EMPTY PEWS: THE ROLE OF CHOICE & ABILITY

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Twice this past Sunday I was confronted with the question, “Why don’t people go to church?” It wasn’t always this way. What has changed? These questions have endless answers from academia, religious leaders and the curious public. This myriad of answers paints a complex picture that reflects the nature of religion in secular society. But the two answers I heard on Sunday were simple and practical. The answers I heard focus on the role of choice and ability in declining levels of religious involvement.

The first answer pointed to the many, acceptable and perhaps favorable, alternatives to church offered by society today. Instead of going to church, one is free to sleep in, go out for breakfast, or partake in many secular activities. In decades past, time was preserved for church, for the Sabbath day. Now it is prime time for children to have sports practice and for community groups to meet. Moreover, it seems more activities claim to fill the same needs that religion once filled. People willingly sub out church for other activities… like shopping. This answer points to choice as a major player in empty pews. No doubt it is a contender. But if the choices were weighted equally in society and in the minds of people, I think churches would be fuller.

The second answer was time. In decades past, it was far more common for women to stay home rather than hold a job outside the home. As it was their ‘job’ to run the household, cook, clean and do the shopping; the majority of this could be completed during the week. Similarly, with women available Monday through Friday it was more feasible to get themselves and their children involved in secular activities during the work week. The situation was not ideal for women, but it certainly was for church attendance. With more time during the week for chores and recreation, families managed to observe the Sabbath. But today with the growing necessity for dual income households, most of the housework, shopping and recreation are crammed into the weekends, making it logistically more difficult to get to church. This is a question of ability. Women’s mass involvement in the workforce and the coinciding fall in church attendance is often attributed to ‘decaying family values’. But as described here, I maintain that it is the logistics of time and scheduling that is a major player in waning church attendance.

While these two answers, choice and ability, are only components of the explanation on falling church attendance (others may include ideology shifts, globalization, changing priorities), I think they make up a large portion of the reason for most people. If it is the goal of religious organizations to see attendance go up, then I believe it is spearheading these issues that will have the biggest impact. That being said, they are perhaps the most difficult factors to deal with as they are implicit and largely societal factors. However, when church becomes as good of an option as the other choices available, people will make time to go. Secular activities will get subbed out for religious ones. If this is widespread enough, perhaps society will start to carve out more time for religious involvement and the time factor will start to sort itself out.

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2 thoughts on “EMPTY PEWS: THE ROLE OF CHOICE & ABILITY

  1. Options are part of the reason, but so is worldedness: people look to ends within the horizon of this life, and they weigh their religious commitments based on their worldly yield. If their church does not deliver, if they derive greater satisfaction and fulfillment elsewhere, then they shall go elsewhere, barring fear and guilt and other factors that affect retention other than satisfaction and, well belief. (Assuming that “belief” does not reduce to some worlded factor.)

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  2. Nice article! I think that your two answers could also be boiled down to one: priorities. It involves both choices and making time for things you know you need to do. I think that, even if both mom and dad work, an hour can be set aside on the weekend for church, if that’s the priority.

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