keeping youth involved in the church.

It was found that all congregations had a considerable number of activities and that most of the students had participated. The correlation of participation in activities to later college church attendance was 19. This relationship was reduced to .00 when control for high school church attendance was introduced.

It is interesting to compare participation in these social activities with the holding of positions in the congregation for the relationship of each to later church attendance. Holding positions, rather than participating in the activities, had a higher relationship to later college student church attendance. Furthermore, whereas participating in the activities has no effect independent of high school church attendance, holding positions in the division of labor does show such an independent effect. This indicates that, as a strategy to encourage continued church attendance, it is more effective to involve them in the holding of positions than in a variety of church-sponsored social activities.

. . . In conclusion, holding positions in the division of labor was found to be a pre-college variable affecting college student church attendance. In this, it is more effective than participating in church-sponsored social activities (Review of Religious Research, Vol. 18, No. 1 [Fall, 1976], pp. 41-42).

In confirmation of these statistics from another source, I noticed that A Summary Report of The Committee on Membership Trends presented by the United Presbyterian Church (1976) reported that “91 % of the growing congregations have active youth programs with slightly more than 50% of their youth participating. In the other congregations we find that 70% of these rapidly declining have an active youth program with only 35% participation. Eighty-one percent of the typical churches have youth programs with only 36% of the youth participating” (p. 24). This strikes me as saying that these youth programs are not having much effect on retaining the youth of the churches.

Those of us who have been saying all along that there is no scriptural authority for the church being involved in sponsoring recreation will need no confirmation from sociologists for what we are teaching. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that sociologists are confirming that these programs have been largely ineffective in building attendance.

2. Attractive buildings. Millions of dollars are being spent annually to build super-structures which might appeal to the materialism of the upper middle class Americans. Robert Schuller makes no bones about this aim in his attendance building techniques. Listing things which build church attendance, he cited,

3. Impress the unchurched. Schuller makes no bones about the fact that his church has some rather schmaltzy furnishings – like a number of water fountains that begin spraying when he presses a button in the pulpit – and that their purpose is to impress the unchurched. “It’s obvious that we are not trying to impress Christians,” he says. “They would tend to be most critical of the expenditure of money we have made. They would tell us that we should give this money to missions . . . . We’re trying to impress non-Christians and non-churched people. We are trying to make a big, beautiful impression upon the affluent non-religious American who is riding by on this busy freeway” (Wilfred Bockleman, “The Pros and Cons of Robert Schuller, ” Christian Century, Vol. 92, p. 733 (20-27 August 1975).

Emphasis of this sort has caused some of the unchurched and some of the those who attend church to offer the criticism that the church is emphasizing finances, buildings and property. Rather than attracting the crowds, this approach has turned off not a few people.

3. Big name entertainers. In order to attract crowds, bigname entertainers have joined the production number of Billy Graham-type evangelists who are promoting crusades and attempting to build church memberships. Obviously theological compromise has been the result. Recently, Billy Graham shared the pulpit with Muhammed Ali, a practicing Moslem! Pat Boone has shared the stage with Oral Roberts, Billy Graham and other religious leaders.

In discussing the attempt to “impress the unchurched,” Bockleman continued to describe Robert Schuller’s tactics in addition to building impressive cathedrals.

This approach (that of building cathedrals with schmaltzy furnishings, mw) carries with it some corollaries. Don’t expect to find deep theology in the sermons. Instead, look for things that will attract the unchurched. For example, Schuller often invites big-name people to share the platform with him on Sunday. When he asked a newly elected president of the American Medical Association to speak to the congregation, a letter of invitation was sent to each of the 1,200 medical doctors living in Orange County. After Schuller discovered that there are 3,000 life insurance salesmen in the area, he asked W. Clement Stone to speak and invited all the life insurance salesmen (Ibid.).

These tactics are being mimiced by our brethren. Several years ago, the usage of Pat Boone in Campaigns for Christ and well-known “Christian” athletes was o,bviQusly done for these same reasons.

