Dealing With Dropouts
Reflecting the continuing growth of the Assemblies of God, over the past two years Bethel Temple has recorded dozens of decisions from people accepting Jesus as Savior. Yet overall attendance at the Huntington, West Virginia, church has declined because of another modern tendency: Christians who say they can practice their religion while staying away from church.
Pastor Doug L. Johnson has had to deal with more than one family that suddenly decided to stop coming because they claimed the Lord directed them to worship at home. When Johnson responded that Hebrews 10:24-25 advises Christians to regularly assemble together, the dropouts expressed indifference.
Because these people had been workers, teachers, and held other offices, Bethel Temple scrambled to fill their positions.
“I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching and praying,” Johnson says.
Randy Fielder, pastor of Trinity Assembly of God in Cedar Bluff, Virginia, believes churches across the U.S. are in the midst of a great falling away. He notes that many churches have eliminated Sunday night services because vast numbers of once faithful churchgoers no longer believe they have time to attend.
“There is a trend of people leaving and saying, ‘I’m staying home,’ ” says Fielder, a veteran of 24 years in ministry.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, cites Gallup surveys that show self-reported church attendance has remained around 40 percent over a 60-year period.
“Within the evangelical tradition, there actually is a net gain of the number of people attending,” Stetzer says. “So while there are literally hundreds of thousands of people dropping out of church annually, literally slightly more than that are coming back.”
Still, the situation concerns AG General Secretary James T. Bradford, who sees a growing sense of complacency in some evangelical circles.
“The secularization of culture makes organized religion less attractive,” Bradford says. “There’s a consumer ethic that has grown in culture, too, so people feel they have permission to put their own priorities ahead of church attendance.”
That means when children involved in sports activities have games on Sunday morning, a lot of families choose ballgames over church.
Yet there are also reasons for optimism. AG church attendance has grown 13 of the past 14 years; the number of overall adherents has increased for 25 consecutive years.
To address problems in congregations that have experienced decline or reached a plateau, over the past five years the Church Transformation Initiative has helped spark remarkable growth in some congregations, Bradford says.
“There is a growing body of churches that are much healthier,” Bradford says.
At Bethel Temple, Johnson’s faith remains strong, as God has continued providing. Despite the loss of the tithes of dropouts, today he says the church’s finances are the best they have been in its 56-year history.
“God is still bringing people in and people are still being saved,” Johnson says. “That gives me hope — knowing this is God’s church, not mine.”