Yes, people are opting out of “church.” No surprise there. But what are they actually opting out of? And what does this say about what matters, what doesn’t, and what we might more intentionally move toward?
Earlier this month, Dr. Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University, presented the latest findings from the Lilly Endowment funded “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations Study.” I commend to you the latest research and data from this study which can be found at www.covidreligionreserach.org. Of the abundance of fascinating and instructive data, one slide from Scott’s presentation stood out to me most. Here it is:
While some aspects of congregational life have at least inched back toward the bell curve of what we might expect (as indicated by other findings from the project), Scott highlighted for us that this is simply not the case at all when it comes to volunteer engagement. On the whole, the percentage of volunteer engagement in among attendees (not just a among a membership role or some other broader grouping) remains less than half of what it was pre-pandemic. In some respects, this isn’t surprising, as it corroborates broader trends in religious volunteerism more broadly, as indicated by the latest Gallup surveys.
So, it turns out that our friend Rob Dyer was, at least to this point, correct – they’re not coming back. But what’s especially notable is that even in instances when people are “coming back,” they’re often returning with less priority placed on a congregation’s various volunteer opportunities and avenues for leadership.
But let’s take a guess at what people are opting out of in many – though certainly not all – congregations. People are opting out of:
- Church conversations and decisions that are largely irrelevant to the community around us and especially to younger generations (https://mministry.org/really-no-one-cares/) (https://mministry.org/the-tablespoon/)
- Spending time and energy at committee meetings instead of with family and friends
- Being “entertained to Jesus” as one of my youth ministry colleagues puts it.
- Adding one more thing to the schedule that doesn’t feel totally necessary, risking further exhaustion
- Gatherings that are reluctant to have the hard conversations about the multifaceted injustices in our communities
- Parents and their kids engaging in a MMA cage match just to get out the door, and then sitting in church wondering if it was worth it, and how else they might be spending time together.
- Choosing corporate worship over kids sports schedules and other activities (I have never seen so many kids birthday parties scheduled on Sunday mid-morning as I have in the past 8 months)
- What would you add to this list? What other aspects of congregational life are people opting out of?
And here’s what people are not opting out of, based on national statistics and our staff’s daily conversations with clergy and lay leaders:
- Interest in faith and spirituality
- Caring about their community
- Mental health
- Human connection and a desire for authenticity (Zscheile, From association to authenticity)
- Deeper conversations and immersive experiences that help us grow
- Wondering what Jesus has to do with their daily life – work, family, relationships
- Seeking spaces for healing, empowerment, and deep trust-building
- A search for what is good, true, and beautiful
A key takeaway for me in all this is that the primary question is not, “how do we get people to opt-in to volunteering or leading or being engaged in prescribed, institutional ways?” but rather, “What sort spaces, experiences, and relationships do we need to create for people to opt in to the things that really matter in the grand scope of things?” “how can we help people in our community to opt-in to the good news of Jesus right where they are, showing them that God’s love and desire for them, their families, and their community really is that unconditional and gracious?
What an incredible moment to start afresh with paying attention to what the Spirit is doing “out there,” to helping people see it, and creating clear and meaningful ways to opt-in.
As always, I’d love to hear from you.