The result has been that crowds have been attracted. But, attracted to what? Are the crowds attracted to the suffering Savior? Obviously not! The crowds are attracted to the big-name entertainers. The same people who go out to hear Johnny Cash sing go to hear him talk and for the same reason – they like Johnny Cash, not Jesus Christ! Commenting on Schuller’s success, Bockleman stated,

To resort to less ecclesiastical metaphors, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, or don’t argue with a satisfied customer. The members of the Garden Grove Church and the pastors who have attended Schuller’s institutes are indeed satisfied customers. But as a reporter-commentator I think it’s fair to raise the question as to whether they’re getting the right kind of pudding! (Ibid, p. 735).

4. Entertainment and fellowship. In addition to youth programs designed to attract and keep the young people attending with church-sponsored recreation, the churches are seeking to keep their adults with church-sponsored recreation as well. Recreational facilities are being justified under the pretense that they are “fellowship” halls. Every kind of reason imaginable is being used for a church supper. In this manner, churches are trying to keep people interested and attending worship through tactics of this sort.

5. Fifth Avenue Promotionalism. Churches advertise their services using all of the techniques of secular advertising. Promotional schemes to build attendance have long been used by denominations. Radios and bicycles have been given to the person bringing the most to the services; bus captains have endured pies being thrown in the face;preachers have swallowed gold fish when attendances reached a certain level; pastors have sat on the steeple to encourage crowds to gather. In addition to these, preachers have developed attractions to draw crowds. A man is no longer a crowd drawer simply because he preaches the gospel of Christ; today he must be “Fooey-Louie, the Gospel Magician,” a Karate for Christ Expert, have a repertoire of talking birds, or be a chalk artist in order to draw a crowd and be in demand all over this country.

Too, the sermon must be advertised properly. A preacher does not preach simply on the story of the healing of the leprosy of the Syrian Captain Naaman; he preaches on “Seven Ducks In A Muddy Stream.” During the period when the movie “Encounters of the Third Kind” was popular, one conservative church advertised its meeting as “Encounters of Another Kind.” Another church conducted a meeting in which the preacher was advertised as a communications specialist from a given university and his subjects included “Triangular Relationships.” The words Jesus, God, gospel and salvation were not even mentioned on the advertisement. No wonder people think the church has lost its emphasis on spiritual things!

6. Watered down preaching. In order to build attendance, the preaching has been watered down. Denominational preachers intending to be popular avoid preaching on controversial subjects. Schuller’s techniques include the item “don’t be controversial; always be positive.” Bockleman commented, “This rule naturally follows from an attempt to reach the unchurched. The pastor who preaches on controversial subjects may be tempted to take a public stand that would be at variance with the thinking of half the congregation and thus turn them away” (op. cit., p. 733). Consequently, today’s preacher discusses the love of God, kindness, gentleness, and such like subjects. He does not “run down” other religions.

Many preachers within the Lord’s body have studiously avoided calling denominational names from the pulpits. Many members would like to demand that all preachers desist from referring to denominations by name from pulpits. In addition to that, they are looking for preachers, not so much on the basis of how well they present Biblecentered lessons, but on the basis of how well they hold one’s attention, how long (maybe I should say “short”) they preach, the humerous anecdotes which they tell, etc. Someone has well said, “Christianettes are looking for preacherettes who preach sermonettes!”

If preaching the full-gospel of Christ offends someone, let him be offended. If a man is not committed enough to the truth to allow someone preaching the truth to cause him to quit attending the worship service of the church, he was never converted in the the first place.

7. Bus Ministries. Attendance is also being built through bus ministries. Programs are arranged in which promoters go into housing projects with their pockets loaded with bubble gum and candy to induce children to attend worship services. People are bussed past several churches which teach identical doctrines in order to build up the membership in a given place. Some bus ministries bring members in from 20-30 miles away despite the fact that a local congregation meets just around the corner.

A liberal dose of Fifth Avenue promotionalism is necessary to keep the bus ministry running. Special days of one sort or another must always be in the making. Stops at fast food restaurants, serving ice cream, donuts and candy are a necessity for a successful bus ministry.

The Simple Appeal of the Gospel

No one can argue with the facts. These schemes do boost the attendance at the local congregation. However, how effective are these tools to true conversion to the Lord and the edification of the local church?

