Empty seats in church

3 Surprising Reasons People Don’t Go to Church

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Scott Hamilton, YTI Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling

April 6, 2018

I recently came across a shared article on Facebook suggesting that local churches needed to increase their guest lists. According to the article, church members needed to invite unchurched people to church. On the surface, such a thought sounds almost nonsensical. Of course, people need to invite people to church.

On the other hand, what many people may find is a large number of those they invite either say they’ll come and don’t, or flatly say, “No, thank you.” The result is likely disappointment for everyone involved.

Gone are the days of church growth in which people went door to door sharing the gospel and inviting people to church. You may not find local congregations with large groups of new members lining up to be baptized and/or discipled. I suspect what you’ll notice is that those invited aren’t interested in your church, per se. They may not concern themselves at all with what “services” or “ministries” the church offers either. An exploration of three possible reasons people appear to have rejected the church may help explain this phenomenon.

Attendance Isn’t a Priority

Let’s be honest; in our culture, people make time for what they want to do, regardless of what it is. Families spend much of their time managing households, different family members, and their children’s extracurricular activities. By the time Sunday rolls around, assuming there isn’t something already on the calendar, the last thing most people want to do is to check off another box labeled “church attendance.” I’ve even heard of ministers who occasionally don’t want to go to church, for a multitude of reasons.

In the mid 20th century, local communities of faith were places of worship and also functioned as hubs for much relational exchange (Green, 2016). Gathering in such contexts was the cultural norm. Today, much of that “cultural norm” finds its focus in conversations taking place between parents assembled at their children’s athletic events or other extracurricular activities. For many, church attendance has become one of the first sacrifices on the altar of schedules.

Contemporary people simply try to do too much, often becoming overwhelmed with deadlines. For many people, there is just too much to accomplish in too little time, which may also contribute to increased stress and anxiety. People get caught up in the hustle and bustle before realizing they are running on the wheel in the hamster cage. Around and around they go, and at the end of the day, they’ve accomplished very little, if anything at all, because they try to prioritize too many things. In the process, nothing receives significant emphasis, and virtually nothing gets done (or done well). Survival has become the focal point, not “priorities.”

Perceived Judgment

Writing from personal experience, there was a period of about 10 years when I preferred anything, regardless of the imposition, if that task kept me from having to attend church. The mere thought of going to church prompted anxiety. I felt guilty, and occasionally, rightfully so. When I went to church, I thought everyone was staring at me, which was actually a young-adult personal fable. I was much older before I realized that people may not have been nearly as interested in my presence at church as I thought they would be, which is another problem all together.

Like many who attend church rarely, I assumed others were “judging” me in some way; after all, I would have behaved that way. What I came to learn many years later is that most of those who engaged me at all were truly concerned for me on some level. My feelings about my own behavior disrupted my ability to be genuinely cared for by others who knew me. My self-judgment and guilt about not attending church became bigger threats to my future attendance, and sadly, I was wrong the entire time.

Relational Expediency

The New Testament book of Acts chronicles the emergence of the Christian church and notes thousands of people coming for salvation, but those who received salvation didn’t do so at their local church; there weren’t any. Those who followed Judaism went to the temple for worship, as did some who professed Christ. What we now know as the infant Christian “church” met wherever folks gathered, often in peoples’ homes (see Acts 2:46). Many chose to share large portions of their lives with one another, some because their families had shunned them.

Going to another person’s home implies more relational intimacy, and certainly less anonymity. The potential to know and relate with others also increases over time as people continue to gather around something they have in common. In the book of Acts, people likely gathered in various homes to worship, pray, and speak with each other about their personal experiences of God. The art of being in relationships with others appears to have been integral to the spread of the gospel.

The right to speak intimately about a person’s relationship with Christ is earned from taking the time to invest and share in another’s life, demonstrating care for the other person (Packer, 2008). Theodore Roosevelt once said, “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” I suspect some people will claim that contemporary evangelism needs to be confrontational to be effective; yet, research suggests something else. In 2016, the Pew Research Foundation highlighted peoples’ suspicion of religious institutions. At least a portion of those surveyed may actually question religious organizations’ reputations. Well-meaning church members may risk potential relationships with others when evangelizing is the relational priority. People want to know they’re cared for before sharing more intimate aspects of their lives, including spiritual matters.

In the hustle and bustle of contemporary culture, people simply have taken on too much, prompting changes in priorities. Some people may avoid church because they think others are judging them, which is often not the case. Establishing a relationship strong enough to discuss spiritual matters takes time, and sometimes relationships just can’t be hurried, even when spiritual matters are at stake.

Green, Emma. (2016) It’s hard to go to church. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/religious-participation-survey/496940/

Packer, J. I. (2008). Evangelism and the sovereignty of God. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press.