Church attendance is in decline all over the country. There are myriad reasons and theories as to why this is happening, and pastors who are feeling discouraged about it would love to know what the answers are, in part so they might feel a little better, but I think, so they can reverse the tide.
The most obvious culprit is the pandemic. Social distancing and isolation changed how many of us worshiped. And while it made some of us more sensitive to the experience of disabled people; able-bodied people, faced with other options, simply chose to do other things. In churches across the country, including our own, there was rage and resistance to following the CDC guidelines. When our attendance numbers went down, people jumped to blame the pandemic, instead of teaching one another to love and care for one another.
During the pandemic, there was a racial awakening across the country after the murder of George Floyd. A lot of churches wanted to root out racism and other forms of oppressions in their churches, and ours did the same. Faced with dwindling numbers, antiracism was the scapegoat. Antiracism is fundamentally about loving BIPOC, but for its white detractors, it often felt like it was about not loving them. Making space for BIPOC voices meant white people had to quiet down some, and for many of them, that felt like silencing and ending dialogue.
The church often found itself stuck in a culture war for the above issues (as well as numerous others). Many pastors and thought leaders deduced that it was this polarization that led to decline in church attendance. These people argued that people were tired of the arguments happening at church that they heard on the news. Political arguments weren’t supposed to happen at churches, in fact, churches were supposed to refuges from that kind of thing.
I think the people making these arguments were self-interested, though. Often they are white, able-bodied, cis, straight men (sometimes they can wrangle in a token minority to make their point for them – I, of course, know that because I was that token minority), and the conversation convicts them, but they are unable to confront that conviction in themselves. And so instead, they blame the argument, or the “woke people” making it, as being as mean or cruel or unloving as the people on the other side. In other words, they consider antiracist activists as problematic as racists.
I think it is easy to fall into this trap when the issues at hand feel abstract or unimportant to you. Politics is often just an abstraction for many people, and when people are up-in-arms about it, it’s hard to understand the passion if it’s just a meaningless argument. It would be like getting into a passionate argument about sports teams or what to eat for dinner. For many people in a powerful social position, political discourse, dialogue, and even arguments seem completely extraneous. And often their ability to transcend the difficulty of these conversations gives them a sense of moral superiority. What it proves is that they are numb to the pain and experience of the people who are not merely having a debate, but are begging for their dignity and their livelihood. When we have debates about covid-safety, antiracism, and a whole host of other issues, we aren’t debating ideas, we are debating our very lives. And so when we argue that polarization is causing a decline in church attendance, we are actually saying that the problem are minorities who speak up, who own their sincerity, and need to be heard.
The solution to “polarization” comes by either silencing the dissidents who are sharing their perspectives or by actually listening and responding to them. We can either dignify the vulnerable here, or tell them to get lost, basically. There is a cost, of course, and it could lead to church decline. Some people may leave when we affirm the dignity of minorities (in fact, that exact thing happened in our church). I think those losses are painful, they’re often with people we’ve considered friends and loved ones. But when we ignore the voices of the marginalized, when we silence them in the name of unity, we will not only lose them to our churches, we will have furthered their oppression.
To add insult to injury, Christians so often purport to be advocates for the lowly and the meek. Their Gospel is full of this rhetoric. But with the world watching, their full hypocrisy is on display when they increase the injury of the oppressed. Perhaps that is an unconsidered reason church attendance is declining and something white pastors should consider more.