Looking at what is being done to promote church attendance, one is not surprised to find that “organized religion is widely criticized by the unchurched as having lost `the real spiritual part of religion’ and for being `too concerned with organizational as opposed to theological or spiritual issues’ ” (The Unchurched American, p. 8).

– Six in 10 among the unchurched, and as many as one-half of the churched, egree (strongly or moderately) with the statement, “most churches and synagogues have lost the real spiritual part of religion” (Ibid.).

These trends demonstrate that the church has gone astray, using the techniques of the world, in trying to answer the problems of decline in church membership.

One needs to look at the legitimate things of the gospel which should be used to draw men to church attendance and the worship of God.

1. The love of God. We should hold forth the love of God in sending His only begotten Son to die for the sins of mankind as God’s drawing power. Man cannot come to God except God draw him; Jesus said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me” (Jn. 6:44-45). The drawing power of the gospel is Christ’s love for us in dying on the cross for our sins. Again, Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (Jn. 12:32). Consequently, first century gospel preachers went everywhere preaching nothing except Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Men were drawn to the Christ in numbers; churches were filled to overflowing by the preaching of the simple message of the love of God. The love of Christ will still constrain men if we will have the faith to preach it (2 Cor. 5:14).

2. Man’s need for salvation. Another thing which will draw men to God and encourage them to worship with other saints is to preach their need for salvation. We need to preach that the wages of sin is death (Ram. 6:23). Every man is guilty of sin (Ram. 3:23) and doomed to everlasting damnation because of his sins. Unless he finds something to atone for his sins, he will die and go to hell.

3. Jesus Christ is man’s only answer to the problem of sin. To men who are deeply convicted of sin, we need to preach that Jesus died on Calvary to atone for the sins of man (Gal. 1:4). He is the only means through which one can have access to the Father (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5). There is no other way of salvation than that which is available through Christ.

4. The hope of the gospel. To a world lost in sin, we need to hold forth the hope for everlasting life. Despite our affluence, we find the world around us still dissatisfied with what life on earth has to offer. They are groping and grasping for anything which will give meaning to life. The gospel with its hope for everlasting salvation provides the only true meaning to life. We need to preach about the inheritance which is incorruptible, undefiled, that fadeth not away, and that is reserved in heaven (1 Pet. 1:4-5) as the hope of the world.

5. The church as part of God’s eternal purpose in Christ. Having related these facts, we need to hold forth the church as being a part of God’s eternal purpose in Christ, (Eph. 3:11, 2:16). God had a purpose in building the church (Mt. 16:16); we need to find out what that purpose is and find our place in that body of Christ. In it, we need to draw near to God exhorting one another and provoking each other to love and good works (Heb. 10:24). Those who respect the Christ will respect the church which Christ came to build!


We need to be careful not to be ashamed or embarrassed to hold forth the truth of the gospel. I am afraid that we have been so afraid that we are going to appear sectarian or narrow-minded that we have pussy-footed with the truth. I do not believe that a man can go to heaven while being a member of any human denomination; hence, I should not be ashamed to tell him that he must be a part of the church of Christ in order to be saved. This will let him know that he is lost in his present condition and stimulate hirn to find out what the truth of God’s word teaches.

Theological liberalism will not save anyone. Furthermore, it will not encourage anyone to study to find truth, so long as he is convinced that he can be saved where he is (believing and practicing what he does). With all of liberalism’s tolerance, church membership is declining. In contrast to theologically liberal churches, the conservative churches are growing. Those religious groups which do not hesitate to teach that they are the “one true church” (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, the Pentecostals, etc.) are growing. I am afraid that we have been sold a bill of goods by theological liberals when we have been persuaded that we should not imply that someone is going to be lost because he is not a member of the church of Christ. We believe that men are lost outside the body of Christ, so let us not hesitate to say so.

Let us preach the saving gospel of Christ as the only drawing power which there is to build up the membership of the local church. Worldly schemes may increase the numbers, and that generally only temporarily, but the gospel of Christ will convert the world and edify saints to the point that they will want to offer acceptable worship to God in conjunction with other saints. That, my brethren, is the only way which the Scriptures authorize to build church attendance.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 27, pp. 435-438
July 10, 1980